The last time I wrote one of these I was freezing my tweakers off in
the arid steppelands of high Asia as a stringer for the cuddliest pink
newspaper in the whole world. I have now been transferred to the
fleshpots of Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, to be specific, and a warmer
Maybe some of you were glued to seats last week when my inaugural
article on the submission of the Ukrainian 1998 budget to parliament
splashed across the briefs column on page 4? And for those of you who
have been waiting for a hard-edged look at Russian tariffs on
Ukrainian sugar, fasten your seatbelts...
So in the meantime, allow me to confide in you all the wierdest thing
that happened to me over the last 9 months, which is a trip to
Afghanistan in May-June. I have actually been trying to forget a lot
of what happened, but in retrospect some of it is pretty funny.
When I volunteered to go there, I must admit, I was hammered. It was
May 26, I was having a dinner party in Almaty, had a lot to drink,
the phone rang and it was my editor, and he said the Taliban have just
captured Mazar-i-Sharif, which is the capital of the northern part of
Afghanistan, and wanted to know if I should do story about it.
The Taliban are radical Moslems who have taken two-thirds of
Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and for all I
know, probably the US, and they are fighting the Northern Coalition
which is backed by Iran, Russia, probably India, and some combination
of central Asian states. The northern coalition consists of Uzbeks
called "Jumbesh," Hazara Shias called "Wahdat" backed by Iran, and
Tajiks called "Jamiat" backed by Iran and Russia.
The Taliban had cut a deal with a chunk of the Jumbesh led by someone
named general Malik who were opposed to the leader of the Jumbesh
named Dostum who had killed Rasoul Pahlavan, Malik's brother. Malik
led a coup against Dostum, and invited a Taliban contingent into Mazar
to help him, and then announced that he had joined the Taliban.
This all makes perfect sense.
I don't actually remember the conversation with my editor, but I spent
the whole time trying to convince him to let me go there. I don't know
if he could tell that my blood-alcohol level was way over the legal
limit for planning trips to Afghanistan. All I needed was $1,500 to
rent a satellite telephone, and maybe $2,000 for some other stuff
because this was it, this was THE BIG STORY the war was over. And he
finally says okay and I remember looking down and there are two
So what's it like to wake up in the morning and realize that the night
before, you said you would go to Afghanistan and if you don't go this
afternoon everyone is going to think you're a pussy? Sorry to put it
so bluntly but the newspaper business is very testosterone driven, and
I had no intention of revealing my critical lack of this hormone to
the foreign desk at the FT. I had been to Afghanistan once before, in
March, and it wasn't actually that bad, and it was a great story. So I
get the money, the visas, the satphone everything by 3:30 and I'm on
the plane to Termez, which is on the Uzbek border with Afghanistan.
From the Termez airport its a 20 minute trip to the bridge over the
Oxus river to Heiraton, a former ship yard, and from there an hour to
Mazar. But it seemed that one hour before I got there, the border had
So I spent the night in Termez, and had dinner with a guy from
Medecins Sans Frontiers, and he's got his radio scanner along so that
he can keep track of what's up in Mazar, and suddenly during dinner
the scanner erupts with people shouting in French and it turns out
that Malik's guys have blocked off all the side streets of Mazar and
have begun to kill the entire Taliban garrison. Don't ask me why. The
whole thing took 15 hours, and by dawn, 500 Taliban were dead. And so
its at times like this that much soul searching takes place and its
too bad about all those dead people, but HEY this is a page leader.
So the next day, some 70-odd UN people were to be evacuated from Mazar to
Termez, where I got to interview them and put together a
sensationalized account of their ordeal. Unfortunately, with the
demise of the Taliban garrison in Mazar, there went the whole story
about the war being over.
So the next day, I'm on the phone with another desk editor who is
subbing for the first one, and tell him that I'm in Uzbekistan, and he
tells me that he thought I was going to be in Afghanistan by now, and
I explain that the border is closed and its in total chaos and the
story is no longer there, and he says "oh" but he says it in this way
that sounds to me like: "If you don't go to Tajikistan and sneak
across the border from there, you're a pussy."
