Into the Heart of Baghran

  • Share
  • Read Later

A soldier looks out from a balcony in Kandahar

In Kandahar, a dusty, ramshackle place swirling with intrigue and all manner of scheming, a great Afghan mystery envelops us all — where is Mullah Omar? To foreign eyes the Muslim cleric who carried the Taliban from this, their spiritual home, to rule the country vanished with the fall of his regime five weeks ago. There is no sign, no trace. He is invisible to our technology.

But Kandaharis need little of such things. I can't shake the feeling that to them Mullah Omar's location is less of a mystery and more of a riddle to which they may already have the answer. But it's riddle that can't be solved in Kandahar. To the west is Helmand province, an unruly place that makes the Kandaharis wary. "They're wild people," the Kandaharis' are quick to counsel. Deep in Helmand's north, guarded by great mountains, is Baghran. A formidable domain — and the sanctuary where Omar is thought to have fled.

I set out to see if I could follow, to find Mullah Omar's trail through the heart of the country of the Taliban. What I found was that even now, the Taliban leaders have a hold on power there — and they're not likely to surrender Omar anytime soon.


Malim Mirwali is like no other Afghan I have met. His shoulders are thick like heavy sacks of flour, his chest broader than a 40-gallon drum. He has pylons for legs. The hand he offered in greeting swallowed mine whole in a fleshy palm, then wrapped it in fingers fat like German sausages. Over his grey kameez and flowing shirt he wore a neat-cut waistcoat. A bushy black beard tumbled from his face. He talked slowly; the same as he moved. "[Helmand] Governor Haji Shir Mohammed and American soldiers have gone on this road to Kajaki [a town to the north in the Baghran area], " he said.

Rais the Baghran, Helmand's most powerful warlord, and a fearsome Taliban commander said to be sheltering Omar, had agreed to surrender and had relinquished some arms. "Shir Mohammed and the Americans did not trust him," Mirwali continued, "So they asked Rais to go inside Baghran." We asked Mirwali if, as intelligence reports and Kandahar commanders say, Rais was hiding Mullah Omar in his Baghran realm. "This issue is unconfirmed," Mirwali said unhurriedly, though Taliban commanders who withdrew from Gereshk went that way. We told him we wanted to go to Baghran. We asked for soldiers. He shook his head, "If I have permission I will give you soldiers," adding he has no satellite phone number to call to get it.

"These men are journalists, they work for no nation. If something happens to them, it will bring shame to us."
Mirwali invited us to lunch, for which we thanked him but declined. We were about to leave, wondering whether it was safe to go on without more troops, when we decided upon one last ploy. We caught Mirwali in his garden. One of our fixers implored him to help, playing on his sense of honor: "These men are journalists, they work for no nation," he told Mirwali. "They want to tell the world what is here. They are working for you. If something happens to them, it will bring shame to us." Amazingly, Mirwali seemed moved. He nodded in agreement and passed out orders. A junior commander dashed off to ready our escort. "I think it will only cost you about $10 per soldier," the fixer advised with a smile.

We drove into the desert. Seven of Mirwali's soldiers lead the way, packed into a silver 4x4; five in the cabin, two in the back with a dozen rocket propelled grenades and two PK light machine guns. There is no trail across the vast, rocky plains, just tire tracks splicing in and out of a weave heading north. For almost three hours and 40 miles we followed the mujahedin through choking dust. Rows of mountain ridges rose on the horizon like broken witches' teeth. From time to time we came to tiny settlements; the houses sealed behind mud brick walls, the rooftop edges curved, daily life hidden from view. Some were plunked down in the middle of nowhere, drawing life from plunging wells. Others hugged wispy rivers; groves of fruit trees, winter bare, lined the channels.

With Friday fading and the light softening, it felt like we were speeding through Old Testament lands: shepherd boys guided flocks of goats over rocky slopes looking for feed; donkeys shuffled along paths with firewood roped to their backs; fields were worked with wooden implements; cloaked figures strode alone across vacant desert stretches miles from anywhere. All that broke the scene was a B-52 trail piercing the clouds far above.

A night in Musa Qal'eh

At dusk we forded a stony riverbed and a village loomed on the bank. "Musa Qal'eh," said the soldiers, motioning at the village. It was the end of the road; our escorts did not have permission to take us further. We had to enter Musa Qal'eh and hope its commander would guide us further north. We were not expected, and at the blue and white iron gates to his compound our soldiers shouted to his men to let us in.

