[an error occurred while processing this directive]


On Assignment

On Assignment

Eyewitness Afghanistan
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

zoom in

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer’s technical notes.

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>



Click to enlarge >>

By Edward Girardet

A veteran journalist in this war-wracked nation reports on his encounters with Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the assassins of a rebel commander.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

I first met bin Laden in February 1989, during the week in which the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. He was operating in the eastern mountains with a group of volunteers, mainly Arabs with a few Afghans. The factions that had united to push out the Soviets had already trained their guns on each other in a bid to gain control of the countryside; others were trying to dislodge the communist regime that still held Kabul, despite the Soviet withdrawal. Traveling with Afghan mujahidin, I was scouting for a television documentary among the frontline positions manned by Arabs on the outskirts of Jalalabad.

A tall, bearded man, flanked by armed men, stepped up to me demanding—in good English, with a slight American accent—to know who I was and what I, a kafir (infidel), was doing in Afghanistan. For the next 45 minutes we had a heated debate about the war, religion, and foreigners. Haughty, self-righteous, and utterly sure of himself, he proceeded to lambaste the West for its feebleness and lack of moral conviction. When I pointed out that Western journalists and aid workers had been present in Afghanistan since the early days of the war, a time when no Arabs were to be seen, he spat dismissively.

Finally he announced that if I returned, he would kill me. A week later I did return, with mujahidin and a film crew, as communist troops on the other side of the ridge were pounding the position with mortar bombs.

On seeing me again as I pulled up at his trenches, the tall Arab screamed at me. The next thing I knew, Arabs and Afghans—both supposedly fighting on the same side against the communists—had raised their guns at each other. One of the Arab militants cocked his AK-47, thrusting it into the back of the cameraman. “We will kill you. We will kill you all,” he shrieked. At this point the Afghan commander I was with intervened, pleading that such anger was not good for Islam. Cautiously, we pulled back. It was several years before I learned that the tall man who threatened to kill me was Osama bin Laden.

Many of the non-Afghan Muslims, including the ones supporting bin Laden, committed atrocities against pro-communist prisoners and civilians, documented by Human Rights Watch and other similar groups, that shocked even the most battle-hardened Afghans. “You don’t slit people’s throats, you shoot them,” one Pashtun commander told me in Konar Province in 1989 after I visited a mass grave of executed prisoners. Clasped hands and other body parts, mummiŪed by the sun, still protruded from the ground. The Islamic militant Ūghters also deliberately Ūred on Western journalists and aid workers, including clearly marked vehicles of the International Red Cross, daring to operate inside their zones.

Across the border in Pakistan, Islamic groups sought to influence the more than three million Afghan refugees who had fled there during the Soviet war. (Nearly three million refugees went to Iran.) Their attention was particularly aimed at young men and boys, many of whom had spent their whole lives in refugee camps. The militants built madrasahs (Koranic schools) and mosques in the camps as their contribution to the furthering of a purist Islam. Such madrasahs provided the means to churn out young, partly educated taliban (students of religion) who had never known Afghanistan as a country and whose vision of the future was based on a perverse interpretation of the Koran mixed with anti-Western sentiment. Western aid workers, primarily women, in the frontier town of Peshawar were often assaulted by the extremists, verbally and physically.

In September Shuaib and I began our trip to Afghanistan by taking the twice-weekly UN plane from Islamabad to Feyzabad over the 25,000-foot- (7,600-meter-) high Hindu Kush range that stretches across northern and central Afghanistan. Years earlier, during the Soviet war, I had traveled secretly by foot with Shuaib across many of the precipitous mountain passes we could now see leading from Pakistan into the Afghan interior. With our gear loaded onto mules and horses, we had walked by day and by night, covering hundreds of miles.

Now, map in hand, we gazed down on some of the formidable land routes and passes—former caravan and mule trails dating back to the time of Alexander the Great—that we had trekked years earlier. For security, but also because it allowed me to meet local people more readily, I had often accompanied French medical teams, who came to work in the mountains for six to nine months at a time. Sometimes their relief caravans consisted of 150 or more horses, transporting food and medical supplies for their clinics.

On one of those trips, in 1981, I had my first encounter with a land mine. (Millions of mines still litter Afghanistan, presenting a fateful, invisible threat to fleeing refugees and to farmers trying to scratch a living in this parched land.) I was walking ahead of the medical convoy with a group of mujahidin, and we halted to let the bulk of the horses catch up. One young man strolled off to gather firewood so we could brew some tea. There was a loud explosion. My first thought was a grenade or rocket, but then I saw the young Afghan, barely 20 yards away, crawling along the ground. He had stepped on a Soviet antipersonnel mine. His mangled foot was amputated on the spot by the French doctors, and he was dispatched back to Pakistan for medical care.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Online Extra
Former resistance fighter Mohammad Shuaib journeys home to Afghanistan, a country at the edge of hope.