Okay, so maybe I should have gotten some therapy or something about
this special complex about newspapers and testosterone, but at the
time, it was a lot easier for me to try and sneak over the Afghan
border from Tajikistan than deal with my insecurities in a rational
and constructive way.
So go to Tajikistan with some French aid workers who have been
evacuated. they are from something called Pharmeciens Sans Frontiers,
which I think means Pharmacologists without borders, I remember being
amused by this. In Dushanbe I walk into the Tajikistan Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and there's Suleiman Rashidov, the press secretary for
the foreign ministry of Tajikstan, who is legendary among the foreign
press corps of central Asia (5 people) for how corrupt he is. So I say
that I'm the correspondent for the Financial Times, I've just arrived
in Dushanbe and I need press accreditation. Let me emphasize that I
looked like a vagrant, and I had no identification with me at the
time. He says fine, that will be $300.
Press accreditation is essential to have in central Asia because no
one knows what it is. Its a card with a stamp and your picture and
some fancy writing some of which is in English, and you can use it to
convince people that you are practically anything.
Let me digress to give you an example.
In the town of Kulyab, Tajikistan, there is a secret airbase which the
Russians use to supply the Tajik Jamiat in Afghanistan, and probably
to smuggle drugs back the other way. Monica, the BBC correspondent in
Tashkent, did a special expose of this sometime in March.
Needless to say, when I arrived at the secret airbase to take
photographs of it, the security guards who accosted me were not very
happy, even after I explained that I was just a tourist. They seemed a
bit torn between their cultural imperative to be hospitable to guests
on the one hand, and the obvious need to arrest me, on the other, but
when I sensed that the mood of the group was tilting decisively to the
latter option, I produced my accreditation card, and waved it around
and said that this gave me diplomatic immunity. They looked at it and
said okay, and I went back to my hotel.
Back at the hotel, a representative from the local branch of the
ministry of interior came to pay a visit and said that I didn't have
permission to be in Kulyab, and that I would have to go. So out comes
the accreditation card. This time, not only do I have diplomatic
immunity, but the system of local travel permits (which actually
applies to diplomats) doesn't apply to me, and I can travel anywhere I
want. Martial law doesn't apply to me either. This man was obviously
censoring the media, and I am going to call the foreign ministry in
Dushanbe and lodge a complaint.
So he left and the next day, the UN hotel administrator told me that I
was being summoned by the head of the local KGB. So I went there
thinking, okay, the game's up, I'm going to be deported. But the KGB
guy actually just wanted to apologize, because of what I said about
calling Dushanbe and lodging a complaint, he wants to make sure that I
don't accuse him of trying to censor the press, which actually wasn't
what he was doing, he just wanted to make sure that I was safe. So he
gets a promise from me not to tell the foreign ministry that he is
anti-democracy, as Tajikistan is very concerned about its international
reputation, and I am on my merry way. I eventually did get photos of
the airbase which ran July 24th or 25th.
Anyway, the plan of sneaking over the border from Tajikistan into
Afghanistan turned out to be a bit optimistic, because there are
20,000 Russian border guards stationed in Tajikistan to prevent just
such an eventuality. This is what I discovered when I showed up at the
Nizhne Pyanj border checkpoint, which is a bunch of quonset huts at a
bend in the Oxus river, and across the river is this blank white
desert, which is the Kunduz province of Afghanistan. The border had
been closed for a week.
The Russian commandant, meanwhile, got a kick out of my accreditation
card, and disputed my claim that it exempted me from all laws. I had
to go back up to Dushanbe, a 6 hour drive, and get special permission
from the Russian garrison commander there.
This is a whole other story which I won't go into, but anyway, the
next day, I arrive again in Nizhne Pyanj, where the border guards set
up the border, which was very impressive, because I had to take a
tugboat across the river, and I got out and then the tugboat LEFT.