Inside there were weapons everywhere, draped from every shoulder, positioned on every roof; far more than in similar posts in Kandahar. District commander Haji Abdul Mohammed granted us an audience, surrounded by his curious soldiers in black turbans (one carrying an M-16 made in Kentucky in 1975) and his senior lieutenants in white turbans. Haji Abdul is quite an old man, his beard more grey than black. He told us Rais the Baghran began surrendering eight days ago. The day before troops from this outpost accompanied 20 U.S. Special Forces and governor Haji Shir Mohammed as far north towards Baghran as they could. "For the moment no fighting is taking place in Baghran, and since the governor went there none has broken out," he said.

A mujahid who fought long against the Taliban, Haji Abdul is nonetheless from this district, and his ties here show in his stance toward the local Taliban. "All of the Taliban soldiers were from our tribes; they were not criminals," he said, meaning there were no foreign Taliban among them. When he assumed command in Musa Qal'eh one month ago there was no Taliban resistance, despite northern Helmand being one of their strongest centers. The lack of resistance is not because their forces withdrew. "They are still living here," said Haji Abdul. "The Afghan Taliban are our relatives, our brothers and cousins." His men will arrest the top commanders, though none have yet been detained, "and if we are asked we will hand them over to the interim government." He didn't mention the unpopular, and unlikely, alternative: giving them to U.S. forces.

It was here one of our party's soldiers showed his grit. "If anyone refuses to go I will make them," he said, using his finger to pull an imaginary trigger aimed at a reluctant driver.
] We spent the night at Haji Abdul's headquarters; a few derelict buildings and a dying garden. Over dinner he wanted to talk more about our plans. He too couldn't give soldiers without the governor's permission, "but I must call him at 8pm and I will ask." Later he said he could not make contact, though he did seem better informed about the governor's movements. He began to tell stories about the perils of the road to Baghran, saying "if you paid me $500 I would not give you a vehicle, so badly damaged would it be." His stories panicked some our drivers and fixers, sparking a heated debate on the merits of continuing. It was here one of our party's soldiers showed his grit. "If anyone refuses to go I will make them," he said, using his finger to pull an imaginary trigger aimed at a reluctant driver.

No other journalists had made it this far north. But word came over the mujahedin radio a small group was back at Kajaki, denied the permission to advance. At least we were well-placed to get to the governor, and the elusive Special Forces, first. After dinner the other journalists and I sat in our vehicles, laptops in our laps, filing stories and pictures to news-hungry editors for as long as our batteries would last. But we were not alone. Even with the car windows wound up, bemused mujahedin crowded around and, for hours, watched us work at our brightly lit computers. Their faces pressed on the glass, discussions thrived about what we were doing. We were the best entertainment in a long time. That night we all slept in one room, weapons between us and blankets pulled over our heads, in makeshift cocoons, against the below-zero chill.

The governor arrives

On Saturday morning Haji Abdul told us the governor was en route from Baghran. "He will come here and see you," he said, convincing us to wait. It was not long. The iron gates flung open and grimy 4x4s zoomed in. Haji Shir Mohammed had arrived. Shorter and younger than I had somehow expected, he told us Baghran was peaceful, the surrender a success. Rais the warlord had forsaken his power. "Rais is an old man, a leader of his tribe and a supporter of the government. He will live in the future as a white-bearded old man and will not support Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden," he said.

Haji Shir Mohammed began by defending the resilient warlord he'd come to tame. Rais was never the Taliban powerbroker people had thought, the governor insisted. I looked at our Taliban gunman. He had fought with Rais against the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley and well knew his authority. The gunman rolled his eyes. The governor went on: Rais and the elders had "confirmed the absence of Mullah Omar". We asked how he could be so sure? "All the people of Baghran are of our tribe, my own tribe (Alizai). I'm quite sure they wouldn't create problems."

Face to face with Rais the Baghran

The way to Baghran is along a dry riverbed; with vehicles negotiating fields of rough river stones, inconvenient boulders, dusty sand banks and pools of cold water. It's slow, slow going. On either side sheer mountains glare down like surly sentinels. Villages are few. At times we drove up from the river and across low folds of hills where endless gullies and draws make for good ambush. No wonder the Russians could never capture Baghran. A Soviet tank, ruptured by rockets, rusts at one turn; a scant reminder of a failed campaign.

Whenever a journalist went outside one of our Kandahar guards stood watch, nervously eyeing the dark
At nightfall we weren't halfway through our bumpy eight-hour slog. The guards we'd acquired in Musa Qal'eh insisted we stop for the night. "It's not safe to go on," they assured us. We argued with them, as time was tight. After much discussion they relented, but only if we would sign a waiver to excuse them in the event of our deaths. At that point we figured if these men were scared there was probably good reason. We agreed to stay. In the mountains the night is bitterly cold, so we could work in our vehicles without spectators. But the tension had grown. Whenever a journalist went outside, no matter for how long, one of our Kandahar guards (who travelled with us for the entire trip as the others came and went) stood watch, nervously eyeing the dark.

