Inside the Taliban
A trip to collect lizards highlights humanity of ordinary Afghan officials

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Inquisitive faces of Afghani men peek into Berkeley scientist Ted Papenfuss’s truck as the group gets ready to cross the Pakistani border into Afghanistan.
Ted Papenfuss photo

17 October 2001 | After only a brief time together, the Taliban bodyguards escorting Berkeley scientist Ted Papenfuss through the deserts of southern Afghanistan were asking him to watch their Kalashnikov rifles while they raced off to catch the lizards Papenfuss was studying.

A proud and simple people, the ordinary Taliban officials did not seem to share the deep-seated anti-American sentiments of their leaders, said Papenfuss, a research specialist in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. The people of Afghanistan originally lived in nomadic tribes scattered across a country about the size of Arizona and New Mexico put together, he said. “They were nice people, simple and fascinated by my lizard chasing. They were interested to find out that some species of lizards came out at night.”

In June of last year, Papenfuss was on a field trip, partially funded by a National Science Foundation grant, to study relationships between specific species of Asian reptiles and amphibians. He had chosen Afghanistan after learning that lizards he was studying could be found there, east of the Iranian habitats he had previously explored.
The only Western scientist in Afghanistan at the time, Papenfuss had to change his travel plans to get there. Just before he was to travel, international tensions were building and a United Nations embargo had halted all commercial flights in and out of Afghanistan. So he flew into Quetta, Pakistan and met up with his entourage — two Afghani “warriors” serving as bodyguards, a driver and a translator — on a dirt road at the border leading to Kandahar.

“My trip had been approved at the highest level of (the Afghani) government. Without that, I never would have been allowed in the country with the degree of movement I had,” Papenfuss said. The Taliban “had been getting some bad press,” he said, “and I think that by showing the Western world that scientists were welcome in their country, they hoped to show that they were, in fact, a real country and not just a bunch of radicals.”

Base camp
His base camp, Kandahar — located near an airstrip that has since been bombed by the U.S. military — was two-and-a-half hours (about 130 miles) from the Pakistani border. As Papenfuss, his Afghanistan bodyguards and driver bounced over the dusty road, the integrative biologist struck up a friendship with Muhammad, his translator.

“He was in his early 20s, a very intelligent man, and had a high school education, but he was not very sophisticated,” Papenfuss said. “He asked me once if you flew in an airplane, would you hear the noise. He’d never been in one. And he asked once if I knew Bill Clinton and seemed puzzled that I didn’t. He wanted to know how far Washington, D.C. was from San Francisco. He had no idea it was 5,000 kilometers away.”

During his first few days in Kandahar, Papenfuss stayed in a surprisingly modern guest house, which had served as officers’ quarters for the Russian military during its occupation of Afghanistan. The house was equipped with “new plumbing, a hot shower, a refrigerator, and a cook who had prepared food for Westerners in the past,” he said.

When the top Taliban military corps commander for Kandahar, General Osmani, heard that an American scientist was visiting, he decided to pay Papenfuss a visit.

“As soon as he greeted me,” Papenfuss recalled, “he told me a Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinski joke, speaking in the local southern dialect, Pashtun. It probably lost something in the translation, but the general roared with laughter after reciting it.

“Then he told me the next time I was in Afghanistan, I should bring President Clinton with me, so that they could impeach him properly,” Papenfuss recalled. Punishment for adultery in Afghanistan involves stoning the offender to death, he said.

In search of lizards
The researcher and his four-some made day trips to the southern desert, where Muhammad quickly became a skilled lizard catcher. As they searched for three species of toad-headed lizards found only in Afghanistan, Muhammad would run barefoot over the sand dunes and pin them down with a stick. “He didn’t want to pick them up, but he would pin them down for me to pick up,” said Papenfuss. “Then he would break into a huge smile.”

Next, the team set out on a camping trip to the “regestan” (sandy desert) around the Helmet River, the biggest river draining out of the Hindu Kush mountain range. Papenfuss saw enormous fields of opium and nomads harvesting the crop and loading it onto camels.

“By this time I had gained the Taliban’s trust,” he said. “I had been forbidden to take pictures of people; it was against the Taliban interpretation of Islam law. But they told me to take pictures of the opium fields. Muhammad told me that their country had been destroyed by civil war and the Russian invasion, and that without natural resources or gold, the only thing they had that the West was interested in was opium.” Opium harvesting has since been outlawed.

Papenfuss saw many nomads, some of them wheat farmers, who eked out an impoverished existence in a country that conjured images of 7th century Arabia. Outside of the big cities, women went about their daily lives unveiled. “They didn’t need to wear veils because they weren’t seen by anyone,” he said.

They all knew of Osama bin Laden. Once Muhammad pointed to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan — where the warlord often sequestered himself with “about 20 bodyguards” — and told Papenfuss that bin Laden was “retired and a guest of Afghanistan.” Afghanistan’s long tradition of hospitality meant bin Laden would never be asked to leave.

Final days
Some of the collecting went on at night. Papenfuss’s bodyguards, both of whom had fought in the decade-long war against the Russian occupation, joined in the fun of lizard chasing. “They would ask me to watch their rifles while they dashed off to catch the lizards,” he said. By week’s end, he’d collected 20 species of lizards, two species of snakes, five species of frogs and one species of salamanders unique to the mountainous streams near the capital city of Kabul.

Better yet, he had found two of the three species of toad-headed lizards of the genus Phrynocephalus, known only to Afghanistan, and had unexpectedly discovered a new species of gecko lizard belonging to the genus Teratoscincus.

His work was not quite done, however.

On his final day in the country, while finishing his laboratory work to preserve lizard tissues in a large canister of liquid nitrogen, Papenfuss received another visit by General Osmani. This time the enthusiastic general brought four truckloads of Afghani warriors and asked Papenfuss to tell them about his lizard collection.

“I did,” he said. “I had a captivated audience.”


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