Blood and Joy

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Even chaos is a gift, when it follows a five-year curse. In the Afghan capital of Kabul, as in other cities suddenly set free from the Taliban's medieval rule, the streets smelled of blood and joy. Taliban warriors who had promised a fight to the death disappeared in the middle of the night like a long bad dream, and by morning the people were throwing flowers at the tanks as Northern Alliance commanders rode victorious into town. There were summary executions. Bodies of the Taliban's Arab and Pakistani fighters were branded with the mark of contempt reserved for mercenaries: Afghan bills were stuffed up their noses or into their head wounds. Wounded fighters were cornered by mobs, then shot and beaten to death, their corpses left in the streets. Yet despite the scattered fire fights, the fear of a power vacuum and the threat of renewed civil war, veterans of Afghanistan's endless years of carnage called last week's stunning reversal of fortunes the least bloody transition of power in memory. "I knew we'd beat the Talibs," said a grinning commander of an armored unit, "but I never thought it'd be this easy."

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And it probably won't be, Pentagon officials warned. No one was ready to count the Taliban defeated for good; any victory born of treachery is hard to trust for long. Some Taliban fighters raced to switch sides to whoever offered the better deal, but others, for whom this is a holy war, blew themselves up with hand grenades before they would surrender to infidels. A week that began with warriors on horseback streaming down into shredded villages ended with U.S. commandos guiding bombers with laser beams. Other planes dropped leaflets promising a $25 million reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden, even though the hunters were unsure whether he was still in the country or in the hands of a plastic surgeon somewhere.

Freed from theocracy, Afghan men ignored the call to prayer, preferring instead to line up for their first shave in five years. They rubbed their faces, savoring the feeling of bare skin. Children climbed to a high, windy point atop the ruins to fly the kites that the mullahs had banned as frivolous. On Tuesday night, the lights of Kabul came on for the first time in weeks. You could hear music for the first time in years. Families and merchants dug up their television sets, their VCRs and tape players; they swapped pictures of movie stars and reveled in irreverence. One group of men played soccer in the Thursday sun, the game for once not interrupted by a public execution in the stadium. Fans were actually allowed to clap and cheer, the players to wear shorts. It will take some time to sweep all the bullet casings from the field.

As for the women, so long smothered in commandments, it was the greatest pageant of mass liberation since the fight for suffrage. Female faces, shy and bright, emerged from the dark cellars of house arrest. In Mazar-i-Sharif they threw off their floor-length shrouds in front of the shrine to Ali, nephew of the Prophet Muhammad, and stomped on them. In Kabul families went for joyrides through the streets, a teenage girl with her veil off laughing and waving at the crowds she could at last see without a scrim. When Northern Alliance fighters seized the headquarters of Radio Afghanistan, they installed three women as newscasters. Women walked the streets without chaperones; they looked up and felt the sun on their skin; they went down to the river to wash.

For Americans who had watched the war from afar with a growing sense of dread (How long would this last? Could the Alliance hold? Were we making more Muslim enemies with each passing day?), the sight of jubilation was a holiday gift, a reminder of reasons the war was worth fighting beyond those of basic self-defense. "It feels like we've all been released from prison," said a young man in Kabul, "that the whole of Afghanistan has been released from prison." And yet when Taliban leader Mullah Omar was rumored to be abandoning his spiritual stronghold of Kandahar, it was hard to know if he was retreating or regrouping. A city in a desert is impossible to defend, but a fortress in the mountains is hard to defeat. Even as he dissolved into the smoke, Mullah Omar offered his last will and testament: that this war would be one in which America would perish. And so even in victory last week, the U.S. and its allies knew they were still in a race, to unravel this network and unmask its secret soldiers before they bring the battle for their land back here, once more, to ours.