In the morning, a few hours down the road, the soldiers relaxed while I made a call on the satellite phone. A rock half a mile away was chosen as the target and shooting practice ensued with much joking and laughter and cheers. With respective prowess affirmed, we moved on. We didn't arrive in Baghran village until noon.

In yet another fortified compound we first met the tribal leaders; all vowing Mullah Omar had not been spotted. "Don't worry about anything," said an aged Haji Mohammed Gaffar of the search for Omar, "we can't find anything to make a person worry. It's all peaceful now and the people who will build the roads and wells can come." The sixteen other leaders — all in kameez, vests and brand new army jackets — concurred, talking over each other and contributing to every question. They swore they'd not supported the Taliban, though thousands of soldiers were recruited from here; six hundred from Baghran are prisoners with the Northern Alliance in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz alone. "The Taliban would not ask to take our sons, they would catch them on the road," said Gaffar. As we sat in the sun listening to these men, I doubted a homegrown commander like Rais needed to kidnap his troops.

Minutes later I learned I was right when the door to the courtyard opened and a small, wiry man with a hardened set to his face walked through. The throng of elders leapt up. They crowded the man, each shaking his hand, some kissing it, before bringing him towards us. It was Rais the Baghran, the man much of the world believes spirited Mullah Omar to safety. He stopped a few paces short of me and cased me out, looking up and down with a careful eye. I put his age a shade over fifty, but athleticism still oozed from him. For a "white-bearded old man", whose beard is still thick and black with streaks of grey a meagre concession to age, he looked as though he could stride on to a battlefield tomorrow.

I think you are like a good Muslim because you are happy," said a beefy mujahid. "Can I come to Australia with you?"
In black turban, tipped with grey, a cardigan and a brown pin-stripe waistcoat, Rais told us it was his Islamic duty to "respect you and give you as much hospitality as we can". He then fudged our first question about no longer having power, choosing instead to relay how he had twice met interim government leader Hamid Karzai to speed the transfer of "Taliban power to Karzai." But he happily confirmed his new arrangement with the government, under which he surrendered those weapons he had at hand and vowed not to protect "any of the most wanted people who come into our area." But did he leave the door open? He spoke of the benefit that flows to a Muslim who protects another of the faith. He said there was two ways that could be done. One was protection by a community, with good grace before God coming to them all. This, he said, had not been granted to Omar because "you can't trouble a whole nation for one person." The other was protection given by an individual, with the divine benefit resting with him. "The protection of Mullah Omar, if a person thought it could, may be a particular benefit for one man," he said.

Throughout our interview, the 17 chattering elders sat silently. As he spoke of his peoples' desire for peace, their weariness of war, their need for aid, his respect for international law and his willingness to hunt down the man he was once close to, there was not as much as a murmur. Some would nod, but in the most discrete way. Rais, it was clear, still owns his fiefdom. This man had no need to Shanghai his soldiers. He wrapped up the interview, saying he had to go, "I have a meeting with my commanders."

Going home

With that we left. The eight-hour ride over riverbeds was no more comfortable going back. At least we reached Musa Qal'eh shortly after dark. Another night at the Haji Abdul's compound had the men converting us to Islam. "I think you are like a good Muslim because you are happy," said a beefy mujahid with a machine gun dangling from him like it were no more than a scarf. "Can I come to Australia with you?"

Within a day we were back in Kandahar, via a short visit to a deserted, bombed and raided Al-Qaeda camp (but that's another story). In the course of our odyssey to Baghran we gained and lost a small private army; it began with four gunmen and swelled at times to a dozen or maybe more. Our vehicles took heavy punishment: three tires were punctured, the van had to be left and picked up later, a taxi had to be hired in Baghran, a 4x4's belt spring was broken, some electricals failed, two cars collided and one had to be push-started several times. There was also the toll on those who travelled with us; food was poor and in little quantity, the dust was inescapable, sleep was rare and the cold was biting. But in four long days we made it there and back again.

And on the way my suspicions were confirmed — there is no hurry at all for Mullah Omar to be found, if indeed he is lost at all. Though the Coalition forces champ at the bit, the Afghans who hold the answers do not want to enter the race. To an Afghan his family comes first, then his tribe, then his "nation" or ethnic grouping, then the country and all Muslim brothers. In the Pashtun south, where Omar is likely hiding, there are time honored and complex ways of resolving disputes, none of which involve giving an Afghan Muslim to foreign infidels. As Kandahar government secretary Engineer Pashtun quizzically pointed out, "the Afghan Constitution of 1963 prohibits extradition to another country no matter the crime". The wheels of Afghan justice, and of the Pashtun code of conduct known as pastunwali, are turning. Just maybe not in ways that we will ever fully understand.