Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 29, 2001
Making movies in the trenches

E-mail from Afghanistan

At War With Terror

RABAT, 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.

We 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.

Almas, 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.

"The 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."

There is some truth to Almas' comments. The movie that comes to mind is "Wag the Dog."

As 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 vests.

Some 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.

Right 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.

On 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 helpful.

Sometimes 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 on TV.

The 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.

A 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.

"He says the Taliban are just over there," said Sayed the translator, who was standing in a trench below.

I'm 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.

Behind 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.

I've 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. home page   
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