photograph by James Hill
From Chapter 3 -- The Dave Story, concerning the events at the prison fortress of Qala Jangi, in Afghanistan
What happened at Qala Jangi became clear only by degrees. One report had it that the prisoners had revolted in the course of being interviewed by a Western journalist. Another report said a C.I.A. officer had been killed. The ensuing slaughter, at least, was abundantly clear. It was the worst incident yet in this odd war. Journalists were there for much of it, including Carlotta Gall of the Times, mainly because the 19th century fortress also housed the headquarters of General Rashid Dostum, the lord of this part of Afghanistan, and, along one of the fortress’s huge walls, there was a military airport where American and British Special Forces were stationed. For a time, at Qala Jangi, the reporting of the war became much more intimate, more real, than shaky green pantomimes and earnest stand-ups.
By mid-week we learned that C.I.A. officer Johnny Micheal “Mike” Spann, 32, had been killed as the uprising began. George Tenet, director of central intelligence, called Spann “an American hero.” On TV we met his wife, saw the town he was from. His dad, in Winfield, Ala., told reporters, “When he decided to leave the military service to work for the C.I.A., he told me he did so because he felt that he would be able to make the world a better place for us to live. We recall him saying, ‘Someone has got to do the things no one else wants to do.’ That’s exactly what he was doing in Afghanistan.”
Dexter Filkins interviewed survivors of the uprising while James Hill took portraits of them. “The holy war of Fahad Nasir ends here,” Filkins wrote from Mazar-i-Sharif, “in a filthy corner of a lonely room with a bullet in his arm….
“When the prison where he was taken exploded in riot, Mr. Nasir leaped its walls and raced through the streets of this city’s main bazaar.
“‘Home,’ he said to himself as he weaved through the stalls in a panic. ‘I want to go home.’
“But his smooth Arab skin betrayed him. A gunshot pierced his right arm.
“Today, Mr. Nasir lies on the floor of an abandoned home, wrapped in a dirty blanket, with an infection gnawing his limb and Northern Alliance guards debating his future. He has come a long way from his working-class home in Riyadh, and the pep talk from Osama bin Laden a few months before offers little succor now.
“‘Can I ask anything of you?’ Mr. Nasir inquires of a visitor. ‘Before they kill me, will you please contact my parents?’”
Filkins described the young men he met as seeming “less diabolical than deluded, ignorant men on a fool’s journey that has landed them in a cell. Many of the men say they heeded the call of aged mullahs who told them to wage a holy war, and the men set off with little sense of where they were going or what their war was about.”
Only in the next week did we learn how the uprising really began. Spann, it turned out, had been interrogating an American Taliban among the ex-defenders of Kunduz. It was almost, at this point, unsurprising. Why not have Americans on both sides? These sorts of doublings were becoming more and more common, as the Special Forces guys grew their beards and looked increasingly like vaguely mercenary thugs—or like Northern Alliance gunmen. Now into the story walked John Walker Lindh, the young idealist from Marin County, California, who wanted to find something to believe in. He was known as Abdul Hamid among his fellow Taliban (though back in Marin he’d asked people to call him Suleiman). Between Spann and Walker and Fahad Nasir and I suppose hundreds of others, there had been quite a concentration of idealists killing each other in the Qala Jangi fortress.
Newsweek got the story first. They had the videotape of Spann interrogating Walker. It had been, the Newsweek text read, “a bright Sunday morning.”
“Dozens of prisoners have been taken out of the prison and placed outside, near the center of the compound. Waiting for them are the Americans, Johnny “Mike” Spann, and another CIA agent known only as Dave….Walker had apparently been pointed out to Spann as a Westerner, or someone who spoke English.
Spann (to Walker): Hey you. Right here with your head down. Look at me. I know you speak English. Look at me. Where did you get the British military sweater?
Spann walks away. Shortly thereafter, Walker is approached by Northern Alliance soldiers, who seem to be tightening the ropes tying his elbows behind his back. A Northern Alliance officer gives him a light kick in the stomach….
Walker was brought to a blanket on the bare earth of the courtyard.
Spann squats down on the edge of the blanket, facing Walker.
Spann: Where are you from? Where are you from? You believe in what you’re doing here that much, you’re willing to be killed here? How were you recruited to come here? Who brought you here? Hey! [He snaps his fingers in front of Walker’s face. Walker is unresponsive.]
Spann: Who brought you here? Wake up! Who brought you here to Afghanistan? How did you get here?
Spann: What, are you puzzled?
Spann kneels on the blanket and takes aim with a digital camera.
Spann: Put your head up. Don’t make me have to get them to hold your head up. Push your hair back. Push your hair back so I can see your face.
An Afghan soldier pulls Walker’s hair back, and holds his head up for the picture.
Spann: You got to talk to me. All I want to do is talk to you and find out what your story is. I know you speak English.
Dave walks up. Spann and Dave speak to one another.
