The Glorious Invasion

Three weeks after September 11, 2001, the day I arrived in Moscow to begin as National Public Radio’s bureau chief, my editors gave me four hours to pack before I was dispatched on an overnight flight to the never-never land of Uzbekistan. It was a temporary stopping--off point before I went on to neighboring Afghanistan. I had never been to Uzbekistan and knew only that the place was renowned as a hotbed of terrified, stonewalling bureaucrats.

It had taken the U.S. three weeks to turn Uzbekistan into its biggest regional ally, with the Uzbeks agreeing to provide an air base outside the city of Karshi in the southern part of the country. The U.S. State Department continued to list a yearly litany of Uzbekistan’s appalling human-rights abuses, but the offenses were subsumed under the “strategic partnership” mantra, a concession to the need to fight the war in Afghanistan and worry about human rights later.

Before the Afghan War, foreign reporters were a rarity in Uzbekistan. But visa requirements had now been loosened, bringing a flood of journalists representing major Western newspaper outlets and TV and radio networks. The point was to use the area to cross into Afghanistan and not to cover Uzbekistan itself, which was convenient, as that was the last thing in the world President Islam Karimov’s regime wanted.

But the bridge over the Amu Darya River into Afghanistan had been closed for years, and the Uzbeks resisted reopening it, even though the Taliban were no longer in control of the area on the other side of the river. So the TV crews and reporters bided their time with stories about little-known Uzbekistan. For me, this included a story about a young man tortured to death (cranial bruises, cigarette burns, bones broken, fingernails extracted) by police because he was suspected of being an Islamic “fundamentalist,” and one about the yearly forced march into the countryside of an army of state workers and schoolchildren to collect the state cotton harvest.

Running out of story ideas and becoming impatient with Uzbekistan’s dawdling over opening the border, I rented a taxi and shoved off for a 12-hour drive to Termez, a formerly closed city on the Afghan border.

As the number of journalists multiplied, the pressure grew to let us into Afghanistan. Apparently in exchange for a bribe, one Uzbek official took a small group of reporters on a short boat ride along the Amu Darya, docking for a few minutes on the other side so the reporters could claim an Afghanistan dateline. One of the six reporters on board bolted, “escaping” into Afghani territory and leaving the rest of us seething with envy.

Finally, the Uzbeks offered a compromise. Rather than letting us cross the imposing bridge between the two countries, they agreed to ship us out of Uzbekistan and into Afghanistan on a special barge. The next day, taciturn customs officials came armed with a card table and an array of stamps and ink pads. We were all allowed to board the barge after having our passports stamped.

We had what we wanted—Afghanistan—within our sights. The Uzbeks had what they wanted—us out of the way. The deluge of stories about the repressive nature of their country was now reduced to a trickle.

 

Our coughing diesel barge—captained by an Uzbek who jokingly referred to it as “our navy” (being landlocked, Uzbekistan had no “navy”)—slowly chugged up the Amu Darya River toward a landing spot just under the Bridge of Friendship.

The steel rail and road link had been put up by Soviet troops in 1982. The bridge was built to send Soviet fighting men to the fraternal socialist people of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Its real claim to fame came later, as a way home for the dead, injured, bedraggled, and PTSD–suffering Soviet soldiers as the Kremlin exited the country.

The last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, ten years and 50,000 casualties after the first had entered on December 27, 1979. Afghanistan had been bombed back to the Stone Age; the USSR had been so crippled economically, morally, and financially that it too would end up in the unenviable category of political entities known as “failed states.”

The first Soviet commandos had entered Afghanistan to aid the embattled communist ruler Hafizullah Amin, who had deposed the government of fellow Afghan communist Muhammad Taraki, who had gotten rid of the previous prime minister, Muhammad Daoud Khan, by the tried-and-true method of executing Daoud and most of his family in painful ways. Amin thought he had called on friends, but once under Soviet “protection,” he was in turn murdered by yet another Afghan communist named Babrak Karmal, who would stay in power until the situation had so deteriorated that he was “democratically” replaced by security chief Mohammad Najibullah in 1986. This last gentleman would remain in power until murdered and mutilated in 1992 with the triumph of the (covert) Saudi/CIA–backed Mujahedeen, who then morphed into the al-Qaeda-friendly Taliban.

After crossing the churning water of the Amu Darya to observe the progress of the U.S./NATO response to September 11, I was filled with foreboding that yet another glorious effort to liberate the noble Afghan people from themselves had just begun and that I was to be a witness to it.

