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Yuri Kozyrev, a Russian photographer for TIME, has been snapping away at Daoud beside bin Laden's cave. "No more," Daoud barks. "How do I know you won't use these photos to say I'm al-Qaeda?" There was a reason for his distrust: several weeks earlier, American soldiers raided Daoud's fortress home and briefly arrested his son. A U.S. officer later apologized, saying he had been fed misinformation, but Daoud was unforgiving. Warlords are often thin-skinned, and he had been shamed in front of his villagers. What's more, the U.S. raiding party smashed a prized photo that showed a dashing young Daoud handing a Soviet rocket to a U.S. Congressman, Charlie Wilson, a gung-ho Texan who had raised money for the muj and would often appear in Peshawar with his arm around a Midwestern beauty queen. "We are not al-Qaeda," fumes Daoud. "These Arabs say we're bad Muslims, that we don't know how to pray correctly." As for the Americans, he warns: "They come here and act like lords. They should remember that the Russians came to Jaji in 500 tanksand where are they now?"
Daoud is a warlord, but seems decent. He invites shepherds and wandering dervishes to share his meals. He persuaded Jaji farmers not to grow opium this year (although so much was harvested last year that dealers are sitting on their stashes waiting for prices to rise). Daoud may not like the description of himself as a warlord, but it fits. And he feels that the old mujahedin commanders like himself are getting a bad rap these days in the new Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai.
It's a gripe one hears frequently from these hoary fighters. Why should they hand over the country to the "dog washers"those Afghans who sat out the jihad abroad doing menial jobs and who have come back to hold Cabinet postswhen, after all, it was men like Daoud who bested the Soviets? But Daoud says he's willing to change, and to that end he was coaxed by Kabul into taking a trip to Japan to see how democracy works. The shaggy warrior was impressed by the Japanese parliament building, but aghast at having to eat raw fish with chopsticks. Good governance made less of an impact on the commander than Japanese flowers, and Daoud brought back several plant cuttings that now grow in a plastic battery casing inside his guest hall. "I don't know what kind they are," he shrugs, "but they are very beautiful, and we need more beauty in Afghanistan." It wasn't a resounding cry for democracy, but, for a warlord, it was a start.
The fraternity of warlords, past and present, is a troubled one. Engineer Ghafar, today a stout man in his mid-40s with a thickening belly, had an unsuccessful spell as Jalalabad's mayor. Nowadays he dabbles in real estate. Friends say Ghafar made a fortune selling his cache of Stinger missiles back to the Americans when the Soviets left. Ghafar sips green tea in his flower garden, rich but frustrated.
I'd heard that another famous warlord had opened a pizzeria. This, I thought, was worth a visit. Bashir Solangi was once lord of the Solang Pass, the main artery used by the Soviets to move their guns and supplies from the U.S.S.R. across the Hindu Kush into Kabul and southern Afghanistan. Solangi and his men would hide out in the crags and ambush the Soviet convoys. They were as good with a screwdriver as a rocket-propelled grenade, and they looted everythingmachine guns, fuel, ammo, even a Soviet general's limousine, which was dismantled and reassembled in the Panjshir Valley. Solangi, like other warlords, had since fallen on tough times. Today, he is the police chief of Wardak province, a place of no consequence. In May his men opened fire on Afghans protesting the alleged desecration of the Koran at the U.S.'s Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Several demonstrators were killed. I think Solangi yearned for the simpler times of pulling a trigger to blow up a Soviet tank.
But he had the pizzeria. It was called Popolano's, a kitsch palace of mirrors that glittered on the roadside in the Hindu Kush mountains. I arranged to meet Solangi at the pizzeria, beside a mountain river where snowflakes and spring blossoms floated down onto destroyed Soviet tanks. Graves were strewn along the river, and the wind ripped at green flags signifying that an Afghan shaheed (martyr) laid buried beneath the stones. Solangi met me outside the pizzeria. He was wearing a black raincoat and a black leather baseball cap. I had to ask him: Why pizza?
"Uh, we don't serve pizza," he replies. It turned out that he wanted a fancy name for his inn and some Afghan who had been to Europe told him he could not do more elegantly than "Popolano's pizzeria." "Someday we'll make pizza," he promises. "I'm told it's a kind of bread." In the meantime, he could offer rice and stewed goat.
Solangi wants to talk about the Taliban. "They came up here and we killed thousands of them. Thousands," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "They didn't care that they were getting killed. We captured some and questioned them. Their mullahs told them we weren't Muslims but infidels." His story reminded me of an incident in 1995, when the Taliban were attacking the mouth of the Panjshir Valley. Some other journalists, including an Indian woman in a vivid sari, and I wandered up the road and found a group of Taliban trying to clear a landslide with a tractor. Solangi and his men were up on the ridge, and suddenly they opened fire, launching mortars on the road crew, each mortar striking closer, like a giant's thundering boot steps. It was sure death. The Indian woman, hobbled by her sari, and the rest of us all ran, but the Taliban stayed.
From the pizzeria we headed up the Solang Pass, and the falling blossoms made way for more snowflakes. We bumped into a truck driver who said it was the worst spring blizzard in 60 years. The temperature was -20°C, the winds Arctic, and our driver Fida, a brooding ex-muj who was wearing only a thin jacket and sandals with no socks, refused any help in trying to fasten a broken set of chains on the tires. There is no man on earth more stubborn than an Afghan, and Fida kept at it, alone, until his fingers ceased to move. Only then did he finally seek help from a sensibly attired mountain man. Inside the Solang tunnel, a lorry had skidded sideways, and we were trapped for hours inside this icy morgue in darkness tinged yellow from headlights and diesel fumes.
Our destination was the Friendship Bridge across the Oxus River. It was here that Soviet tanks had rolled into Afghanistan in December 1979, and here, 10 years later, after the loss of some 25,000 lives, that they finally left the nation in defeat. As we traveled through a desert of dunes and shrubs in approaching the river, I thought back on the time when, like the Soviets, I too had once fled across the Friendship Bridge, scrambling over hoops of barbed wire and cement tank barriers. It was 1998, and the city of Mazar-i-Sharif had risen up against the Taliban occupiers. Mobs were on the loose, and twice our U.N. guesthouse was ransacked while we cowered in the basement. We were evacuated in a U.N. convoy and the roadside was littered with dead Taliban. Other Talibs, who were chained, were led off into the dunes for execution. Stripped of their black turbans and guns, they didn't look like fierce warriors, just scared and scrawny kids who were afraid of dying. The Taliban came back to Mazar-i-Sharif three months later and took terrible revenge on the city. Thousands of people were massacred.
There wasn't much to evoke memories for me at the Friendship Bridge. The barbed wire and tank barriers had been cleared, and a sluggish traffic of oil tankers trundled across the milk-tea-colored Oxus. Near the customs depot, I spotted a large billboard of Mazar's warlord, General Rashid Dostum. He was a defeated exile until the U.S. resurrected him, but here he was portrayed with maps spread out on a table, with two bearded U.S. special-forces guys listening obediently as Dostum called the shots on how to rout the Taliban. This was a laugh. Nothing could be further from the truth, a convenient lapse of memory shared by many warlords. In their own mythmaking, the commanders seem to have forgotten that they floated back into Afghanistan on the vapor trails of American B-52 bombers.