"The Ox of Kabul was strung up on a lampost, his genitals stuffed in his mouth, by the Taliban" - Fisk WHAT HAPPENS IN AFGHANISTAN 'DECIDES THE COURSE OF HISTORY' By Ben Macintyre, The Times, London When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains And the women come out to cut up what remains Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains An' go to your Gawd like a soldier. RUDYARD Kipling knew, as did Queen Victoria's army, just how pitiless warfare in Afghanistan could be and yet foreign powers, from Alexander the Great onwards, have not been able to resist trying to conquer, or at least impose order on, that warrior land. We may soon be going back again, with America and NATO, to try to extirpate the murderous organisers of Bloody Tuesday and punish their protectors. That prospect, however righteous, chills me. When much younger I became briefly obsessed with Afghanistan when the Mujahidin guerrillas were still locked in bloody combat with the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. I grew a beard, travelled to Peshawar, bought myself the regulation Mujahidin outfit in the souk and was taken on an eight-hour journey to meet Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, then one of the most powerful guerrilla warlords, in his mountain stronghold. I have never seen a more beautiful or brutal terrain, or a prouder and more callous people. At the camp entrance a huge vulture, shot out of the sky on whim, had been impaled on a steel post. We drank tea and ate warm Afghan bread with yoghurt sitting on the floor of a hut as Hekmatyar, who would become Afghanistan's premier before going into exile in Iran, described to me the perfidy of rival Mujahidin leaders and how the war would soon be won against "the puppet" in Kabul. A few months later I was with the other side, sitting to an identical meal in Kabul's presidential palace with Sayid Mohammed Najibullah, "the Ox of Kabul," the Afghan president who would eventually be ousted and then strung up by Taliban fighters. I cannot now remember the details of what was said in either conversation, but my most vivid recollection is of the extraordinary similarity between these two bitter enemies, once contemporaries at the University of Kabul. One was a Communist and the other a fanatical Muslim, but both were haughty warlords, men for whom fighting was not just a way of life but the highest calling. The Mujahidin fighters' excitement as they clustered around Hekmatyar, their sheer pleasure in their weapons and ferocity, was thrilling, and horrible. Hekmatyar picked up an AK-47 and announced "target practice." For 10 minutes they blazed away at a rockface, a display at once childish, deliberately menacing and, for people raised on gunpowder, quite natural. Bloody war is sewn into the very land of Afghanistan, in the form of innumerable landmines. Outside Kabul I was taken to meet an Afghan doctor making rubber "feet" out of old lorry tyres to attach to children who had lost their legs from the bombs ... some of the 500,000 crippled by war. My government guide (minder/spy) condemned the brutality, then without irony proudly took me to Kabul Gorge where Afghan tribesmen massacred 16,000 British soldiers and their dependants in 1842. The tussle for Afghanistan was a "Great Game" to the great powers, but truly the greatest players were the Afghans. Mogul, Persian, Russian, Soviet and British armies all perished in these unconquerable mountains. When the Soviets pulled out in 1989 they left 50,000 dead and 1m dead Afghans. This medieval world, with its endless cycles of atrocity and revenge, is the one that trained, formed and defends Osama bin Laden and his like. The attack on the World Trade Centre may drag us back to the world's cruellest battlefield, and George W. Bush should have no illusions: if it comes to war, Afghan warriors will fight the Americans who once armed them as ferociously as they once fought the British and the Russians. There is a saying in the Middle East: what happens in Afghanistan decides the course of history.