The date was November 25, 2001.

Operation Enduring Freedom had been launched on October 7, after the Taliban government in Kabul ignored a final ultimatum from the White House to turn over Osama bin Laden. The bombs began to fall. Almost all the U.S. firepower was coming from B-52s, F-15s, and other expensive toys; there had been little hand-to-hand fighting to date, and a sense of euphoria was building among the U.S. and its allies. After all, well into the second month of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. had not suffered a single combat death.

***

Mazar-e-Sharif, the main city in the north, had fallen from Taliban control to the Afghan-Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and a few days later, the Taliban practically sprinted away from Kabul. Women would be throwing off their burqas! People would play music again! As for the politics of overthrowing the repressive fundamentalist regime, Americans were not seeking to impose Soviet Communism on the Afghans but were determined to bring them Western democracy. In doing so, if we met resistance, we would be careful to avoid harming civilians and would kill only bad guys. In essence, ours would not be the Russian experience. We would not be forced out ignominiously by a determined resistance, as had the USSR, because we were there to build, not to break. Or so went the logic. In those first weeks and months of war, this was hard to argue with, as the Taliban were barely putting up a fight. A cruel, oppressive, Islamic fundamentalist dictatorship loathed by any thinking person in the country—and indeed, the world—had been removed with extraordinary ease, and that was just plain good, with the facts clear for any eye to see.

 

We docked on the Afghan side of the Amu Darya, a brownish gray reflection of the area’s moonscape-like relief. The welcoming committee, such as it was, consisted of a few Northern Alliance guys wearing mismatched uniforms and would-be fixers and alleged English speakers (most of whom, as it turned out, spoke little or no English) hoping to land lucrative translating gigs.

War, as they say, is good business—and almost immediately, negotiations began, the biggest selling point seeming to be who could promise better access to General Dostum, the longtime regional strongman who had returned as the Taliban fled.

“Hallo, Meester! You want talk Genril Doostum?”

I struck up a conversation with one Bahuladin, a barrel--chested man who seemed to have a smile permanently stretched on his face. He sported a long salt-and-pepper beard that looked like it had never been cut or combed, and filmed our arrival with a cheap Sony Hi8 video camera. But after a few attempts to chat with me in broken English, Bahuladin switched into much better Russian, which I speak and which caught many of the newly arrived foreign journalists by surprise.

Russian? The language of the Soviet invader? In fact, I would end up hearing much more Russian in Afghanistan than I ever anticipated, illustrative of how much the empire had penetrated the country in just a few short, bloody years.

We were herded onto an aging bus to get us off the riverbank and closer to our destination—the war, wherever that was. Now knowing that I spoke Russian, Bahuladin sat down next to me. He explained that he had been an actor in the Kabul Theater before the Taliban had banned theater along with most other forms of entertainment because such distractions were against Islam, according to the Taliban’s rigorous so-called Wahhabi creed.

Bahuladin was boisterous to the point of being irritating about almost any subject that came to mind, rattling nonstop into my ear the entire drive to Mazar-e-Sharif. The Northern Afghanistan city was believed to be safe, relatively speaking, because it was controlled by the Uzbeks’ man in Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum. But on this very day, one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Afghan War had gotten under way.

Mazar-e-Sharif is said to be the burial place of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of Muhammad and his first follower, and thus a place of pilgrimage in better times. These were not better times, and the best hotel in town was a filthy five-story wreck with intermittent running water. We checked in, which meant journalists fighting for keys from an old man holding a ring of them. My room was a closet with rusty springs for a bed—no mattress, sheets, or anything else for that matter; at least there was a kind of balcony, overlooking Mazar’s blue-tiled mosque.

An odd quiet had descended over the city, so I asked Bahuladin what was happening. After conferring with some locals for a few moments, he returned with news: The day before, following an 11-day siege by General Dostum’s horseback forces (accompanied by devastating U.S. Air Force bombings) of a place called Kunduz, thousands of Taliban and their foreign associates had surrendered to the Northern Alliance and been herded into a massive earthen fortress called Qala-i-Jangi just outside Mazar-e-Sharif, where they were being interrogated by Dostum’s expert handlers. The Americans, meanwhile, wanted the prisoners brought to an old airfield, possibly to make it easier to fly any big fish they found to Guantánamo Bay and other locations.

