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A first-person view of the Afghan collapse

October 07, 2011

In this November 20, 2001 file photo, Mohammed Sulemon stands with his wife Rona and their daughter Kanite in front of their home in Kabul which was bombed in the US attacks. The family, which moved to a room in the back of the damaged house, says the bomb was intended for a Taliban military target near their home. No one was injured in this bombing. — Photo by AP

KABUL: When I look back, the warning signs of chaos to come were there right from the start.

Two weeks into the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, I was the only Western journalist allowed into Kabul by the Taliban. I hunkered down in the basement while planes roared overheard, ever closer, shaking the whole house. Outside, tanks and trucks piled high with black-turbaned Taliban or Arab soldiers rumbled down the dark streets.

The US had been reassured by its allies, known as the Northern Alliance, that their heavily armed ethnic militias would not storm Kabul when the Taliban left. So I called Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a powerful Afghan warlord, to ask where his men would go instead.

He laughed at the naïveté of the Americans. ''We will all be there,'' he said. ''No one can keep us out.''

And indeed, within hours after the Taliban left, Kabul was swarming with militia.

They took over houses, rampaged through the streets looking for Taliban and killed a few stragglers, throwing their bodies into a park.

It was the beginning of a pattern of deception and misunderstanding that plagued Operation Enduring Freedom, which has endured longer than virtually anyone in the US had feared.

In its eagerness to oust the Taliban and get out of Afghanistan fast, the US turned for help to the ethnic militias who had long jockeyed for power in Afghanistan. Once unleashed, the warlords stoked ethnic fighting, corruption and lawlessness, while the US turned away. By the time the US and its Nato allies looked back, it was too late.

''There was never any long-term strategy for Afghanistan,'' said Seema Samar, chairman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Association, who was stripped of an earlier job as women's affairs minister after criticising the warlords' dominance in government in 2002.

''Because of the quick collapse of the Taliban, the international community was so full of themselves, their success story. They went to Iraq and handed it (Afghanistan) over to a bunch of warlords.''

The US argues that it had few choices at the time, because only the Northern Alliance was fighting the Taliban.

''When state institutions are weak, you should not go out of your way to alienate forces that are willing to cooperate. You don't need more enemies,'' said Zalmay Khalilzad, President George W. Bush's representative in Kabul following the collapse of the Taliban.

''The US also backed a political shift power from those who had guns to those who could attract votes.''

But what happened shouldn't have surprised anyone.

The ethnic militias last ruled Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996. During that time, they killed 50,000 people, mostly civilians, and laid to waste vast swaths of the capital, Kabul. I remember one day counting 100 incoming and outgoing rockets — all within two minutes.

The streets of the capital were divvied up among various leaders. The whole country was carved into fiefdoms controlled by warlords. In a report called ''Blood Stained Hand,'' Human Rights Watch called the warlords ''the world's most serious human rights offenders.''

About 25,000 people were killed just from January through June 1994, according to estimates from Afghan and international human rights groups.

I remember Sayyaf and his men all too well. One day in 1993, after a particularly brutal bout of shelling in the Afghan capital, I went to an area Sayyaf's men had just left.

An old man grabbed my sleeve and threw down a shawl full of bloodied hair on my feet. Then he dragged me into a foul-smelling room to show me the bodies of five women Sayyaf's men had raped and scalped because they were of a different ethnicity, the Hazaras.

It was their hair that lay on my feet.

In its 1995 report on terrorism, the US listed Sayyaf, not Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, as a terrorist threat. It was Sayyaf and Hajji Qadir, a minister in President Hamid Karzai's first government, who welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996. I heard accounts of the visit from Afghans who drove bin Laden from the airport and attended a lunch in his honour.

Yet after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the US still joined forces with Sayyaf and other militants in the Northern Alliance. Within two months, they had routed the Taliban.

The Northern Alliance signed an international accord stating that the militias would leave Kabul before the international soldiers came. It meant nothing. Thousands of armed militiamen were still in Kabul when 5,000 soldiers from the newly formed International Security Assistance Force arrived in December.

The warlords deny the allegations of corruption and wholesale violence. They insist that they deserve a place of honour as mujahedeen, or holy soldiers, because they freed Afghanistan from the decade-long Soviet occupation in 1989.

Kathy Gannon is the special Associated Press regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She has covered Afghanistan for two decades.