Diary From Afghanistan, Part 2: Welcome To 'Camp Taliban'

Last night I thought I'd gotten lucky. Stuck with 100 other journalists inside an abandoned United Nations compound in Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan, I spent two hours searching in plunging temperatures for a place to bed down for the night.

The better prepared had pitched tents across an open field; others had grabbed floor space inside the compound's dilapidated brick buildings. I was facing the prospect of laying down my sleeping bag in a patch of dirt behind a latrine, when my Pakistani driver, Hadayat, appeared beside me--smiling broadly. He had managed to find us cushions inside a small, cozy room, a welcome alternative to a frigid night under the stars. The downside: at 3:30 a.m., the dozen Afghanis and Pakistanis bedded down in the room with me switched on the fluorescent lights and began noisily consuming their pre-dawn Ramadan feast. For the next two hours, the men wolfed down slabs of bread and mutton, gulped down milk tea, and argued in vociferous Pashtu about the war in Afghanistan. I buried myself deeply inside my bag, trying to shut out the noise and the light. I never managed to get back to sleep.

That's par for the course here in "Camp Taliban," where evening is falling and we're facing our second night of roughing it under the guard of our Afghan escorts, in conditions that rival those of the displaced Afghans languishing in the camp down the road. Well, perhaps that's an exaggeration. After all, some of the better equipped news organizations have managed to carve out fairly cushy existences here. Laden with top quality tents, generators, truckloads of communications gear and enough cooking equipment to service a U.S. Special Forces base camp, they've managed to approximate their lives back in the real world. The best prepared I've seen so far is the CBS team, who generously ushered me inside their huge tent this afternoon for a forbidden feast away from the eyes of our Taliban minders. After 24 hours subsisting on wheat crackers and oily tuna fish, I stared in amazement at a buffet of fresh salads, Spanish rice, boiled eggs, and spicy beef--along with refrigerated cans of Diet Sprite and Coke. After gorging myself on lunch, I treated myself to a half hour of Internet surfing on their high-speed modem connection, then caught up on a week's worth of CBS Evening News reports out of Afghanistan.

My own situation is more modest--thanks mostly to my too hasty preparation. I've got no power supply, no bullet-proof vest, a non-working modem, an unreliable laptop and a broken Pakistani-made flashlight. I don't even have a dish or a spoon to my name. To recharge my computer I drift across the compound, searching for empty sockets and humbly requesting permission to plug myself in. To send my files, I look for a fellow hack who'll let me plug my disk into his A-drive and send via his Internet connection. Such constant dependency breeds a sense of inadequacy; if my satellite phone dies during this junket, it'll be a total loss.

But at least the point of this junket is becoming clearer: the Taliban want to prove to us that they're firmly in charge in their shrinking sliver of Afghanistan. In fact, the opposite may be true, as our two-day captivity suggests. Afghan civilians I've managed to talk to say the fundamentalists are relaxing their rigid rules to maintain support--allowing women to shed their burqas, letting kids fly kites. "We know that they're getting desperate," one person whispered. It's also clear that our Taliban handlers are not eager to take us into Kandahar, the Taliban's last urban stronghold, because Mullah Omar's grip on the place appears to be weakening. Several Kandahar residents I've spoken to today describe a city teetering on the brink: most of its structures in ruins, an 8:00 p.m. shoot-on-sight curfew, infighting between Arabs and Taliban, gunmen from Al Qaeda effectively taking over the city at night. Taliban officials I've talked to say they're reluctant to bring us to Kandahar because of heavy U.S. bombardments; a more likely explanation is that they're not sure that their guards can protect against an attack from angry locals--or Arabs who feel they have nothing to lose.

So we wait behind the gates, desperate for glimpses of Afghanistan. Around noon today an Afghan teenage boy from Spin Boldak wandered into the camp, begging for a German-speaking journalist to help him out. His face and arms were terribly scarred--he'd been burned in a mujahedeen rocket attack on Kandahar shortly before the Taliban took the town in July 1994--and he had just been expelled from Germany 10 days earlier after a year there undergoing plastic surgery at a Hamburg clinic. Clutching his Taliban-issued passport and showing us his expired visas from Pakistan and Germany, he asked whether we could help him return there. Several journalists handed him some 100-Rupee notes to help pay his way to Islamabad, and then he slipped out the gate, one more poor soul in a country that has nameless millions of them.

Then, around 5:00, we got what we were waiting for. The gates flew open and a dozen black-turbaned soldiers leaped to their feet. A slender, youthful-looking Talib strode inside, surrounded by his minions. It was Tayyab Agha, the 25-year-old personal secretary and spokesman for Mullah Omar, just arrived from Kandahar to brief the press. The surprise appearance of the top Talib sparked pandemonium. Two dozen cameramen clustered around Agha, jostling and elbowing one another as they scrambled for close-ups. Omar's man did an abrupt about-face and strode out the gate, pursued by the mob. Hundreds of Afghans gaped at the spectacle: shouting snappers, whirring cameras, cursing Taliban soldiers, with the stern-faced Agha striding angrily down a dirt road and into the refuge of the Police Commissioner's headquarters. A nasty fight broke out between Turkish and Japanese photographers; a Taliban guard pulled them apart. "Jesus Christ, it's just like Monica Lewinsky," muttered an American newspaper correspondent. A young bystander understood her. "Where is Monica Lewinsky now?" he asked, grinning. "I'll tell you if you tell me where Mullah Omar is" she replied.

Furious about momentarily losing control of the situation, our Taliban guards prodded us at gunpoint back inside the compound, then slammed the gates shut--and locked them. "Tayyab Agha is very upset by the way he was treated," one of our minders told us. "You must sit down and behave." Dutifully, like errant schoolchildren, we trooped to a patch of dirt and waited for Mullah Omar's man to make his appearance.

The Taliban's top spokesman was, as expected, defiant. Flanked by fierce looking gunmen, he vowed that the Taliban would not be defeated. They had made a "strategic retreat" from the north, he said, in order to gather forces to defend their remaining territory--the southern Pashtun provinces of Helmand, Ghazi, Kandahar, Oruzgan and Zabel--and they would defend their heartland to the death. He said the Taliban had no regrets for inviting Osama bin Laden into the country--"he shed blood in our struggle" against the Soviet Union--but insisted that the Al Qaeda leader was "probably not" in areas now under Taliban control. To prove that the city of Kandahar was still firmly under Taliban rule, Tayyab Agha promised that the leaders would soon organize an escorted trip into the city. This evening, as I write this, reports are spreading that the Taliban plans to bring about half of the roughly 100 correspondents assembled here to their last stronghold in the coming days. Nobody knows how they'll be selected, but I have a feeling that it's going to get ugly.