But the volatile General Dostum had overruled them; after all, these were his prisoners, and he would deal with them in a traditional way. First, Afghan fighters were allowed to hand in their weapons and go free; Dostum considered this an act of national reconciliation. Less explicably, the Northern Alliance troops had not disarmed all of the several hundred foreign Taliban (mainly Pakistani Pashtuns) who had been brought to the fortress. This group of 400 or so was told that if they surrendered, they were going to be set free. Once inside the fortress, though, it was evident that they were prisoners and that they’d been duped. On the preceding afternoon, one had pulled the pin from a grenade, killing himself and some of Dostum’s fighters, and tensions were rising and spilling out of the prison and into Mazar-e-Sharif.

The melee involved two special men. One was Johnny Micheal Spann, a retired Marine and an agent with the ultrasecretive CIA Special Activities Division. With Spann was another CIA man, Dave Tyson. Both were tasked with weeding out the “real” foreigners from the mass of prisoners. According to accounts provided by the Northern Alliance and Taliban in attendance, Spann took a special interest in a young man who didn’t seem to speak Arabic or any “Muslim” language. He was lighter-skinned and stood out from the rest of the Kunduz captives and finally admitted that he was neither Arab nor Afghan but Irish. His Taliban cohorts had told him to employ this tactic to “avoid trouble.” Spann responded by asking the young man if he was a member of the Irish Republican Army and was once again met with stony silence. To intimidate the boy into talking, Tyson at one point told Spann (in the prisoner’s presence) that the “Irishman” would have to decide on his own whether to live or die. Still he didn’t talk. This was John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old Californian convert to Islam who joined the Afghan Taliban after having undergone training in various Arab countries.

Some of the foreign Taliban prisoners, enraged at Spann’s presence and at having bought the line that they would be freed, drew out their weapons. At least one threw a grenade. They quickly gained the upper hand and availed themselves of one of the many arms and ammo depots spread around the south side of the enormous fortress. They killed several dozen of their Northern Alliance guards and then turned on the two CIA men.

We heard shots ring out from the fortress, just a few miles away from our dumpy hotel. The shots mounted into a sustained roar and subsided sporadically. A few journalists already in the city who had entered Afghanistan via Tajikistan were already returning from the fortress, confirming that a savage battle was under way at Qala-i-Jangi. Bahuladin grabbed a taxi, and we set out for the fortress.

The Kabul actor turned war-front translator sat in the front and extracted from his pocket some opium paste wrapped in cellophane, preparing to smoke it. He seemed entirely unconcerned about the dangers of heading toward the battle and the continuing sounds of mortar rounds and explosions. He just smiled and smiled.

We soon closed on Qala-i-Jangi but were forced to stop by Northern Alliance troops, as outgoing mortar rounds were landing not far away. “Outgoing,” that is, from the fortress toward us. Exercising caution, I thought it best to study the edifice from a ditch. The dimensions of the 19th-century mud-brick structure were still impressive. The walls were pitched at a 70-degree angle, and the fortress seemed to be several football fields long and at least one wide. It was an impressive, if Spartan--looking, structure—and one about to be blown into rubble.

Inside the fort, according to witnesses from both sides, Spann and Tyson tried to fight off the mob with near fanaticism. Tyson fired off clip after clip from an AK-47. Spann emptied his pistol before the prisoners tore him to pieces. He became the first American to die in Afghanistan.

***

Spann’s hopeless attempt to take on the hundreds of Taliban prisoners had bought Tyson time to run along a wall and into the northern section of the prison, where he found a German television team. He asked if he could use their satellite telephone. Then, on camera—How could he ask the Germans not to film him while using their phone?—Tyson dialed the U.S. embassy in Tashkent, gave the coordinates of Qala-i-Jangi, and begged for reinforcements.

Bahuladin and I were oblivious to this as we huddled in our ditch along the side of the road, listening to explosions coming from the fortress and the occasional mortar round landing outside, a few dozen yards from us. The Northern Alliance fighters chuckled at my self-preservation efforts; explosions no longer fazed them after so many years of war.

Whatever had happened inside the fort seemed to be dying down, anyway; now there were only short bursts of occasional fire. I was starting to think it was time to take a closer look when a blinding flash lit up the sky and a shock blast shook the ground as an explosion went off in the southern section, which the Taliban had overrun. A loud whooshing noise—likely a U.S. guided bomb or missile—followed.

U.S. helicopter gunships buzzed the fort as well as central Mazar all that night. It was difficult to make out what they were up to, as the city was pitch-black and there was no electricity. We heard occasional explosions and saw flashes of light but nothing like the all-out onslaught that had been rumored to be in the offing.

