In Afghanistan you spend a lot of time sitting on cushions--Persian style--talking to commanders, drinking tea with commanders, sitting silently opposite commanders, smiling politely. The first thing you notice is their boots: Soviet Army style, but very clean. They don't look like the boots of men who spend time tramping around the hills. Then look closer. Their boots are not, in fact, Army issue at all. They're handmade of soft leather with thin, smooth soles. They look military but are civilian at heart. That's all you need to know about most Northern Alliance commanders on the Kabul front.
These days I often see General Babajan of Bagram airport on CNN. He is usually up in his ruined control tower, wearing pressed fatigues and a Soviet officer's belt, gesturing grandly toward the Taliban. He looks, in fact, rather impressive. But when I first met him he hadn't yet become a media star. When I arrived with three other correspondents at Bagram, we found him sitting under a shade tree outside his mud-brick house near the airfield. He was chatting with his officers, sitting on cushions and eating grapes. This was two kilometers from Taliban positions, in a strategic spot that at that very moment was probably being discussed in a dozen situation rooms from the Pentagon to submarines in the Indian Ocean.
That was six weeks ago. I notice now from the TV footage that Babajan and his men have understood that more soldierly conduct is expected of them by the swarms of camera crews now camped out at Bagram, as well as by the U.S. government. But I feel somehow that their heart isn't in it.
It's hard to explain, but warfare in Afghanistan is different from other wars I've seen. Different because its rhythms are such an integral part of life. Afghanistan is a place where the men commute to war, like neighbors working for rival brokerages. There's a strange lack of hatred, which sets this conflict apart from Bosnia and Chechnya. Afghans sing when they're under fire, they eat apples when they're being machine-gunned. Harvest the grapes, milk the cow, shoot at the neighboring village--it's all a part of the same cycle. That is, until the United States came with its smart bombs and upped the stakes.
So what happened to the hard-core mujahedin who routed the Soviets? Some joined the Taliban, others the Northern Alliance and some fled to Pakistan. But their generation's fighting days are over. You see some vets among the young striplings, mostly as junior commanders, magnificent with their long beards and battle-hardened stares. But the Afghanistan they fought for never happened. After the enemy left, the country dissolved into tiny fiefdoms. The muj lost their cohesiveness. Now, if their performance against the Taliban is anything to go by, they lost their guts, too.