The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 29, 2001
Making movies in the
E-mail from Afghanistan
War With Terror
Afghanistan - We drove out to this deserted village on the frontline of
Afghanistan's civil war on Wednesday to see if American warplanes once
again would bomb the positions of the Taliban, just a few kilometers away.
stopped first at the headquarters of Gen. Hoji Almas, 42, the local
commander of the United Front troops opposed to the Taliban. Almas sat in
the garden of his headquarters, holding court with his posse of young
lieutenants, a confident man accustomed to commanding attention. Like many
Afghan commanders, he had a lovely garden of long-stemmed roses and
geraniums, and he was pleased that we complimented his pruning techniques.
along with many Afghan military men, said he was unimpressed with the
American bombing campaign. The Afghans are hardened people who have lived
through much suffering in more than two decades of civil war, and the
half-dozen or so bombs the Americans were dropping each day on a 15-mile
long front just north of Kabul seemed more like a gesture for the
assembled media cameras than a serious effort to dislodge the Taliban. He
said the bombing was just a show for the folks back home.
Afghans say the United States just wants to make a movie," said Almas,
laughing at his own jokes while he inspected his fingernails. "When
they finish the movie they'll stop and forget Afghanistan. It's not me
saying this, it's the Afghan people."
is some truth to Almas' comments. The movie that comes to mind is
"Wag the Dog."
the American bombing campaign shifted last week to the frontlines north of
Kabul, the media coverage took a remarkably fervent tone. Television
correspondents rushed to rooftops a few miles from the frontline, put on
their bullet-proof vests and spoke excitedly about the warplanes circling
overhead and pounding the frontlines. With a long lens, the explosions
appeared close. When the cameras stopped, the correspondents removed their
print journalists were just as excited, churning out vivid descriptions of
great clouds of smoke and dust spiraling skyward as ground forces
exchanged salvos of tank and rocket fire, speculating that the battle for
Kabul had begun.
now the battle for Kabul is being waged on television screens. The Taliban
is finally wising up to this fact and has allowed a few journalists in to
Jalalabad and Kabul to report about the effects of the bombing.
this side of the front, we're somewhat free to report the news as we see
it. Journalists can't travel without
written permission from the United Front foreign ministry and without
accompanying security, but the guerrilla leaders grant most requests
without much hassle and the security guards usually don't interfere with
our work. Some guards seem to understand that we need access and are very
they are too helpful. A lot of the gunfire here is staged for the media.
Several commanders have offered to fire weapons for me, but there's only
so much mileage I can get out of describing guns fired at rocks. I've been
to a couple of "training" sessions that amounted to ten minutes
of target practice. One was a fully staged show for Iranian television -
Iran supports the guerrillas and shares many cultural ties with northern
Afghan ethnic groups. Tightly edited, I can imagine how those clips look
battle for Kabul might begin some day soon, and when it does, I can
imagine it will be ugly. Afghan fighters are said to smoke a lot of
hashish and they appear to have a cavalier regard for their own personal
safety, and others' as well.
case in point: After talking with Gen. Almas, we drove out to look over
the frontline. Our guide walked us out to the far post and took me up to
the top. He swept his arm at the trees a hundred yards or so in the
distance and jabbered something in Persian.
says the Taliban are just over there," said Sayed the translator, who
was standing in a trench below.
not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. As my brain was processing
the facts -- "Why are we standing here in the open if the Taliban are
just over there?" -- the first bullet went by. My feet were quicker
to comprehend, and I made it around the corner of the wall when the second
bullet sent up a little cloud of dust behind me. Our guide, meanwhile,
slowly sauntered over to take cover with us as though these were raindrops
hardly worth dodging.
the safety of the wall, he showed me the palm of his left hand. In the
center was a large scab and a knot of stitches, all purple with
disinfectant. Our heroic guide had been shot three days before. I imagine
him standing on the wall, trying to catch bullets like a shortstop
snagging line drives.
learned my lesson. Next time I'm inspecting my guide's appendages more
closely. And I only have to keep repeating to myself the words of advice
from Gen. Almas: It's only a movie. It's only a movie.