The Taliban Entry into Kabul 27 September 1996
To understand the turmoil of present-day Afghanistan, one must recount how events unfolded when the Taliban first claimed Kabul. Of course, one cannot predict how the Taliban will advance towards Kabul; however, they will utilize multiple fronts and move swiftly and boldly. This is evident that in the past six days, 25 Districts have fallen as of June 13, 2021 (Afghanistan has approximately 421 Districts in 34 Provinces).
Twenty-five years earlier, the Taliban in 1996, continuing with clearing Nangarhar, captured approximately 12-14 Russian tanks of Haji Qadeer forces which his nephew abandoned. All well-known commanders like Haji Abdul Qadeer of Azro and Hisarak, his brothers Commander Abdul Haq and Haji Din Muhammad, Haji Zaman Khogianiwal, Commander Saznoor, Engineer Mahmud, and a host of others rushed to Pakistan’s Torkham and safety. Haji Qadeer commandeered a bullet-proof Mercedes car previously gifted by the Russian President Brezhnev to President Najibullah and now in his possession, sped straight to Peshawar. Saznoor and Mahmud were ambushed short of Torkham and killed when their car in which both were traveling took a direct hit of a rocket-propelled grenade. Haji Monjay, a fierce opponent of Haji Qadeer, alerted of the group’s rush for the Border, found the opportune moment to settle a debt. Monjay blamed Haji Qadeer and some powerful and well-known ex-Mujahidin commanders for the murder of his elder brother Commander Shomali over a dispute. His brother and these men together were all part of the Jalalabad Shoora. The vengeance was extracted. Haji Zaman, some years later, was to side with US forces along with Hazrat Ali Pashai in the unsuccessful encirclement of Tora Bora to trap Osama Bin Laden. Osama escaped through their lines which immediately gave rise to the speculation that ‘large sums of money having being exchanged.’ Haji Zaman himself met his end in 2010 as a result of a suicide attack in Jalalabad. This was nothing new for Afghan warlords. This bullet-proof Mercedes was parked in Haji Qadeer’s house in Peshawar and eventually found its way back to Kabul when Karzai assumed power. Jalalabad, Nangarhar was considered an important hub for narcotics. It was common to read reports of heroin stuffed in old artifacts and smuggled out of Afghanistan. Many of the Jalalabad Shoora members indulged in this trade. It was uncertain times, and such trade was generally known and ignored during Jihad days, however later, when European and British agents were alarmed at the amount being smuggled into their countries that conscientious steps were taken to curb all narcotics from this region. With Pakistan’s help, there was a drastic decrease. The smugglers had now to reroute, mostly through Iran or countries of the Central Asian Republics.
A Pakistani official who met Saznoor a week earlier in Peshawar found him a frank, down earth, and soft-spoken man. However, his reputation on the field was that of a brave and bold Commander who had fought well against the Soviet and Kabul militia. In hindsight, both Engineer Mahmud and Saznoor had significant potential to play important roles in the post-Taliban era along with Commander Abdul Haq, but this was not to be.
The swiftness of the Taliban advance was remarkable. Town after town, army posts, village defenses, and smaller garrisons just fell. Many were vacated before the Taliban ever reached them. When the fear of defeat is pervasive, preservation and survival instincts take over. The Taliban were quick in justice and spared no one. This very news spread the necessary alarm amongst all their adversaries. No serious pitch battle was recorded. The Taliban charged ahead with their 4×4 pickups, a few BMPs/ BRDs, RPGs, and AK-47s. The opposition withdrew in their tanks and helicopters. Islamabad based S Maqsud, a keen student and observer of Afghan affairs, narrates that a ‘common pun to hear about the Northern Alliance’s tanks including those of General Dostum was ‘when the Taliban advanced in their 4×4 Toyota pickup SSR, Dostami T Series Russian tanks withdrew to their garages!’
Laghman and Kunar were in Taliban control by 23 September. Pushing ahead towards the Kabul Gorge, they soon confronted Sairobi, a distance of just under 70 Kilometers from Kabul. The Taliban, euphoric and fresh from victory, sped relentlessly westwards. Their rapid thrust forward can be illustrated by the following;
· Urgan-last week of July 96.
· Ali Khel and Spina Shigha (Ammunition Dumps of Hikmatyar) -21, 23 Aug 96.
· Azro- 5/6 Sep 96.
· Hisarak-8-10 Sep 96. Kolala -10 Sep 96.
· Jalalabad, Surkh Rud/Shamshad Sar- 11 Sep 96.
· Mehtarlam Laghman-13 Sep 96.
· Asadabad Kunar-23 Sep 96.
· Sairobi, Najrab, Taghab, Buth o Khak-24, 25 Sep 96.
· Kabul City –Night 26/27 Sep 96.
· Bagram, Charikar-27 Sep 96.
· Jabl Siraj-Night 29/30 Sep 96.
By nightfall on 26th September 1996, the Taliban stood at Kabul’s eastern entrance. Jumping off their pickup trucks and brushing the dust from their turbans and beards, breathing in the cool evening air, the Taliban paused. Then, finally, the smell of the city reached them, the floating smoke and dust mixed with the smell of Russian benzene, some faint and muffled sounds, and a stiff breeze. For many, it was their first glimpse of that historic City, the flickering lights spread out like a sparkling carpet beneath them. The young and the old paused to absorb what they beheld, marveling at the evening vista, all in silence. Their moment had arrived; they only had to seize it.
