The suicide bomber and me
A trip to Afghanistan to report on the destruction of the opium crop almost resulted in death
This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The most fateful week of my life began with my arrival in Kabul. It was April 2008 and my first time back in Afghanistan since 1963 when, as a teenager, I spent a month traversing the country from Herat to Kandahar and Kabul. Then, the ruggedly beautiful country was at peace under the rule of a modernising king. Now, merely walking down any street carried the risk of being blown up by a Taliban suicide bomber.
As the jet from New Delhi came in to land, I spied from the window the lofty Hindu Kush snow mountains looming over the ancient city of Kabul. At ground level I found the old section of the city looked much the same as I saw it in 1963, dense huddles of mud huts scaling the foothills of the high mountains. But where the streets were then clogged with camels, donkeys and pony drawn buggies, now cars, jeeps, military Humvees and black limousines with blacked out windows honked horns in traffic jams. And where there were friendly tribesmen and city dwellers, there were now suicide bombers who struck without warning leaving human bodies mangled, vehicles in flames and buildings flattened.
The Afghan badlands was also a vital bolthole for thousands of Taliban fighters
Concrete barriers and bundles of razor wire lined many of the streets, and there was a creepy sense of extreme tension in the air. I got the firm feeling that you did not tarry in Kabul, but went about your business as swiftly as possible and then returned to what you hoped was the safety of your home or office.
The contrast between peaceful Afghanistan in 1963 and the hell that it became could not have been greater. Besides being one of the world’s most hazardous countries, where peril lurked around every corner, it had become the world capital of heroin production with its opium forming the base of most of the global supply. In Afghanistan, opium production had soared to a record high. Much of it was grown where I was headed, the lawless tribal territory that nudged the border with Pakistan. My primary objective was to investigate poppy cultivation there, and the efforts of the notorious warlord, Gul Agha Sherzai, to stamp it out. The Afghan badlands, populated mostly by fundamentalist Islamic Pashtun, was also a vital bolthole for thousands of Taliban fighters.
Before heading east to Jalalabad to meet Sherzai, I stayed the night in Kabul with a friend of a friend, a big, bluff Afghan named Tariq. He was the very image of a Hollywood style ruthless Tartar warlord with his shaven bullhead, dark bulging eyes, thick neck and a solid paunch. His AK 47 assault rifle was never far from his grip. “Let me drive you to Jalalabad,” he offered. “The road to there is one of the world’s most dangerous, there are Taliban all the way along it, and it’s better you come with me. No one messes with Tariq.”
The next morning we loaded our bags into Tariq’s SUV along with food and water. “It’s best we don’t stop along the way,” he explained. He pushed a pistol into his belt and handed me his AK 47. “You’d better hold it.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know how to use it. I’d probably end up shooting you or myself if there was trouble.” He laughed. “No problem. Keep it between your knees at all times so people outside the car can see the barrel. That will deter anyone from attacking us. We’re going through dangerous villages where there are Taliban and also kidnappers. The most dangerous place is Surobi. The Taliban mostly use white Toyota Corollas, so keep a watch out. And don’t pull the trigger unless we’re attacked. It’s loaded.”
Before we left, Tariq warned that a bridge on the new highway had collapsed and we would have to take the old road, the same one I travelled on five decades before as a teenager. With me uncomfortably cradling the rifle between my legs, we headed east.
Not far from Tariq’s home, we drove along a street lined with garish three storey narcotecture, the heroin barons’ mansions. Puce pink, banana yellow and tomato red, they were marred by badly designed jumbles of arches, balconies and columns, with few windows.
Within minutes we were in the Afghanistan of many centuries ago, the narrow twisting rocky road taking us high into the hills past mud fortresses and roadside stalls. There, butchers carved the dinner’s meat from the bloodied sides of headless cows hanging by hooks in front of their hole in the wall shops.