And on the other side there are four Afghans, sitting by a metal truck
container, and it turns out that they have been sent to meet me. When
I was in Dushanbe I had met with the Afghan defense attaché, who
represents Jamiat and told him that I would be coming, which was good,
because otherwise, I would have been completely stuck. We drive to
Kunduz, and I meet the governor of the province which is controlled by
Jamiat. Before the Taliban, the Jamiat had been the Islamic
fundamentalist movement of Afghanistan and so their people are
bearded, know the Koran, and are very polite. It turned out that the
governor had studied in Egypt for a bit an so had I so we chat about
that, and then he tells his account of the last week, because the
Taliban had also taken Kunduz, and then evacuated after the Mazar
garrison had all been killed, and we walk around the town a bit. He
tells me that the Taliban had actually just bribed their way into
Kunduz, and very little fighting had taken place. This article came
out the first Saturday in June, if anyone is interested.
The drive from Kunduz to Mazar was a bit tense, once it became clear
that nobody was controlling the roads. The first time I had been to
Afghanistan was in March, and had been a breeze, because the roads
between the towns were under control. This time, bands of armed men
would wave the car down and there would be a lot of animated
conversation between them and the taxi driver, who would use the word
"Khariji" a lot which means foreigner. And they would let us through.
Afghanistan, once you get out of the blank white desert which is the
first 100km in the north, is unimaginably beautiful. On the way to
Mazar is the city of Taschkurgan which is located right at the
entrance to a pass through the Hindu Kush mountains. It looks like one
of those oil paintings from the 19th century of impossibly beautiful
mountain scenery and sunlight and maidens playing by a waterfall, only
without the maidens.
On my way through Taschkurgan, my taxi was stopped by police, who told
me to go to the governor's house which is a giant 18th century fort.
It turned out that the local commander wanted to talk to me, which in
retrospect, was probably because he was bored. His name was Da'ud
Azizi, and he was Uzbek, from "Jumbesh." While the Jamiat guys are
all former Islamic fundamentalists, the Jumbesh guys are all former
Soviet-trained Afghan army people, speak Russian, wear fatigues, drink
like fish, and have the same haircut.
So we sat in the aerie of this castle and drank tea and Da'ud wanted
to talk about the realpolitik of Afghanistan, and made me promise not
to attribute any of what he said to him, which made it utterly
useless. He said Afghanistan is essentially a proxy war between
Pakistan and Iran, and that the US was orchestrating the Taliban
moves, while Saudi Arabia funds everything. I have absolutely no idea
if any of this is true, though the Taliban are indeed very well
In Mazar, unfortunately, there was no story, except that life was back
to normal in a very disconcerting way only a few days after 500 people
were slaughtered in the streets. The Mazar Hotel, the main stopover
for foreign press, had not very sentimentally tripled its rates after
an ammunition truck exploded in front of its only competitor, the
atrar hotel, during the fighting, and the UN guest house was looted.
I got to interview general Malik, who had since traded his
conservative Islamic garb for a red Versace sportcoat and Hawaiian
flower tie, which accentuated a lack-of-gravitas problem he has. I
also got to interview the Hizb-i-Wahdat commander, who helped me to
construct elaborate conspiracy theories about what had happened and
why. By the way, if any of you Saisketeers who have made it this far
happen to know anything about why, for example, the US ambassador to
Uzbekistan left his post immediately after this Taliban offensive, and
whether this was connected to a trip he made to Termez immediately
before the Taliban offensive, pls drop me a line.
The rest of the trip consisted of me and the BBC guy and the Reuters
guy, who had all wound up in Mazar as well, spent a week following
Malik's army around the north as they systematically wiped out
isolated pockets of hapless Taliban. Somewhere in there, the trip
stopped being any fun, and the newspaper was not taking any more than
300 word briefs about 'liberated" Afghan cities and corpses. When a
jeep load of soldiers stole my computer at gunpoint, I decided it was
time to head back north.
Of course, it really wasn't as simple as clicking my heels together and
saying take me back to Aunt Em.
The road back to the Tajik border through Kunduz had been taken by
Taliban after they got pushed out of this place called Pol-i-Khomri.
The Uzbek border was still closed, meanwhile. I didn't quite believe
that the Uzbek border police would refuse entry to a dehydrated, scared
to death white guy who obviously shouldn't have been on the other side
of the border in the first place.