 

The next day, we headed to the fortress again to see what truths there were to report. Not surprisingly, we found a couple of dozen U.S. and U.K. Special Forces in place around it, evidently to help direct the fighting against the Taliban and to coordinate airstrikes. They had made a respectable attempt to blend in with the Afghans, dressing up in traditional robes and having grown beards. But while the “purdah” had a nice style element, it was patently obvious who was who—the Americans and British had been staying at safe houses in the city, were obviously getting daily showers, and their air of cleanliness made then stand out from their unbathed Northern Alliance allies.

Northern Alliance troops perched on the upper walls with automatic weapons and extra ammunition, shooting down into the southern area of the compound. What the cameras could not capture was the Taliban returning fire with small arms, shooting upward. All other action was sporadic, such as a mortar round landing in the field where I was doing an interview with NPR host Bob Edwards for Morning Edition. Then an Alliance commander stepped over to me and tapped at his watch, strongly suggesting I move myself and my equipment. Another airstrike was on the way. I didn’t question his authority.

We vacated the area, and bombs were soon shaking the ground as we drove back into Mazar-e-Sharif, Bahuladin laughing about the guile of the escaped Taliban prisoners all the way. “Blyad,” he cursed in Russian. “Man, but those Chechens have balls!” The Afghans, it turned out, were referring to any Russian-speaking Taliban volunteers as “Chechens,” a mistake that was to get into the vernacular of many foreign correspondents over those few days. It was a matter of confusion, not intentional. But it was wrong. Uzbeks and men from Russia’s various Muslim republics were the main fighters among the Russian speakers who had joined up with the Taliban. Chechens were still busy with their own war at home, and few, if any, were ever conclusively documented as having fought in Afghanistan.

When we returned to the fortress later, we learned that one of the U.S. airstrikes had missed its target by a few dozen meters, slamming into Dostum’s part of the fortress and killing more than a dozen Northern Alliance men. An enormous part of one of the mud walls had collapsed, leaving a gaping hole in the Qala-i-Jangi defenses that offered further proof—if any was needed—what modern high explosives can do to medieval adobe fortress walls.

Still, the Taliban fought on.

Then, toward nightfall, we were given to understand that the Americans had run out of patience and were going to bomb Qala-i-Jangi into oblivion. The best place to watch the spectacle, I decided, would be from the safety of my balcony with its view toward the fortress.

Darkness fell. The odd explosion rang out; an occasional flash of light flickered. The low-intensity battle continued. Then came a different sound, a sort of whoosh that must have been aircraft but felt like long-range missiles coming from hell itself as the anticipated bombardment commenced. Huge, orange balls of fire mushroomed into the sky, followed by smaller explosions when the initial blast had clearly detonated some of the tons of munitions General Dostum kept stored at the fortress. There was almost a sick beauty to it all. Flames shot into the heavens all night.

When morning came, we returned to the fortress to see what was left of it. Periodic shots were still coming from inside the complex, and the press was not being allowed in. That would take until the next morning.

***

When we were finally allowed to enter the fortress, we encountered a scene of absolute carnage, medieval in its choreography, gruesome beyond anything I had seen to that point in a decade of covering wars. Hundreds of bodies were strewn about in all sorts of warped poses of death. One man’s chest had been splayed open with a bayonet or sword. Others lay next to Dostum’s dead horses. More men lay on the ground next to one another, hands bound and thus probably shot execution-style. Wandering around amid the sea of bodies, which were attracting flies, was a small group of reporters. They were a battle-hardened, thick-skinned lot, some of them close to war-junkie status—but even their mouths were agape at the slaughter and the sight of the dead Taliban being tossed into a flatbed truck, four, five, and six bodies deep, looking like livestock carcasses being loaded for processing at a meatpacking plant.

The Northern Alliance “victors”—who had lost more than a hundred men in the battle—meanwhile, took a different approach. Many joked or laughed and posed for pictures next to the dead Taliban, putting their boots atop lifeless heads while smiling for the cameras. Another group was arguing over war booty—the bombs had blown open a storage depot containing automatic rifles with retractable coils, World War II–vintage stuff. They were still wrapped in old brown wax paper and were regarded as a real find.

Nearby was the remainder of a staircase going into the basement of a building that had been blown away. A couple of Northern Alliance men stood next to the hole. As I recorded from a few feet away, one held a grenade, pulled the pin, and tossed it into the basement, laughing hysterically. It exploded with the predictable kaboom, sending the two Alliance fighters into even greater mirth. “There are still a few of them left down there,” said one of the fighters.

