Camp Taliban: The Strange Last Days of the Mullahs

November 20, 2001

It was, I suppose, just a matter of time until the Taliban imported a media circus.

About nine days ago the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was his regime’s principal spokesman to the outside world, was instructed by Islamabad to cease his well-attended, anti-American press conferences, held in the yard of his embassy. Losing not only the ground war but the public relations war, the Taliban’s leaders are fighting back on at least the latter front, which is why I now find myself camping out among more than 100 reporters who were just granted, almost overnight, an honor that, for now, may be more sought-after in the world of journalism than a Pulitzer Prize–a visa to enter the decreasing portion of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that is controlled by the men in black turbans.

For the moment we have been allowed no further than Spin Boldak, a surprisingly bustling town that is about five miles from the Pakistani border and 60 miles from Kandahar, the Taliban spiritual homeland that could soon pass into anti-Taliban hands. There are no proper hotels in Spin Boldak, or, I suppose, improper ones, so the authorities have herded the pack into a brick-walled compound run by the Foreign Ministry. It has a small, single-story building with a few offices, plus an unfinished brick building and a yard and lots of dust. It is upon this unpromising earth that Camp Taliban has come to life.

The best plots have been taken by CNN and the BBC, because they arrived yesterday, a day ahead of everyone else, thanks to their connections. CNN has the best setup, attracting admiring remarks even from a BBC correspondent, who nodded toward his rival’s yellow-and-white walk-in tent, which has enough electronic gear and workspace to run a spaceshot, and said, “My God, those people have an Internet cafe.” The BBC are no slouches, though–their corner of the yard looks like an Everest base camp, with pods of spiffy tents circled around shiny new cooking gear. The Beeb will not go hungry tonight.

Everyone else lives more humbly, some in tents, many sleeping under the stars. It’s quite crowded; you can’t take more than a few steps without tripping over a working or napping journalist, or a satellite dish, or Taliban soldier. They are a friendly lot, the Taliban, at least for now; they pose for pictures with their weapons when asked, and they lend a hand if you’re having trouble starting up your generator, and they gawk like kids at your telecommunications gizmos.

They want to please. When it emerged that my tent was being pitched in their prayer area, the Talibs quickly agreed to pray elsewhere. We’re quite a show, and I mean that literally, because scores of youths hang over the wall staring at us, and some are perched in nearby trees for unobstructed vantage points, like Afghan owls.

The circus exists for a purpose, though–to spread the views of a regime that refuses to go gently into the Central Asian night. This became clear when I interviewed a Taliban official in the compound. We went through the usual questions and answers about the declining health of his regime–he insisted that reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated–and I asked about the calendar on his wall. The calendar featured a colorful picture of the giant Buddha at Bamian being blown up. “We can’t make an image of God with our own hands,” he explained. “So we destroyed it. This is the order of Allah.” The caption over the picture declared, “This is an historic picture.”

And you need only walk a few hundred yards from Camp Taliban to realize, if you need a reminder, that the circus in Spin Boldak is a small sideshow. Spread over the desert plain, and whipped by sandstorms that occasionally yield small twisters of dust, is a sprawling refugee camp that grows every day, like an animal that feeds on desperation. The refugees–who have fled the American-led bombing campaign–live in pitiful conditions, with little water, few toilets, miserable food, and paltry help from the Taliban regime or the international community. Local officials aren’t sure of the number of refugees at this camp, which is so new it does not have a name; there appear to be tens of thousands, living in makeshift tents as far as the eye can see on the desert horizon.

Taliban officials quickly arranged a visit to the camp today and let us loose; we were quite free to talk with whom we wanted, about what we wanted. The stories were tragically similar–innocent people forced to flee their homes because of bombs being dropped in a war they did not wish for. The dissemination of this message would appear to be one of the reasons the Taliban invited us into their tottering realm. There was supposed to be a press conference today by a senior official from Kandahar, but that didn’t materialize. Nobody minded, because the Talibs might ask us to clear out once the press conference is held, and we would like to stay as long as possible. Camp Taliban and the country around it are intriguing and unique entities, and our visas are good for a week. They might outlive the Taliban.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.