Spann [to Dave]: Yeah, he won’t talk to me.
Dave: Ok, all right. We explained what the deal is to him.
Spann: I was explaining to the guy we just want to talk to him, find out what his story is.
Spann and Dave speak, inaudible.
Dave [to Spann]: The problem is, he’s got to decide if he wants to live or die and die here. We’re just going to leave him, and he’s going to fucking sit in prison the rest of his fucking short life. It’s his decision, man. We can only help the guys who want to talk to us. We can only get the Red Cross to help so many guys.
Spann [to Walker]: Do you know the people here you’re working with are terrorists and killed other Muslims? There were several hundred Muslims killed in the bombing in New York City. Is that what the Koran teaches? I don’t think so. Are you going to talk to us?
Walker does not respond.
Dave [to Spann]: That’s all right man. Gotta give him a chance, he got his chance.
Walker was helped to his feet and returned to a group of prisoners. Shortly thereafter, some prisoners rushed the guards, throwing grenades and grabbing the guards’ rifles. According to Newsweek, Spann was beaten and shot until he was dead. Dave got away and, with a German television crew, holed up in the fort’s headquarters. Newsweek online had a photo of Dave, taken from German TV footage; he is holding a rifle and staring out a window. (In the original footage, you could see Dave, in conversation with the German reporter, trying over and over again to put his pistol back in its holster, and continually failing.) Dave called the American embassy in Tashkent to ask for assistance. Soon American planes were bombarding the prison.
Weeks later I met a journalist recently back from Mazar-i-Sharif. He talked about the Special Forces people there and mentioned one who was an adviser to Dostum. Something he said jogged my memory. The next morning I made several calls then sat at my desk staring at the picture of Dave as he was under siege in Qala Jangi, his partner dead. I knew Dave. So that’s who you are now, “Dave.”
I had not recognized him before because it had been ten years since we were together in Uzbekistan. Now I noticed the gray in his beard. I had always liked Dave. He had introduced me to the people who made my stay in Uzbekistan possible. My visit was mostly in violation of Uzbek law; I had to travel under the radar, no hotels, no paperwork, no contact with police, all cash; I was dependent on others for everything. Many of those people I would not have met without Dave.
He was not in the C.I.A. at the time, in 1991. He was a student in love with Central Asia. He was bright as hell, gentle and a hard worker. He was idealistic; we were idealistic together. It was a very different time. The Soviet Union had just recently collapsed. Optimism was in the air: for people like us, optimism about democracy and human rights, a shrinking of the nuclear threat, an end to the stagnation of the 1970s. This was before “globalization” became a term for what might be a rising tide lifting all boats, and of course it was before anti-globalization. It was before President Clinton and Fleetwood Mac singing “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” at the inaugural. It was much more Vaclav Havel, really, or middle-period Havel and late Lech Walesa. For me, it was meeting Ana Blandiana, the Romanian poet, in Bucharest before her brief political career ended. It was transiting through the Belgrade airport when Yugoslavia still existed. In the former Soviet bloc, it was a small moment in time. This was supposed to be—wanted to be—the bright beginning.
Yet it looked, already, dark, in Yugoslavia and where we were, Dave and I, in Uzbekistan circa 1991. It seemed darker to me than to him; he teased me about that, my inability to share his optimism. I thought the old Communists were going to crush the opposition and spur radicalism among those young Muslim preachers who were inclined that way and generally make a hash of this whole incomparable, beautiful opportunity; and I was right, damn it, I was right about these morons and the incredible precious chance they were about to piss away. When I sent Dave my manuscript about it all and he read it, he was still resisting. Later he accepted that our moment had quickly gone. I told him I hadn’t wanted things to go that way—this stupid oppression—but that was just the way it looked to me.
Our optimism had not been altogether foolish. I guess, looking back on it, that we had expected that the peoples of the world, freed from the false promises, lies and half truths of Communism, would reach their natural state (as one thought) of reasonable coexistence with a gradual extension of health, material comfort and mutual appreciation. But this did not occur; and it was not easy, given the intellectual tools at our disposal, and given our wish to hope, to say why.
Everything I had feared for the lovely country of Uzbekistan happened, and worse still. Dave was at loose ends, out of pocket. He was a true expert, but who cared about Uzbekistan anyway? It was just one of what policy people had come to call “the stans.” Out of pocket, Dave drifted into the suburbs of C.I.A. land then into the real deal.
Now here we were: me at my desk, nearing the end of 2001, hoping my colleagues didn’t notice how preoccupied I was staring at this photo; Dave with an automatic rifle in his hands, looking out the window at a massacre people said he and his colleague Spann caused. Watching it, determined to survive. “The problem is, he’s got to decide if he wants to live or die and die here.” Was that really you, Dave, saying that? Little did you know. Were you determined to survive with your hopes intact for a better world?
How strange to meet you again, in this place! How did we get here, Dave? How did we get here -- and how can we get out?