There were. A couple of days later, the Alliance forces got tired of tossing grenades and flooded the basement with water and diesel fuel, and the last 50 starving, wounded, and dying Taliban prisoners finally gave themselves up, begging for mercy.

Among those to ascend the stairs was the “Irishman” John Walker Lindh, known to his associates by his nom de guerre, Sulayman al-Faris. (He would be taken away by CIA officials, interrogated on a Navy ship, and finally sent to the United States. He would eventually be given a 20-year prison sentence on a variety of charges related to his Taliban life after a plea bargain designed to save him from worse.)

Then General Dostum arrived, walking nonchalantly through the carnage and up into the terraced compound that overlooked the fortress grounds. Sipping tea and nursing what looked to be one of his common hangovers, he gave an impromptu press conference, emphasizing that the Taliban prisoners had been treated “humanely” but that his men had erred by not handcuffing the lot and even failing to check some for concealed weapons. The prisoners, he suggested, had violated a kind of unwritten Afghan trust and had only themselves to blame for the slaughter. (More serious were the allegations that the men who surrendered to Dostum had been packed into airless, scorching container trucks, and that several hundred of them had suffocated to death in the process. The general denied this, although he would then try to prevent the examination of mass graves discovered years later that seemed to give credence to the story.)

Then there was the larger question: the future of Taliban-free Afghanistan.

With the war ineluctably moving south toward the capital, Kabul, and the Taliban being zapped by high-tech weapons when not on the run or in hiding, it was natural to assume that a major page had been turned in the history of the blighted nation and that the American promise of freedom and democracy was just a matter of weeks or at most, months away.

But even before the fall of Kunduz, the slaughter at Qala-i-Jangi, and the capture of John Walker Lindh, Dostum and others in the Northern Alliance had given unsettling indications that they would come to blows over who was going to run this part of Afghanistan. There were continual rumors about tension between Dostum, known to like a drink, and the more pious Mohammed Atta, leader of the local Tajiks. As for the Pashtuns, many of whom lived in the nearby ancient city of Balkh, they were already complaining of ethnically based beatings and indiscriminate treatment at the hands of the Uzbeks and Tajiks. During a visit to the town, I sat on a dirt floor listening to the pleas of Pashtun town elders, who begged for an international peacekeeping force to prevent them from being exterminated.

Dostum, meanwhile, was the man of the moment and let it be known that what he wanted was any new central government in Kabul to allow a broad form of federalism, with him, Dostum, of course, at the helm in the north, just as he had been before the city fell to the Taliban. In those days, Dostum was usually surrounded by provocatively dressed “assistants.” Other local women spurned even headscarves, let alone burqas. Shops selling booze were not hard to find. The big Uzbek even ordered his own version of the local Afghan currency printed up—identical except for some telltale markings that shaved off half its value in comparison with the Kabul-printed variety.

***

The problem was, almost no one trusted Dostum, and with good reason. His 20,000-member private militia fought on the Soviet side in Afghanistan, and he remained loyal to the communist chieftain Najibullah until after the Russians ended financial support for Kabul as part of a “hands-off Afghanistan” deal struck with Washington in 1989. With Najib’s brutal murder in 1992 and the start of the real civil war, Dostum next aligned himself with the legendary Shah Massoud and then briefly took control of Kabul, fighting the Pakistani-installed leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar before allowing the Taliban to enter Mazar-e-Sharif in the late 1990s, only to break with them soon thereafter. One might say he never saw a temporary alliance he didn’t like.

Thus it was not wholly surprising when Dostum and Atta hastily convened a joint press conference to dispel notions of a split. The international community was putting great pressure on the factions, including Dostum, to come to some sort of workable national agreement, and it behooved them both to make the right noises—in this case, that they were full-fledged allies, uttering platitudes about the brotherly love between the ancient and fraternal Uzbek and Tajik peoples, amid questions about how to round up the weapons floating around the country. Northern Alliance fighters, with no Talibs left to fight, were busy pawning theirs. I spent a day with one group outside of Mazar-e-Sharif who offered me everything from a worn AK-47 ($150) to a slightly used Russian T-55 tank ($5,000).