As we neared the most dangerous village, Tariq and I tensed, wary of a Taliban attack. He pointed to a settlement ahead whose many mud huts dribbled along each side of the road. “Surobi,” he said gravely. The road merged with a small marketplace bustling with people. “The Taliban have spies all along the road from Kabul, and they could have phoned ahead to say a foreigner was on the way and described our car. If so, they could easily ambush us. Remember, the Taliban usually use white Corollas.”
That was what happened to a carload of foreign journalists in November 2001 as they drove through Surobi. Taliban fighters ambushed the car, and then forced the four journalists out of it and shot them dead. A few years later, Taliban guerrillas at Surobi ambushed a French Foreign Legion patrol, among the best soldiers in the world, and killed ten of them.
I peered from side to side looking for any suspicious men as Tariq drove through the small town. Scrawled on the sides of huts was a message that landmine crews had cleared the pathways and fields. Suddenly a white Toyota Corolla packed with bearded men pulled across our path blocking our way. “Bloody hell,” I yelled. “Taliban.”
It happened too quickly for me to be scared. Tariq jumped out and strode across to the Toyota. He banged on the windscreen, yanked out his pistol and fired a shot in the air. The panic stricken look on the driver’s face was proof to Tariq that he was neither a kidnapper nor a Taliban. “You can’t be too careful,” Tariq told me as he thrust the pistol back into his waistband and drove off.
Jalalabad’s streets, as in Kabul, were thronged with men and boys, but here there was also the occasional woman clad in a chadri, the pale blue garment that covered her from the top of her head to her feet. A mesh across the eyes allowed them to see a spotted, blurred vision of the world in front of them. The women looked eerie, like shadowy ghosts silently moving along the streets with no hint of intent.
Joining me was photojournalist Steve Dupont. Like me, he was from Sydney and fascinated and intrigued by Afghanistan. He had shot many assignments there for Time and other major magazines, ranging from perilous patrols in Taliban territory with US Special Forces to grimy heroin addict dens in Kabul.
In Jalalabad, Sherzai, the provincial governor, had arranged for us to accompany his highly effective opium field destruction operations up in the Pashtun badlands near the Pakistan border. The governor’s palace, once the Afghan king’s winter residence, was a short walk from our hotel.
Time called him Afghanistan’s Jabba The Hutt for his roly poly bulk and extreme brutality
As Steve and I walked through Governor Sherzai’s palace gates, I remembered what American lawyer Alvin Fisher, with much experience in the country, said about him: “To be an effective leader in Afghanistan … you had to have been involved in the commission of atrocities, the accumulation of enormous wealth.” Where did that wealth come from? Fisher replied: “In Afghanistan? Either monopoly sets … or opium.”
Sherzai lived at the palace with his three wives and 18 children. He was known as “the warlord of warlords”, and he looked the part. Built like a prize bull, he had a tough face framed by a closely cut black beard. He wore the traditional knee length shirt pulled outside his loose pants and a black open waistcoat over his impressive paunch. Time called him Afghanistan’s Jabba The Hutt for his roly poly bulk, extreme brutality and uncompromising look of a merciless warrior.
Later, at the State Department in Washington, a high level official told me Sherzai had secreted more than 300 million dollars in Dubai banks. It was his rake off from the sale of opium and heroin while he lorded it over his hometown, Kandahar, as governor. “He’s got so much money that he can now afford to help us attack the heroin trade in Afghanistan,” the official told me.
Sherzai told us how he would rule if he were President. “I’d arrange loya jirga (grand councils) all over the country and sit down with the elders to work out a strategy to bring our people together to end this long war. I’d even invite Taliban leaders. Much separates us, but there is much that unites us. It’s up to we Afghans, and most of us yearn to see the foreigners go home. Many foreign armies have invaded our country, but none have defeated us.”
“What about the Persians, Alexander, the Mongols and the Mughals?” I asked. “They all defeated your people and ruled for a time.”
“True, but in the end we defeated them because they all went home and we’re still here. In time, the Americans and the other foreign troops will go home and never return, and then we Afghans will settle it among ourselves. In that way we defeat all the foreigners.”