Eyewitness Afghanistan
VIDEO Author Edward Girardet talks about a dangerous encounter with terrorist Osama bin Laden and coming face-to-face with suicide bombers. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer   WinMedia

Online Extra
Writer Sebastian Junger and photographer Reza honor the memory of Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance.

September 11
Have the terrorist acts changed your behavior?
Yes     No

What will be the long-term consequences of the United States’ military response to the September 11 attacks? Tell us what you think.

Visit “Understanding Afghanistan: Land in Crisis” for map updates, educational resources, the latest news, and more.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Afghanistan is often described as having a rich culture, but the details of that culture are more often than not overlooked. Situated at the crossroads of Asia, Afghanistan has a long and varied history, influenced by countless different civilizations. Successive waves of invasion brought the Persians, Greeks, Kushans, Muslims, and Mongols to the region. Almost every invasion brought a new religion as well as new artistic influences. Buddhism arrived with the Kushans. Islam arrived in the seventh century via Persia. The Mongols brought traditions of China with them in the 13th century. Timur, a Turkic warrior also known as Tamerlane, conquered large parts of Afghanistan in the late 14th century and ushered in a century of relative peace and prosperity during which Afghanistan experienced a cultural renaissance—the arts flourished, particularly architecture, as the mausoleum of Gauhar Shad testifies. Merchants and travelers passing through on the Silk Road also left their mark on Afghanistan’s culture. With artifacts dating from 10,000 years ago, the Kabul Museum was home to many of Afghanistan’s cultural treasures. Painted glass from Alexandria, bronzes and coins from Rome, ivory carvings from India, and lacquer boxes from China were evidence of the many cultures that influenced Afghan society. Sadly, decades of war and strife have all but destroyed the museum and looters have emptied its vaults. A small sampling of these artifacts can be seen at

—Elizabeth Connell

Afghanistan on the World Wide Web Virtual Library
Links to material on Afghanistan’s history, culture, government and politics, current events, and even a couple of travel guides.

Afghanistan on Kiosk: Journal of Geo-Politics
Provides basic background information on the country, plus dozens of links to Afghan news and cultural organizations.

UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency
Keep up with efforts to aid refugees in Afghanistan and around the world.

Incore Conflict Data Service
This site provides current and historical information on all major on-going conflicts around the world. The material is separated into country guides that offer links to sites on a variety of issues relevant to the individual countries.


Adamec, Ludwig W. Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan, 2nd ed. Asian/Oceanian Historical Dictionaries, No. 5. The Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Magnus, Ralph H., and Eden Naby. Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, Mujahid. Westview Press, 1998.

Newby, Eric. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Hodder and Stoughton, 1958.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press, 2000.


Edwards, Mike. “The Adventures of Marco Polo, Part I,” National Geographic (May 2001), 2-31.

Junger, Sebastian. “The Lion in Winter,” National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2001), 76-86, 88, 90, 135-139.

Mackenzie, Richard. “Afghanistan’s Uneasy Peace,” National Geographic (October 1993), 58-89.

Sarianidi, Viktor Ivanovich. “The Golden Hoard of Bactria,” National Geographic (March 1990), 50-75.

Denker, Debra. “Along Afghanistan’s War-torn Frontier,” National Geographic (June 1985), 772-797.

Edwards, Mike W. “Kabul, Afghanistan’s Troubled Capital,” National Geographic (April 1985), 494-505.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. “Islam’s Heartland, Up in Arms,” National Geographic (September 1980), 334-345.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. “Afghanistan: Crossroad of Conquerors,” National Geographic (September 1968), 297-345.

Williams, Maynard Owen. “Back to Afghanistan,” National Geographic (October 1946), 517-544.

Williams, Maynard Owen. “Afghanistan Makes Haste Slowly,” National Geographic (December 1933), 731-769.

Hussein, Haji Mirza (Oscar Von Niedermeyer) and Simpich, Frederick. “Every-Day Life in Afghanistan,” National Geographic (January 1921), 85-110.

Huntington, Ellsworth. “The Afghan Borderland, Part I: The Russian Frontier,” National Geographic (September 1909), 788-799.

Huntington, Ellsworth. “The Afghan Borderland. Part II: The Persian Frontier,” National Geographic (October 1909), 866-876.


© 2001 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE HOME Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe