Inside the Battle at Qala-I-Jangi

From a ruined 19th century fortress, TIME correspondent Alex Perry records the crushing of a Taliban revolt

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In Afghanistan, nothing is ever what it seems. Including surrender.

On Nov. 24, a bright, warm Saturday, 300 Taliban soldiers who had fled the American bombardment of Kunduz, their last stronghold in the north of Afghanistan, laid down their weapons in the desert a few miles to the north of Mazar-i-Sharif. They surrendered to Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who crowed that his forces had achieved a "great victory" as the pows were herded 50 at a time onto flatbed trucks.

Even by the standards of Afghanistan's warlords, Dostum has an unsavory reputation. In earlier episodes of Afghanistan's wars, he was reputed to have killed those of his soldiers who broke the rules by tying them to the tracks of his tanks. But outside Mazar, his soldiers told their prisoners that Dostum wanted to make a gesture of reconciliation to help unite Afghanistan's warring tribes. Afghan members of the Taliban would be free to return to their homes, while foreigners would be detained before being handed over to the U.N. Dostum didn't search his prisoners; that was a mistake, one he would bitterly regret. "If we had searched them, there would have been a fight," he said Wednesday, surveying hundreds of dismembered, blackened and crushed bodies. "But perhaps it wouldn't have been as bad as this."

The Taliban fighters, many of whom were foreigners, were transported from the field of surrender to a holding site in Qala-i-Jangi, a sprawling 19th century prison fortress to the west of Mazar, where Dostum stabled his horses. The convoy of prisoners had to pass through the city center; two weeks before, the Taliban had ruled the streets. The prisoners now peered out from under their blankets with shell-shocked, bloodshot eyes. The people of Mazar stared back at them with open hatred.

Things went wrong almost immediately. Once inside Qala-i-Jangi, the Taliban soldiers were asked to turn out their pockets. A prisoner, waiting until Alliance commander Nadir Ali was near, suddenly produced a grenade and pulled the pin, killing himself and the commander. In a similar attack the same night, another prisoner killed himself and senior Hazara commander Saeed Asad. The remaining men were led into underground cells to join scores of other captured Taliban fighters. Despite the grenade attacks, the Alliance guards were not reinforced.


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