If there is one place on earth where the news of the attacks in America was greeted with total enthusiasm it was among the 300 Taliban prisoners of war held in a jail in the depths of the Panjshir Valley.
“To my mind what happened in New York and Washington was very good work,” said Ali Akbar, an intense-looking man in his mid-20s with a black beard and a white skullcap, who joined the Taliban and was captured in fighting at the mouth of the Panjshir two years ago. “I believe all the enemies of Islam are thirsting to destroy Islam. It is the right of Muslims to defend themselves,” he said.
Ali Akbar, formerly a timber merchant in Pakistan, was sitting in a large cell crowded with some 50 Taliban prisoners in Barak prison. Aside from himself he said the other prisoners in the room were Afghans and all “were glad and happy” about the attacks. They had heard about them from guards because they were forbidden to have radios or newspapers.
Barak Prison is a strange and rather sinister place. Other parts of the Panjshir are beautiful with green fields and water meadows. At Barak, however, nothing grows and the sides of the valley are broken shale and grey rock. But the entrance to Barak prison must be unique among penitentiaries of the world. The only access is over a bridge across the fast-flowing Panjshir river. But the prison authorities, presumably as a security measure, have removed part of the corrugated metal, which is the surface of the bridge. This meant that we had to clamber for some yards hand over hand along the metal struts 20 feet above the torrents below.
Any interviews with the inmates, while the prison authorities are present, must carry a health warning for the reader. We were invited by the foreign ministry of the Northern Alliance, the opposition grouping that controls the Panjshir. We would not have got in without their permission. Obviously prisoners may be under pressure from the prison authorities to say or not say various things and are vulnerable to punishment if they do not comply. In this case there was no sign of the prisoners being intimidated. When I asked Ali Akbar if he and the others had been threatened he said: “We are not frightened of anybody. Our views come from the heart.” Probably the reason for the officially arranged visit was that the Northern Alliance wants the world to hear members of the Taliban endorse the attacks on America and express support for Osama bin Laden. They may also have wanted to show that the 19 Pakistanis among the prisoners play a leadership role.
The Pakistanis did seem to be the most ideologically committed and best educated. In the prison yard we met Salahudin Khalid, a cheerful man with thick pebble glasses who smiled easily. He said he was born in Baluchistan 27 years ago and had joined the Taliban through a Pakistani religious party called Harrakatul Mujahedin after studying Islamic law at the Punjab University in Lahore. He led a unit of 34 Taliban, which was surrounded by National Alliance forces in a battle in 1996.
He freely endorsed what Ali Akbar had said about the attacks in the US. “What they did against the World Trade Centre was very good,” he said. We asked about the dead civilians. He replied: “They were political persons. They were not boys or girls.” In fairness, with limited information from the outside world Salahudin Khalid probably knows little about the 6,000 dead in New York. But he gave the impression that, even if he knew every detail of the victims, his opinions would not have been much different.
The prison authorities at Barask do not differ much from those in other parts of the world. Amin Akrami, the commander of the prison, was wearing a military uniform and under it a T-shirt reading “Venice Beach California”. He said smoothly: “Every journalist that comes here says it is not like a prison but a holiday camp.”
More practically, he added that escape was very difficult because the Taliban prisoners only spoke Pushtu or Urdu and not the Dari language, akin to Persian, spoken in the Panjshir.
The Taliban prisoners were impressive in their commitment. They also seemed very tough. We asked Ali Akbar what would happen if America attacked Afghanistan.
He said: “Twenty years ago, the Russians came here. You know what happened. If America attacks I hope they and their opinions will be destroyed.” We said he was hardly in a position to fight. He replied: “Maybe I cannot fight but I can pray.” CP