Good and Evil. Angel and Devil. The complex behaviour of an Afghan warlord whose ethics changed by the day and by the situation. While swelling his already bulging Dubai bank accounts with millions more dollars in corrupt payouts in his province, Sherzai had largely crushed the opium growing industry in his province. “I’ve arranged for you to accompany the next opium destruction mission so you can see for yourself how I’ve almost wiped out opium growing in Nangarhar,” Sherzai told us.
“The Americans told me you were extremely brutal in crushing the Taliban,” I proffered. Sherzai glared at me. “What would you expect me to do? Invite them to a party and give them ice cream? I showed the Taliban I was much stronger than they were, and if they resisted me then they’d either die in battle or in jail. I’ve even fought them face to face, with my Kalashnikov.”
He smiled grimly. “I challenged Mullah Omar (then the Taliban supreme leader) to a knife fight, Afghan style. Just me and him. He was too scared to face me.”
The next day Sherzai sent a police pickup to the hotel to take us on the mission. Just after 8am our heavily armed convoy formed up in the street outside the governor’s palace. There were a dozen police Ford Ranger pickups, each with a heavy machine gun mounted on the back. On board were 60 police commandos armed with machine guns, assault rifles and curved daggers strapped to their chests. For some, these were their last hours alive.
We headed out on the road back towards Kabul, but turned off after 30 minutes onto a dirt road that took us deep into the countryside. The opium fields were in mountain villages nudging Waziristan, the lawless tribal border area in Pakistan.
It was one of the world’s most dangerous spots and bristling with heavily armed Taliban warriors and suicide bombers. The crews in the pickups kept in close contact with each other by walkie talkie, the commandos in the back holding their rifles, eagle eyed for any ambush. We passed through a landscape of bare, rugged hills dotted here and there with villages that hugged the road, and the ubiquitous clan mud compounds protected by high walled forts with watchtowers.
Khogyani was no different from the many other small towns I had seen in Afghanistan in 1963: a narrow pot holed dirt road lined on both sides with hole in the wall shops. The street was thronged with men, but not a single woman. Outside a small US base in the middle of town, a pair of American soldiers stood guard clad in camouflage uniforms and holding assault rifles.
A boom gate barred the entrance to a police station on the far side of town. It swung open and the drivers parked the pickups in front of the base’s solitary building, whitewashed and one storey. We were making a brief stop because the district’s deputy governor, who was with us in the convoy, had summoned about 60 local tribal chiefs to give a pep talk urging them to be vigilant in preventing their villagers from growing opium.
As usual, they were middle aged and elderly bearded men clad in knee hugging white shirts and turbans. This was democracy Afghanistan style. “Every village has its chief and he makes all the major decisions with the jirga,” Steve told me. “The allies might want Western style democracy for Afghanistan, and there might be national elections, but these are the men who really run the country. They tell the people under their control who to vote for. That’s why Sherzai needs their cooperation if he’s to wipe out all the opium in the province.”
The meeting was held inside the building, and so Steve and I looked around. The base had several bunkers surrounded on three sides by sandbags piled on top of each other, about six feet high. One bunker faced the road while the others faced the surrounding hills.
Blood poured down the back of my head. I touched it expecting to feel solid skull and instead found mush
To escape the blazing sun, Steve and I got back in our pickup and sat in the rear seat waiting for the convoy to head out for the opium fields. That simple decision saved my life.
I was sitting on the right side of the vehicle with the window down. Standing by it were two Afghan policemen. I noticed a young boy walking towards us carrying a bundle of newspapers. He glared at me, his eyes burning with hatred. Suddenly there was a very loud clanging explosion. Something slammed into my head. The impact stunned me. I peered out the window and saw many bodies torn apart, some piled on each other. A leg lay by itself on the bloodstained ground.