At the end of the briefing, I asked Dostum how long it would realistically take to bring a degree of order to Afghanistan. His answer was neither evasive nor glib. Rather, it was straightforward and prophetic: “In my opinion, minor conflicts will continue for the next ten or 15 years,” he dourly stated. “Even before these 23 years of war, even during the reign of the king, Afghans always fought. If they didn’t have guns, they fought with shovels and sticks.”

 

The battle for Qala-i-Jangi over, John Walker Lindh captured, and America having suffered its first death of the war, I was instructed by my editors at NPR to head back to Uzbekistan and then to Moscow, leaving Steve Inskeep, now the anchor for NPR’s Morning Edition, behind to cover the next developments. We spent a farewell dinner eating Afghan dumplings filled with meat, carrots, and onions. The wallpaper in the bare-bones slop house featured deer and horses with their eyes gouged out.

Yes, it was time to go. I had already parted ways with the gregarious, dope-smoking, and fearless Bahuladin, who had latched on to a TV crew that was throwing something like $500 a day at him for his services. Another Russian-speaking Mazar local drove me back up to the Bridge of Friendship to Uzbekistan. I got my passport out as we approached the border. The interpreter turned white. “But it’s an American passport,” he said. “Yes, that’s because I’m American,” I countered. He had assumed that because I spoke Russian fluently, I was Russian. His demeanor turned from matter-of-factness and circumspection to a scramble of deference. In this part of Afghanistan, Americans were still, at this early stage of the war, the heroes who had gotten rid of the Taliban.

At the border, an Afghan official cheerily stamped my multiple--entry visa, and I walked alone across the long bridge. When I got to the middle and showed the Uzbek guards my passport, also with a multiple-entry Uzbek visa, the border officials looked startled. The bridge had indeed officially been opened with great fanfare, they said, but there was a problem: My exit stamp from Uzbekistan was a little ink blot in the shape of a boat, which indicated that I had left the country by barge. Therefore, according to their logic, I would have to re-enter Uzbekistan the same way I had left—by barge. Except that no one knew when, or even if, one would sail across the Amu Darya to the Uzbek side again.

The height of the bridge provided good cell coverage, and I spent hours dialing U.S. embassy numbers in Tashkent, the NPR foreign desk in Washington, and the satellite telephone of one of Dostum’s Russian-speaking “colonels” back in Mazar-e-Sharif. Nothing seemed to work—not cajoling the Uzbek border guards with kind words, curses, or free cell-phone calls to their distant families, or even proposing special “fees” to be shared equally with all their colleagues on the bridge. The bottom line was that they were terrified of breaking anything even remotely interpreted as a rule, and they would not budge.

My next plan was to engage in a war of psychological attrition, making them so sick of my presence outside their customs post that they would beg me to just go through and go.

I lay down on the bridge in my sleeping bag. It was now December, and an icy wind roared around me. Stars filled the sky. I thought again about the euphoria over the fall of the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, the enthusiastic reception the Americans had received, and the general sense that the war to smash the Taliban for their support of al-Qaeda—unlike the many foreign interventions of the past—would be short, sweet, and successful.

Then I thought about what the mercurial Dostum often said—that Afghanistan’s myriad regions were too different and unruly to be controlled by a strong central government and that Afghans had been fighting for centuries with whatever came to hand. Before I had arrived, not a single U.S. military casualty had been recorded in Afghanistan. The first was Spann in the Qala-i-Jangi uprising, dead on one side of the earthen walls while I hid in a ditch on the other. But like a lone dark cloud drifting over the moon, the thought dissipated, and I was soon back in reverie. No, we were wanted here. How could one imagine that our entry into Afghanistan would result in anything but victory?

I woke the next morning to the gruff voice of an Uzbek military officer telling me to take my bags and head back to Afghanistan. I reminded him I was not on Uzbek soil. He angrily marched away and found his Afghan counterpart, the man who had seen me off the previous day. The Afghan was shocked I’d spent the night on the bridge and scolded a few underlings for not showing me the proper hospitality. He then offered me his own apartment in a Soviet-style block and sent a dozen of his young men in a halfhearted attempt to entertain me. They banged out tuneless ballads on upside-down baking sheets turned tambourines and plied me with vodka concealed in a canvas canteen pouch—all of this to atone for their Uzbek brothers so inconveniencing their guest on the recently reopened Bridge of Friendship.

I got lucky with the barge. The next night, the U.N. ferried some medical supplies across the Amu Darya into Afghanistan, and I copped a ride back to civilization, post–Soviet Uzbek style. Behind me, the American campaign in Afghanistan seemed almost over.

It had hardly begun.

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