Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Taliban and the Great Comet - Kabul

I returned to Afghanistan in 1997 to assess the viability of an agricultural rehabilitation programme on the Shamoli Plain north of Kabul. This was before the Taliban laid waste to this fertile plain and its people.

Until then the Taliban had been on a roll. They had taken Kabul the previous autumn when Ahmad Shah Massoud made a tactical withdrawal and they had been pushing into areas beyond their traditional tribal influence.

Kabul was what you would expect of a city that had been repeatedly shelled by various factions and a real shock to those who could remember its attractions in better times. Many of the buildings had hidden mines and throughout the day you could hear regular explosions, intended or otherwise.  It was also April and freezing cold.

I made a visit to the city administration by way of introduction and received the usual warmth of Afghan hospitality. Pictures were brought out to show close shaven men in smart suits, before the new regime had required a change to traditional dress and long beards.

For those out of favour with the new order, the stadium would now double as a place of execution and amputation in between football matches. Checkpoints were established by religious police around town to check on among other things the length of beards.

Before I left Kabul I visited two disused embassies. The Russian Embassy had been comprehensively trashed, whilst the remains of the American Embassy had become a meeting place for some of the NGO workers in town.

Outside the remains of a heavily mined Embassy

That was the  night I was to spend on the roof of the remains of the embassy in sub zero temperatures watching the traverse of the Hale-Bopp comet across a crystal clear unpolluted night sky.