Blood poured down the back of my head. I touched it expecting to feel solid skull and instead found mush. I’ve been shot in the back of the head, I thought. My mind began to swim away and my body slumped over onto the seat. I shook myself awake and struggled to sit upright. Remembering scenes from a dozen Hollywood movies, I kept murmuring to myself to remain alert because if I fell sleep I would never wake up.
A suicide bomber had attacked the police base and 20 policemen and commandos were instantly killed by the shrapnel. Another 35 were wounded. I was about five paces from where the assassin detonated the bomb.
I learned later that the two policemen chatting by the pickup door next to me lay dead, their bodies torn apart. The killer who blew himself to bits was the 12 year old boy, who was pretending to sell newspapers. The Afghan guards at the entrance must have neglected to frisk him, or perhaps were bribed.
Later that day, Steve described the suicide attack in his diary:
I heard a loud bang and then felt this huge pressure come through the car we were in. It was like a suffocating blanket of heat and pressure inside the cabin, and the car lifted. Then everything went black and silent. My head was throbbing and my ears ringing.
I was far more seriously wounded and felt none of the chaos around the car. I did not feel the car lift and bang back on the ground or the wave of heat that slammed into us. I heard none of the wounded screaming or their frantic calls for help. I did not hear the rifle fire Taliban fighters from somewhere outside the base were pouring into the police compound. My sight slipped away, and I was in my own darkened world with no sound, like a blind mute.
I had a comforting feeling of calm with no sense of danger or panic. It must have been because I was heavily stunned as I was surrounded at close range by the horrific sights and sounds of a bloody massacre.
Steve went on in his diary:
I began to take pictures of the chaos and the police under fire taking cover. I looked back for the first time to the car I had been sitting in at the time of the explosion. I saw many bodies strewn around the car. There was one large pile of bodies about five metres away from where I’d been sitting. I saw mangled bodies, people shredded like mincemeat, their clothes ripped away from their bodies, body parts all around me. I saw one leg severed at the knee, and another leg by the police boom gate. There was a man with his head blown apart, and he was actually holding what looked like his entire brain intact. Streams of blood flowed in every direction making patterns in the dirt. I saw one young boy, his body face up in the dirt, but there was nothing really there, it appeared only to be skin still holding a face intact.
I was alone in the car, too stunned to call for help. I had been hit in the back of the head but felt no pain there — the brain is insensate — though a fierce burning flared in my right elbow, which had been hit by shrapnel. Amid the chaos no one came to my aid. Steve noticed I was soaked in my own blood and described two of the holes in the back of my head as the size of golf balls, entry points where the shrapnel had crashed through my skull and into my brain.
In the bombed car, I drifted in and out of consciousness but remained blind. Half an hour after the blast someone must have looked inside and seen that I was seriously wounded. The person got me into another car and drove at high speed to Jalalabad. During the hour long drive I was unconscious.
Someone shook my shoulder. “Can you hear me?” an Afghan male’s voice said in English. I looked up but saw only blackness. My hearing was back, thank God I thought, but I was still blind. “You’re at Jalalabad hospital. I’m a doctor. You were almost killed in a Taliban suicide bombing. We’re arranging for the Americans to evacuate you by air to Bagram.”
I felt no panic at this dreadful news, no worry that I still could not see. The brain must somehow protect itself in such a situation, keeping me calm, preventing me from struggling or panicking. I seemed to be laid out on a bed with no mattress.
A few minutes later fingers crawled over my body removing my bloodied shirt and pants and then my expensive watch, sunglasses, hiking boots and silver bracelet. I tried to cry out but though my lips moved no sound emerged from my mouth. I never saw my belongings again.
The Afghan doctor returned. “Governor Sherzai has come to see you.” I tried to sit up, but could not move even a finger. I still could not see, but I could hear. Sherzai praised me as a brave warrior and promised revenge. He kissed my cheeks, presumably cleaned of my blood, and then I blacked out again.