But they did. So I tried to out via Turkmenistan, which was another
day's journey, and found that my taxi driver would not drive through
the town of Shebarghan, which is on the way, because he's from the
wrong clan. And there's no other way to get to Turkmenistan, and their
border was shut anyway.
Now here it is important to know that Uzbekistan wants to issue a
eurobond, and part of that effort includes being nice to the Financial
Times, so that they will write nice things about Uzbekistan and ignore
the fact that the place is sliding into the macro-economic toilet
because it is run by incompetent kleptomaniacs.
So the last scene of this is in the middle of the bridge between Temez
and Heiraton and I am making some extremely animated satellite phone
calls to the Foreign Ministry press office and threatening on behalf of
the entire bond market that it will be centuries before they even get a
credit rating, and waving my Uzbek press accreditation and claiming
that I am like Boutros Boutros Ghali.
Anyway, I think it will be some time before I go back there.
In the neglected spirit of this Page as a forum for opinion, a few thoughts on the
recent demise of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the resurrection of Diana, Princess of
Hearts. My opinions have been met with a range of reactions. I'm curious to see how they
compare to anything y'all might have to offer.
What is the nature of the tragedy? Certainly three deaths and two motherless sons count.
But the hysteria with which the accident was met, the frenzied attacks on the media, and
the media's dubious responses have left me feeling that there is a greater bad which
recent events have unveiled. A bad for which there is no solution.
What sparked the revolution-like fervor in Great Britain to worship her in death? I've
heard assertions that she was a force of good. Her work with charities (as opposed to
her charity work) has been frequently cited. Surely, given the relatively scant
attention paid to the passing of Mother Teresa, good works are not enough to explain
No, I think Diana was famous for being famous, and not famous for being a Samaritan. The
charity promo work was part of a beguiling deal to wed Charles, get loads of (then)
tax-free income, wear all the designer dresses you wanted and, well, become a queen.
Diana was not as self-serving as all that, however: she was sucked into it by the
institution of British royalty. By 1981 the monarchy was dying. All institutions fight
for survival, regardless of the merits of its members, and the monarchy seized on the
media as a tool. Throw a glamorous wedding with a fairy tale princess, what a brilliant
idea! Suddenly the monarchy was once again in vogue.
Diana learned the hard way that you can not control the media. You can manipulate it at
times--and she became a master of that--but you can not tame it. The royals and Di used
the media to bolster their social status and perks by turning themselves into
celebrities. In a media and information-saturated world, it was easy to culture and feed
a growing demand for glamorous photographs. The public--the same public now witlessly
inundating a cemetery with flowers and giving the nest egg to charities--grew addicted.
They didn't want just wedding shots sanctioned by the Palace. The public is like a
vampire, because it had to be fed with her life, and now its feasting on her blood.
It was hypocritical for Diana to plead for privacy whilst using the media to fight her
personal battles. It seems after she "returned" to public eye, it was for the sake of
her charities, for which she should be commended. But I suspect such a mature, if
somewhat resigned view--that she would be hounded no matter what, so why not give worthy
causes some press--came late.
This does not excuse the papparazzi. They're scum. The editors can say, Well, we just
supply a demand. That's like Oliver North saying he was just following orders. But it
takes two to tango, baby, and the monarchy invited them in.
My concern is the public reaction. People seem truly addicted to the gossip and the
photos of ephemeral figures, people who don't DO things but just ARE. Even for those of
us who try to ignore it, or at least claim to ignore it, the tidbits of the royals'
bedrooms are known and sometimes discussed. Is pop culture--television, junk food,
Disney, sports, fashion--is it a poison? Was Di killed by the information age?
Or is pop culture--or culture, period--like technology. Nuclear power can be a great
good or a horrendous evil--it depends on what humans do with it. We are responsible,
individually, for how we use pop culture, for the magazines we buy and the videos we
watch. I'm exposed: I listen to the Spice Girls while I run a treadmill in my bullshit
gym and read the gossip about XYZ in the newspaper. Sometimes I can turn it off. The
mobs weeping in front of Buckingham Palace can't. They're addicted, and maybe because
for many of them, there's no substitute. There's nothing else but the junk they consume.
And I have to wonder what that bodes for all of us, if they are in the majority.