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"'The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.'
Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar
The instructions from the commanding officer were clear. 'You must become so notorious for bad things that when you come into an area people will tremble in their sandals. Anyone can do beatings and starve people of food and water. I want your unit to find new ways of torture so terrible that the screams will frighten even crows from their nests, and if the person survives he will never again have a night's sleep.'
Sitting at the table with me were Jamil Karzai, the young nephew of an old friend Hamid Karzai, who handed me a letter that I did not open till later, and three people Jamil had brought to talk to me. All three had been members of the Taliban but it was one in particular who was holding my attention.
His name was Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani and he was a small thin man who seemed anxious to be liked, with the pinched face and restless hands of one whose darkness hours are constantly haunted. His eyebrows were unusually highly arched under agold-embroidered Kandahari skullcap that perched rather than fitted on his head, and as he spoke shadows played in the dark recesses of his face. He looked like a torture victim. Instead, as a member of the Taliban's feared secret police, for the previous three and a half years he had been one of the perpetrators charged with carrying out the commanding officer's instructions.
Aged thirty and married with a wife and a one-year-old baby daughter, he was a graduate in business studies and had been working as an accountant until he joined the Taliban. Like many in the movement, Khalil had been largely educated in Pakistan where he had grown up as a refugee, and two of his elder brothers had died fighting among the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most fundamentalist of the seven mujaheddin leaders, in the jihad, or holy war, against the Russians. But his family was well off, owning lands and several houses in Kandahar to which they returned after the war, while he remained doing a degree at Peshawar University. Although he had introduced himself as Mullah Hassani, he explained with a nervous laugh, 'I became a mullah just by joining the Taliban. I'm not a religious scholar.'
'Like many people, I did not become a Talib by choice, ' he continued. 'In early 1998 I was working here in Quetta as accountant for a company trading dried fruit, almonds and pistachio nuts when I got a message that my grandfather, who was eighty-five, had been arrested by the Taliban in Kandahar and was being badly beaten and would probably die. They would only release him if we provided a male member of his family as a conscript, so I had to go.'
Many of Khalil's friends had already joined the Taliban.Some because their families had been told their lands would be confiscated if they did not, though a few got round this by paying a bribe of $20 a month not to be conscripted, a huge amount in a country where the average salary is less than $200 a year. Others had been lured into its ranks with offers of money and Datsun two-door pick-ups with bumper bars -- the vehicle of choice of the Taliban -- which were provided to the leadership by smugglers and drug-barons in return for being able to ply their lucrative trade as Afghanistan became the world's largest producer of opium1. The deliberate destruction of the irrigation channels by the Russians during their ten-year occupation meant that poppies were all that would grow in much of the country, and were the main crop in the south-western provinces of Helmand, Zabul and, to a lesser extent, Kandahar. Although the Taliban had banned the consumption of narcotics as un-Islamic, and in July 2000 had banned cultivation of opium poppies, the trade continued and the country remained one of the world's major trafficking routes, known as the Golden Crescent.
Assigned to the secret police, Khalil patrolled the streets at night looking for thieves and signs of subversion. Initially he thought the Taliban were doing an effective job. 'It had been a crazy situation after the Russians left, ' he explained. 'In Kandahar warlords were selling everything, even stripping the telephone wires, kidnapping young girls and boys, robbing people and blocking the roads, and the Taliban seemed like good people who brought law and order.'
This was something I had heard over and over again. Afghanistan is roughly speaking, split into north and south by theHindu Kush. To the north are mostly Persian and Turkic peoples, and to the south the Pashtuns, while Tajiks and Hazaras live in the mountains. By the time the Taliban emerged in 1994, ethnic and tribal divisions in a land awash with weaponry2 had turned the country into a shifting patchwork of fiefdoms run by warlords who switched sides with bewildering frequency.
The predominantly Tajik government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani controlled Kabul and the northeast, backed by commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous Lion of the Panjshir, but was under siege from the forces of the fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar based to the south, a man who had once stopped an interview with me because he could see my ankle. Herat and the three westernmost provinces were ruled by Ismael Khan, an egocentric mujaheddin commander whose men wore black and white checked sca
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