It is ten years since Taleban-controlled Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance after just five weeks of US bombing. AAN’s Kate Clark, then the BBC correspondent, had been expelled from Kabul in March 2001 over reporting on the Taleban’s destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamyan and had spent eight months based in Islamabad. She returned to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, covering the war from the Shomali frontline. She witnessed the fall of Kabul.
On 12 November 2001 the Taleban frontline north of Kabul melted; it had been pounded by US bombs for weeks, there was a major Northern Alliance attack and the Taleban fighters ran away. Alliance commanders were expecting this and it seems there was some coordination with Taleban frontline commanders, but still, their push south was breath-taking. They massed finally that evening, giddy with the foretaste of victory, at Qarabagh.
On the morning of 13 November they and we drove on towards the capital, passing through scenes of utter desolation. Reporters and United Nations personnel based in Kabul had not been allowed onto this road to check on the reports of the Taleban’s burning, two years previously, of vineyards, orchards and mud houses. On that cold, clear morning, their industrial scale burning of the Shomali – aimed at making resistance impossible – could no longer be hidden. We were the first eye-witnesses to a blackened landscape.
At the Khairkhana pass above Kabul, our jeeps became part of the impromptu barricade of tanks and armoured vehicles which was stopping the great advance of an estimated 10,000- strong Northern Alliance force. They had orders not to enter the city and did not want us to either. We decided to go in anyway and after arguing for a few minutes, just walked on, counting on them to not try to physically stop us. It was not a straightforward decision; we didn’t know if there were pockets of Taleban resistance left in the city. What we found, a short way in, were celebrations, as I wrote at the time:
‘The crowds on the outskirts of the city were rapturous, smiling, laughing, people kept shaking my hand and saying zindabad! Long life. A weight, a dreary totalitarian deadness has been lifted off this city.’
It is difficult to convey how shocking it was to see Afghans acting en masse, motivated by their own emotions and beliefs. I had witnessed nothing like this in Kabul before. This was something entirely new.
I spotted Wais Barmak in the crowd, now deputy minister for rural rehabilitation and development, then a senior official with the UN who had come to find out what was happening. The BBC team had already split up and Wais, an Afghan colleague, Sorush, and I drove on into the city together.* Before we set off, I called the BBC desk in London and they warned me that Arabs and other foreign ‘guests’ of the Taleban were reportedly still in the city and getting to our agreed meeting point, the Intercontinental Hotel, was dangerous. I decided to head first to Sorush’s home in Kart-e Parwan. As we drove into the city, it became evident that the crowds in Khairkhana were the exception. The Taleban had fled unloved, streaming southwards into the night, but on that first liberated morning, it was completely unclear who the new masters of Kabul would be or how they would behave. There was contempt for the Taleban and hopes for peace, but people spoke of their fears of lawlessness and looting, and of Kabul, again, seeing an armed takeover.
Across the north, the various, newly empowered, financed and armed factions which made up the Northern Alliance were, in the wake of US bombing, taking the cities and provinces where they were locally strong. For Kabul, the locally strong faction was, of course, Shura-ye Nizar – with its commanders and fighters on this frontline drawn from Panjshir and Shomali – and, less importantly, Ustad Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami. They were veterans of the resistance against the Taleban, having lost comrades and family in the previous five years of fighting. But both factions had also been major players in the 1992-1996 civil war in which most of the factions, which went on to form the Northern Alliance, had fought each other, leaving a third of Kabul in ruins, tens of thousands dead and memories of looting and other abuses.
Whether the Northern Alliance/Shura-ye Nizar** would be allowed to take the capital would be one of the major political decision of the war and discussions about what to do if Kabul fell had been taking place in Jabal al-Saraj and Washington DC since the US bombing campaign had begun on 7 October 2001.
Some of the flavour of the internal US conversation between President Bush and his lieutenants can be found in Bob Woodward’s book, ‘Bush at War’.*** The following extract records discussions on Kabul in the National Security Council meeting on 9 October 2001 when the bombing campaign had just started and there were concerns that winter weather would soon close down options for using the Northern Alliance.
“We should encourage the Northern Alliance to take Kabul,” Cheney [Dick Cheney, Vice-President] said. “We as a superpower should not be stalemated.” He was worried that they had a weak defence at home and a weak offense in Afghanistan. “We need a victory,” Bush said. “The only victory to the world might be taking the capital,” Cheney replied.
Tenet [George Tenet, head of the CIA] continued, “We can’t stop them from trying to take Kabul – the only issue is whether they can do it or not.” How does taking Kabul help us against al Qaeda? someone asked. All agreed that the Afghan capital city could be a symbolic step forward. Since Afghanistan was factionalized, perhaps the capital did not have the political importance it did in other countries.
“We need to think through how we’re going to get some victory before the snow falls [said George Bush]. And we need to think through Kabul.”
“Do we want to take it?” asked Powell [Colin Powell, Secretary of State]. “Do we want to hold it? If we want to hold it, what are we going to do with it?”
