On October 6, 2001, US aircraft carriers were in position in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan, preparing to avenge the deaths of 9/11. On October 7, the bombing of Afghanistan began, a combination of missiles and aircraft with smart bombs. An estimated 50,000 Taliban soldiers were stationed throughout Afghanistan at key locations in their ongoing war with Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud’s small Northern Alliance army,which still held the Panjshir Valley in the north of the country. (Panjshir Province in the northwest region of Afghanistan, with its mostly Tajik population of 139,000, is one of 334 provinces in the country.)
There were large Taliban forces in the capital of Kabul as well as Jalalabad (the largest city in Eastern Afghanistan and the capital of Nangarhar Province, situated between the Pakistan border and Kabul approximately 95 miles away), said to be the center of the al- Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was rumored to have favored Jalalabad for his living quarters. The estimated number of Afghan Arabs, the name for Arab fighters from other nations that made up al-Qaeda, was thought by general consensus to be around 5,000. Supposedly, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar were not known. The US air strikes were effective and provided the cover by which the Northern Alliance made their move on Kabul. The fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance was fierce.
Al-Qaeda’s perfectly planned assassination of Massoud on Sept 9, 2001, two days before the twin towers were taken out half a world away, evidenced a military plan that was flawless. Few Americans were aware of the significance of the double strike – against both the United States and the Taliban’s most formidable enemy within Afghanistan itself. But the Afghan people knew, and it incensed them, especially the fighters of the Tajik north. Fearful that Massoud’s men might attempt to take Kabul themselves, word was sent out by the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Pashtun peoples of the south that the Northern Alliance should wait until all the organizations and ethnic groups were present. Massoud’s enraged army ignored them and moved towards Kabul with a vengeance. US bombing cut a path for them. Most Americans to this day have no idea of al-Qaeda’s clockwork capability. Ten years later, on September 20, 2011, the similar, shocking assassination by two suicide bombers of three-time former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose defense minister and military arm was Massoud, proves that their deadly capability is still in place. Massoud was also assassinated by two al- Qaeda suicide bombers from North Africa posing as reporters, one with a camera containing a bomb.
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Waiting for the US bombing to cease, reporters began amassing in Peshawar, Pakistan – a key base for the mujahidin and all anti-Taliban activity – located near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. By mid-November, news crews began filtering through the Khyber Pass, entering under the armed protection of anti-Taliban mujahidin. The bomb-ridden road to Kabul passes through Jalalabad, about 90 miles north of the border. The Spinghar Hotel in Jalalabad became the refuge of choice for the arriving news crews who gathered and waited for news of the fall of Kabul. The importance of Jalalabad itself was overlooked by the reporters focused on events in Kabul. Few ventured beyond the hotel perimeter. Those who did stumbled into critical information.
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The US bombing of the Taliban’s military base in Jalalabad was a testimony to advances in military technology. One could observe hundreds of cannons, tanks and other traditional ordnances converted to melted metal, while nonmilitary houses and buildings on the periphery were mostly left unscathed. The officer’s quarters were blown to splinters and only the headquarters flag appeared in one piece.
Those who were bold enough – or, some said, foolish enough – to venture still further would discover other important data. Driving and then trekking with a small armed escort about 25 miles from Jalalabad, filmmaker Jim Burroughs came upon a village that had suffered damage from US bombs targeting caves high up on the hills behind the village. Seven villagers had died when the bombings loosened a landslide that fell upon their homes. One might have expected rage from these people who had lost loved ones and neighbors, but the response of the residents was completely the opposite. They smiled broadly and shook hands with the first American they had seen and thanked him for fighting the Taliban, even though the bombing was an unfortunate US mistake. These were ancient caves from the time of the Buddhists, the village chief said, and there were no Taliban or al-Qaeda in their area.
The response of the Afghan people in 2001 was almost universal. They despised the Taliban, their Arab cohorts and the vice-and-virtue police who demanded that all women wear the burqa, measured if men had long enough beards, and even checked that their pubic hair had been shaved. The Afghan people love music, dancing, pets, books and movies. They hated the Taliban then, and they hate them now – but ten dollars a day for wearing a turban and shooting at NATO soldiers is better than watching their families starve to death.
Watch part two in this series: A Search for Bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains
Watch part three in this series: Children of Terror
Watch part four in this series: Kill the Journalist, Kill the Story, Kill the Truth