Then felt I, like some watcher of the Skies,
when a new Planet swims in its Ken,
or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
he stared at the Pacific- and all his men
looked at each other with a wild surmise-
Silent, upon a Peak in Darien”. (Keats)
A feeling of the uninitiated when one stands at the shores of an Ocean. It was unpredictable, vast, deep, stormy, and uncharted. But, for the Taliban, the future ahead was all that.
That night was huge in terms of its impact and the geopolitical reverberations that would follow. Yet, for the moment, it was beyond their comprehension. There was resistance around the Military Academy and Pul-e-Charkhi Jail complex with some casualties. The opposition was weak. Some half-hearted and inconsistent, sporadic fire was all that the Taliban faced initially. The City generally was left totally defenseless. The Lion of Panjshir Ahmed Shah Masoud, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Dostum, Gen Faheem, Qanuni, Abdullah Abdullah, and a host of others packed and left. No bravado, no statements, no fighting for a cause, all just slipped silently into the night. Witnesses observed that a helicopter hovered over the Khwaja Rawish Airport, presumably with Ahmed Shah Masoud in it, who took in the last sweep, surveying the advance of the Taliban through his binoculars. It then flew in the direction of Bagram Airbase as the Taliban swarmed towards Bagrami and the Military Academy. This was his last gesture, a farewell, a shake of his head, to Kabul, which he lost. A city, as fate would later reveal, he would never see again.
It would be unfair to blame events leading to this debacle on Ahmed Shah Masoud alone. Every Afghan leader was responsible. Selfish, myopic in vision, and bloated by their own importance, they let the situation slide. This allowed new players to enter and spark a fresh wave of horrific killings. Afghanistan was an abyss, ‘when one stares into an abyss; the abyss stares back at you. Little did Masoud know that this would be his last sight of the City? Ahmed Shah Masoud was a great survivor; he, however, miscalculated his worth as being indispensable. Every human being feels, rightly or wrongly, the sense of his own invincibility, especially when one has reaped the benefits of the whirlwind. Time and history had different plans. His unfortunate end, as assessed by some, as a result of intrigues and a changing environment.
‘When God is angry with an ant, it gives it wings.’ The deserting officials used the safer Northern and Western exits towards Bagram, Salang Pass, Pule Khumri, Charikar to Bamyan leading out of Kabul. By the first rays of the new morning, Friday, 27 September 1996, Kabul had changed hands. All the roads leading away from the advancing Taliban were chaotic. Kotal Khairkhana, the northern Pass leading to Charikar and Jabl Siraj, witnessed the worst gridlock ever. Government officials, Generals, soldiers, ministers and peons, their women and children, a large segment of the population on buses, cars, tractors, motorcycles, or trucks all were leaving in a hurry. Ustad Sayyaf, his driver, and guard were pushed out of their vehicle, roughed up by a mob, and left to fend for themselves. He reached Panjshir shaken and dazed. Those lucky enough flew out on helicopters to Bagram, Jabl Siraj, Punjshir, and across the Hindu Kush. Government cars, jeeps, trucks, tractors, tanks, anything that transported anything was looted from the garrisons and taken by the fleeing elite. Every road-worthy military vehicle numbering a few thousand of all the ministries was snatched and driven away by Rabbani’s men. Offices, banks, and shops were emptied; whoever got an opportunity took what he could. The future was extremely uncertain. Those who remained were the poor, the old and the infirm, women and children, the sick, the feeble, and the destitute. The Embassies and the foreign NGOs were petrified, expecting the worst. This gnawing fear was affecting rational thinking. The majority of the citizens were just too traumatized, had nowhere to hide or run. They left their fate at the hands of Allah and the Taliban.
Into this mayhem swaggered in the Taliban. They were baffled at the relatively little opposition to their entry. It felt like a trap. The main roads were empty. But, throwing caution to the wind, they plunged straight in, reaching the Palace and the Arg (The Citadel), the Ariana Chowk, and Sadarat Chowk in Shahre Nau within no time. Deh Mazang, where the Shia Hazaras massacred scores of Pashtuns and Sunni in the barracks of the former headquarters of the Kabul Traffic Police, now lay abandoned. The wide avenue to Darul-Aman was deserted even before the Taliban reached it. The Airport, the Military Academy, Tappa Nadir Khan, Wazir Akbar Khan, the Army Garrison, and most Eastern Kabul were theirs. Taliban’s senior Commander Mullah Muhammad Rabbani Akhund, known as the Muawin (the Deputy), who led the entry into Kabul, was continuously on the wireless feeding the latest situation to Kandahar, minute to minute.
That was the situation in September 1996; now, in 2021, events are unraveling with uncanny similarity. If the immediate regional countries plus Russia, China, the US leave it to the Afghans alone, then one can expect terrible retribution in the coming months. It has all the ingredients to spill over into Pakistan, making it imperative that such a situation is avoided at all costs. Even now the exodus has begun, Afghans are scrambling to abandon, in particular Kabul. Civil wars benefit no one, and the side left standing will itself succumb, in time to another force stronger than itself.