“You know, the Russians never took Kabul,”**** Rice [Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor] said. That almost suggested it was a good reason to try to take the capital, since the Soviets seemed to have done nearly everything wrong.
“Maybe the U.N. should handle Kabul,” the president said.
“Yeah, the U.N. is the best way to handle it,” Powell agreed. “If the Northern Alliance take it first, though, they won’t give it up.” The slain Alliance commander Massoud had said he would never occupy Kabul single-handedly, but Powell did not think his successor, Fahim Khan, was as disciplined or diplomatically inclined.
The UN, already preparing for the Bonn conference, cautioned on the need to keep Kabul demilitarised and as a neutral venue for a new Afghan government to be formed from different groups. Discussions on Kabul carried on until 13 November when, following the breaking of the Taleban frontline on the 12th, everyone woke to find the Taleban had run away during the night. There had been no contingency planning.
Apart from a few scouting parties from the Northern Alliance in the early morning, no forces entered Kabul and Alliance fighters remained massed above Khairkhana. In the city, some people had taken their own revenge, lynching some Arabs and Pakistanis in Shahr-e Naw Park and leaving their bodies there, with mouths stuffed with cash. BBC colleagues in Kabul***** had had guns thrust in their faces by unknown young men when they had driven in the city that morning. A few Taleban had remained in their homes, among them the cigarette-smoking and relatively moderate deputy interior minister, Muhammad Khaksar, who was later murdered before the 2005 parliamentary elections in which he was a candidate, accused by the Taleban as having been a traitor.
With very real fears of law and order breaking down, the decision was taken to allow some Northern Alliance fighters in to police the city. Again Woodward is interesting for his fly on the wall account of discussions in DC.
‘At the NSC meeting Tuesday, November 13, Tenet reported. “Bismullah Khan is outside Kabul. There’s disorder within Kabul. He went in to calm it down.” Pashtun leader Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf also put 400 to 500 people in the capital. “Their intention is to withdraw once someone comes in to take over the administration of the city.” “We need to manage the publicity here,” Bush said. “We need to emphasize the cowardly atrocities that Taliban performed as they left the city.”
Powell reported on the efforts to put together a government. “The key is to show movement,” the president said, “that we’ve got a manageable process that’s leading somewhere.” “The U.N. needs to get in fairly early,” Powell said. “But they need to go quickly,” Bush reiterated.
Rumsfeld [Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence] said, “We’ve got to counsel patience. This is a hard country – what we’re trying to put together. “They’re [Taleban] moving from Mazar to Hermez [sic]. Several thousand have surrendered in Konduz. There are some bad guys in Bamiyan. Bamiyan is surrounded but not yet taken. In Kandahar, there have been attacks on the airports; we don’t know by whom. Herat has fallen. Kabul there are 2,000 Northern Alliance forces as police. Our people are with them. The two Northern Alliance groups in the city are cooperating… This guy Sayyaf is ready to go to Jalalabad. We don’t really want him in Kabul. He’ll be disruptive. We want him to move east.”
“Can we use Special Forces to disrupt the Taliban retreat?” the president asked. “Good question,” Rumsfeld said. “Let me ask about that. We’re moving people in to Bagram airport, to bulk up to go after al Qaeda to the east.” “The U.S. forces will not stay,” the president said. “We don’t do police work. We need a core of a coalition of the willing” – adopting Rumsfeld’s phrase from several days earlier – “and then pass on these tasks to others. We’ve got a job to do with al Qaeda. We need to look at WMD targets.”
Within days, however, with the ‘police’ bridgehead in place, the whole panoply of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, that had only barely had survived the Taleban onslaught, hanging on in some niches of north-eastern Afghanistan, was back in place: Dr Abdullah at the Foreign Ministry, Yunis Qanuni at Interior, General Fahim at Defence, Engineer Aref at the NDS and Burhanuddin Rabbani in the presidential palace. Order was kept, but regime change had taken place.
Reports from west of Kabul that Hezb-e Wahdat was massing troops was one indication of the fury of Northern Alliance partners over what they said was an agreement not to enter the city. Within Kabul itself, there were very real fears of a return to factional fighting. Most people were waiting to see how the situation developed. Some men shaved or trimmed their beards and a few youngsters put on trousers, rather than the previously obligatoryshalwar kemiz, but for women, in particular, it took a lot of courage to walk in the city bare-faced. The overwhelming majority kept their burqas on. Some women’s activists were ‘advised’ by the new authorities in those first few days not to hold a planned, celebratory ‘no burqa’ march and we wondered if this was a taste of things to come. The city still felt edgy, as the young fighters, who were from outside Kabul and flushed with victory, patrolled the streets. Yet, hopes for peace were also high. I wrote at the time.
