The plain of Shomoni, the fertile bowl of land between Kabul and the highlands of the Hindu Kush to the north, is bathed in bright moonlight. We are standing on a rooftop in the hill village of Tob Darah, overlooking the plain. Behind us the ridgeline of the mountains shows deep black against the dark blue of the starry night sky; below us, invisible, is the blacked-out town of Charikar.
A flash of white light silhouettes a low range of hills to the south, as bright as a compact camera going off at a few feet. Then, an eerily long time later, comes a sharp thud and a rumble that resonates in the tower on which we are standing. A Tomahawk, says someone: that has to be a Tomahawk. Only a cruise missile can make the ground shake like that, 20 miles away. A chilly wind picks up, bringing a strong smell of burnt cordite up from the valley. Everything is weirdly monochromatic, white on gray on black. The only spots of color are the fiery orange flashes of rockets as the Northern Alliance joins in the U.S. attack by launching its own bombardment on the Taliban.
In the distance, a spray of rockets streaks up from Kabul, followed by midair flashes--Taliban antiaircraft fire trying to hit low-flying planes. Closer to us, at the military airfield of Bagrame three miles to the east, the Northern Alliance steps up its sporadic artillery bombardment of Taliban positions in the hills overlooking the airport. A pair of alliance tanks lob shells every 15 minutes or so; a Russian Grad launcher sends another salvo of rockets. Then a long silence. Compared with the firestorm raging over Kabul, the Northern Alliance offensive seems puny and halfhearted.
Sharing the rooftop with us are a huddle of tribesmen wrapped in cloaks, their craggy, bearded faces extravagantly dramatic in the pale light. They look like the defenders of Masada as they peer over the stone parapet, with their robes and long shaggy hair, but they're carrying Kalashnikovs rather than spears. About a dozen journalists are wearing Gore-Tex jackets, some fiddling with cameras.
Compared with the hopelessly human scale of Afghan warfare, with its endless procrastination and incompetence, America's high-tech attack seems like an alien invasion, science fiction. This is H. G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds" come true--the puny weapons of the Earthlings blasted to pieces by the devastating machines from the Martians, their motives as incomprehensible to the cowering humans as their deadly technology.
A few days later in Sinjadarrah we get a taste of the pace of war, Afghan style. The village, a few miles farther south from Tob Darah, looks as though it has grown out of the earth. The houses are of mud brick, and a series of beautiful, mature orchards are surrounded with crooked, dry stone walls. We drive up in a pair of jeeps, one full of armed men, the other ours. As we get out of the vehicles I hear the whistle of a bullet passing over my head and the rhythmic thump of a heavy machine gun. More bullets slam into a wall behind us, four feet away from my head. I take cover behind the jeep's back wheel, savoring the unmistakable copper-coin taste of adrenaline in my mouth. You never get used to this, I thought.
But it turns out that you do. I look up and see our Afghan guards standing behind a high wall, laughing at me, our translator and photographer cowering in the dirt. We run across the open ground to join them, as bullets continue to pound into the road and the walls. We wait it out. In between bursts of fire, one of the Afghan drivers dashes to his jeep and begins rooting around inside. He emerges with a bundle and scuttles back, under fire. He opens the bundle on the ground. It contains apples, which he and his comrades start to eat while they wait for the Taliban machine gunner to lose interest.
One of the reasons we have come up here is to see whether the Northern Alliance is preparing an offensive to follow up on U.S. airstrikes. "We are ready to move forward," I was told by General Babajan, commander of Bagrame air base, a few days before as he sat under a shade tree in his garden, eating grapes, while his men lounged in the sun. There is scarcely much more urgency at Sinjadarrah. Despite the Taliban rocket attack and sporadic sniping, the rhythms of Afghan village life seem to go on inexorably--the baking, the harvesting, the potshots at the neighboring village. The men are equipped with their usual Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, light machine guns. But they have no transport to take them into Kabul, even if the Taliban resistance did collapse. When I ask whether they want to go to Kabul, the men look blank and nod. How about the next village? That gets a far more enthusiastic response. Later we have another near miss, this time from a Taliban Katyusha rocket that hits near a dugout we are approaching. The blast knocks Vladimir, our translator, off his feet and showers us with debris. We scramble back down the hill, which the watching villagers find infinitely hilarious. Miraculously, only one Afghan is injured, a shrapnel wound in the leg. One minute later and the three of us would have reached exactly the spot where the rocket hit. "It is not your day to die," a village elder mutters to us, reassuringly.