Sherzai later told my friend, Mark Corcoran, an Australian TV foreign correspondent, that he was so enraged by my injuries that he sent his spies to find out which Taliban unit was responsible. A few days after the bombing, he led a revenge attack by Afghan commandos on the unit. Sherzai had his assault rifle and told Mark that he and his men killed 45 Taliban fighters. When Mark told me this I murmured, “Live by the Kalashnikov. Die by the Kalashnikov.”
I have no more memory of the Jalalabad hospital and was unconscious when taken by military ambulance to the US base at the airstrip there. Steve had caught up with me by taking a US chopper from the small town’s base to the airstrip. He took a photo of me on a wheeled stretcher, alone in a small holding room, in what looked like a body bag that fully covered me.
Sometime later, I was shaken awake by vibration. I was still blind. An unseen American male told me I had been seriously wounded by the Taliban. A military medevac helicopter was taking me to the hospital at the giant US Bagram air base near Kabul. A second Black Hawk chopper was flying close behind, riding shotgun in case we came under attack from Stinger missiles by Taliban on the ground. An American surgeon later told me that three pieces of shrapnel had blasted into my brain and were still there. Seven more had torn into my shoulder and chest. One piece shot across my body and was lodged near my heart.
Laid out on the floor of the chopper in the body bag, I began to drift back into a coma and braced for scenes of my life to flash before my eyes, a last parade, the clichéd final moments before death. None came and just before blacking out again I smiled. This, I thought, was surely was a sign that I was not going to die.
I came out of the coma the morning after the suicide bombing, in a bed in the US military hospital at Bagram. A kindly American nurse said I was in an intensive care ward. I felt the back of my head to see if it was still there. “It’s OK, the doctor stitched it up,” she said. “Thank God, otherwise my brains could’ve spilled out,” I joked. She politely smiled at my feeble attempt at humour.
A surgeon told me he had sewn up the back of my head, together with the seven holes in my chest and both arms where more shrapnel cut into my body. “It’s better we leave all the shrapnel in you because it’d cause much more damage to cut them out, especially those in the brain,” he added.
I was on double the usual daily dose of Dilantin, a drug I would take for the next six months and nicknamed “the zombie pill”
He remarked that I was so badly wounded that he planned to put me the following day on the daily medical evacuation flight to a US military hospital at Landstuhl in Germany. This is where the most serious battle wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan were taken. I was so deep into the land of the fairies that the prospect of a holiday in Germany delighted me. I was still floating in space the following day when the doctor disappointed me by stating that I was progressing better than expected, and would not need to go to Germany.
The days drifted by in an eerie twilight world. I was mostly asleep or dazed from the drugs they gave me several times daily. Then, on the fifth day, a nurse handed me a fresh set of my own clothes and said I was being discharged within an hour. An Australian military policeman based in Jalalabad had packed the bags in my hotel room and brought them to me in Bagram.
I felt no joy at my release, just a disconnected acceptance of what was happening. No panic, no fear, no anger, no happiness, no unhappiness, no anything. There was a good reason. Among the drugs I was given at Bagram, the neurosurgeon had me on double the usual daily dose of Dilantin, a drug I would take for the next six months and nicknamed “the zombie pill”.
A car took me to the bungalow of a company that arranged the medical evacuation of wounded Australians from Afghanistan. An Australian medic would take me all the way home to Sydney. At Kabul airport, the car drove onto the tarmac at planeside where the Australian Ambassador was waiting to have his photo taken with me. I was more impressed by not having to go through customs and immigration.
My daughter later told me that for some weeks after I returned home to Sydney, I was like a shell of my normal self. It took me a full year to recover as my brain patiently rewired much of the damaged and destroyed neural pathways in what is known as neuroplasticity. It was routine to neurologists, but to me, my gradual recovery seemed like a slowly unfolding miracle.
On 22 August, seven days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, news agencies reported that Gul Agha Sherzai had “pledged his support to the Taliban”. A video clip showed Sherzai with unnamed Taliban leaders. Then he disappeared.
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