‘… despite the anxiety, there’s still a lightness of spirit about Kabul – a city which the Taliban religious police treated with particular brutality. Meeting old friends again after my nine month absence, we just stand there laughing at each other with delight that we’ve survived the Taleban, and they’ve survived the American bombing. One friend was almost strung up by Arabs as a suspected spy. Another described how they couldn’t sleep until they’d heard the US war planes drop their bombs for the night.
Some people look exactly the same as they did when I was last in the city. They’ve always worn turbans and grown their beards long – whoever was in power – communist, mujahedin, Taleban or Jamiat. Others are transformed, re-born. One man, a professional army officer who’s served under every regime since Daud Khan in the 1970s, I last saw in his Taleban disguise. Sombre, huge black turban, large black bushy beard. He came into my office, with just a moustache, in crisply laundered army fatigues, gold teeth glinting as he couldn’t stop grinning. Kabul has been buried alive for six years, trying now to re-find its identity. It’s a moving thing to witness. I’m glad I was there in the Taliban era – witnessed the deeply depressed, disfunctionality where my neighbours were too scared out of their wits to invite me in for tea.’
To the southeast in Loya Paktia, the tribes had taken over, establishing councils and a quasi-frontline in Logar. If they had beaten the Northern Alliance in the race to take Kabul, how different Afghan politics would have been – although whether better or worse is impossible to say.
As for the capital itself, those ‘plans’ to hand over power when an interim government was formed never really happened, although there was some dilution of Shura-ye Nezar control when the interim government was formed at Bonn. The Bonn Accord stipulated that Kabul and other cities had to be demilitarised and in late January 2002, General Fahim and other commanders at the MoD still expected that their forces would have to leave Kabul – there was talk at the time of them relocating to just outside the city limits. That never happened, though, and the fighters remained – but in police and army uniforms. Speaking later to a British military intelligence officer who was in the first UK-led deployment of ISAF to the capital in December 2001, he said there had been talk of ‘dealing with Fahim’, but that it was felt this would be too risky and might destabilise the city.
* The rest of the team comprised Peter Emmerson and Ian Pannell – who got lifts on bicycles into the city – and the TV team, Khalil, Peter Jouvenal, Joe Phua and John Simpson.
**The various factions which made up the armed opposition to the Taleban were usually called the ‘Northern Alliance’ in the press, although they themselves preferred their official name, the ‘United Front’ (complete version: United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan) – because it did not connote a north/south split. By the time I took the job at the BBC in 1999, however, the Northern Alliance name had already stuck. It became particularly unwieldy when it came to describing who took control of the various cities, towns and provinces of Afghanistan in November 2011. When the press reported that ‘the Northern Alliance’ had taken Mazar, Bamyan or Herat, it actually meant very different things. As the real power shift in Kabul became evident, it was misleadingly inaccurate, making it impossible to explain to BBC listeners who had actually captured the Afghan capital.
*** Woodward interviewed 100 people, including all the key figures in the Bush administration, and had access to written material, including contemporaneous notes taken during more than 50 National Security Council and other meetings where the most important decisions were discussed and made during the first 100 days after the 9/11 attacks.
**** This is one of the many jaw-droppingly ignorant statements made about Afghanistan which are either reported by Woodward, without comment, or made by him. Other favourites include Algeria, ‘the largest country in Africa’ and (from the entry for the day before the fall of Kabul) ‘a television antenna on top of a small hill in Kabul that had been a favourite target of the Soviets though they had never succeeded in hitting it. The Northern Alliance had also tried and failed. An American jet streaked in and, with one bomb, the antenna was gone. Word spread through the capital: The Americans are going to win, this is over.’
The Soviets actually held Kabul against the mujahedin during their whole stay in Afghanistan, from Christmas 1979 to February 1989, most of the time keeping three ‘defensive rings’ around it to prevent mujahedin infiltration.
***** Other colleagues had arrived with Taleban permission in Kabul (Ismail Saddat, William Reeve, Rageh Omar, Phil Goodwin and Fred Scott). They had re-opened the bureau, but decided to re-locate to the Intercontinental on the night of the 12th/13th after the US had bombed al-Jazeera, a few blocks away. The blast was strong enough for the audience to see it as Reeve was interviewed live on TV.
William Reeve has pointed out this account is not correct, and that on the night the Taleban fled Kabul there were two separate American bomb attacks on the capital. ‘The first bomb, whose shrapnel sprayed the BBC office, blowing off all the doors and smashing windows, landed on the other side of the road from the BBC. It was also very close to the AP office, where the only other foreign journalist in Kabul (Kathy Gannon of AFP) was staying, apart from two Turkish cameramen staying at the Intercontinental Hotel and the Al Jazeera bureau chief. About two hours later, the US Air Force destroyed the al-Jazeera bureau, which was also in Wazir Akbar Khan and about five blocks away from the BBC. Al Jazeera staff had by then left the building. No other bombs landed on Kabul that night.’
The detail is important because of the allegation that non-embedded journalists may have been deliberately targeted (an allegation which was repeated after the US army’s initial attacks on Baghdad eighteen months later left three journalists dead – for details see here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020