Reporter's Notebook: Inside the Taliban

K A N D A H A R, Afghanistan, Nov. 6, 2001 -- We arrived in Kandahar, the Taliban capital in southeast Afghanistan, at night.

It was a spine-rattling ride down a single, mangled road into a city under siege. The road had no lanes or pavement. The driver had to swerve from side to side to find the smoothest path.

That night, U.S. forces dropped bombs on the outskirts of town, which shook the windows at the foreign ministry guest house, where we were staying.

By day, we discovered Kandahar is a city that is crowded, vibrant and, with its donkey carts and dirt roads, feels like it's from another age.

We sometimes had trouble taking pictures downtown — not because the Taliban guides stopped us, but because we were mobbed by the curious. It was overwhelming. It happened everywhere. Even at a gas station, they swarmed the car I was in. They wanted to touch, talk or just stare.

There always seems to be one young man who speaks broken English, with whom we have a rudimentary discussion. Often there's a lot of laughing at one another across the cultural divide.

It's not that they're not bitter about the almost daily U.S. bombing. They simply don't blame individual Americans.

Focus on Hospitality

They also strongly believe in hospitality. It's part of their religion and part of an ancient Afghan code. They will go to great lengths to accommodate and even protect their guest. But this is a double-edged sword; the Afghans cite their devotion to hospitality as the primary reason for protecting Osama bin Laden.

We were always in the company of young Taliban soldiers, who were good-natured and well-armed. Despite the menacing image they protect on TV, they came across to many of us as light-hearted young men. They talked tough when need be, but often seemed more interested in joking around with reporters.

They put us up in guest houses and fed us meals cooked by a chef who lost an arm fighting the Soviets. One soldier told us we were treated well because we were guests and we were getting their story out to the world. By "their story," they meant U.S. bombs killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan.

Hand Over Bin Laden?

But we also wanted to know what they thought about the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

While no one we spoke with condoned those terror attacks, everyone — from the man on the street (and by the way, there are almost no women on the street) — to the top brass said no to handing over bin Laden.

Mohammad Tayyab Agha, the 25-year-old spokesman and right-hand man to the Taliban supreme leader, called bin Laden a freedom fighter. "We are not ready … to hand over such a Muslim to foreigners," said Agha. "Especially to Americans, who are presently killing our innocent people."

They feel particularly grateful to bin Laden for fighting against the Soviets with them, and for providing financial aid to the freedom fighters and their widows.

Most people, however, preferred more pleasant conversation. Before we left, one Taliban soldier smiled and even said he wanted to leave with us and go to America.