On the frontline facing the Taliban north of Kabul yesterday, a plump Afghan artillery officer called Commander Mustapha was expecting the war to worsen in the immediate future. “Either the Talibs will attack again, or we will,” he said cheerfully.
Commander Mustapha, who has been a soldier for 23 years, has his headquarters in a half-ruined mud brick house in the deserted village of Rabat from which he controls batteries of rockets mounted on the backs of jeeps. It is a murderous place for fighting. Ordinary houses are built like fortresses. An attacker can easily be ambushed in narrow dusty lanes, often overlooked by overgrown orchards.
“The last Taliban attack was on the night of 10 September,” said Commander Mustapha. “They lost about 15 dead and we captured 10 Kalashnikovs, two rocket-propelled grenade launchers and a hand radio.” He claimed that his own Northern Alliance forces had suffered only six wounded.
Rabat and a string of other villages and towns are, unfortunately for their inhabitants, situated on the main road between Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan held by the Taliban, and the mouth of the Panjshir valley, the great natural fortress occupied by the opposition Northern Alliance. In a country twice the size of France, the two sides have their headquarters less than 100 miles (160km) from each other.
Now the Northern Alliance, for so long penned into its stronghold in the Panjshir and other mountain strongholds, is on the offensive. Yesterday troops led by the Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum claimed to have taken the town of Zari putting them within striking distance of the strategic prize of Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest city in northern Afghanistan, which the Taliban captured after bloody fighting and massive human rights abuses of the local population in 1997. In the West of the country another anti-Taliban leader Ismail Khan was preparing for an assault on the regional capital Herat with 5,000 fighters.
Our route to the frontline took us first through the town of Charicar, captured by the Taliban and then recaptured by the Northern Alliance last year. Many of the shops are still closed and buildings are pockmarked with bullets. There are a few broken down cars and lorries but donkeys, their heads decorated with bedraggled plumes, pulling overcrowded digs, are the main mode of local transport.
After almost a quarter of a century of war, Afghanistan has become a land of donkeys and tanks. The latter, mostly wrecked or abandoned long ago, are almost as numerous as the former. The carcasses of armoured vehicles are so common that they have been incorporated into field walls — just as old bed frames are used for fencing in some parts of England — to save the farmer the bother of heaping up stones.
The other feature of the road to Kabul is the blown bridges. Some have been neatly severed in the middle, while others have been thoroughly blasted so only the supporting plinths of either side survive. The Afghan solution to this is to place a rickety metal panel, only slightly wider than a car, over the rivers –fortunately not in full flow at this time of year.
To find Commander Mustapha, to whom we had been directed as the military leader of the area, we turned off the road where it was blocked by several containers filled with sand. We then drove down a narrow road beside a gully with pear trees at the bottom and past a jeep with rockets on the back. We had been told further down the road that there had been fighting overnight but there was little sign of it, apart from the occasional burst of machine gun fire.
Commander Mustapha’s headquarters had a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere, with red geraniums belonging to some previous owner growing in the courtyard. But outside the gates there is an extensive cemetery with green Islamic flags flying beside many of the graves. Local soldiers pointed to some fresh graves as those of men killed by the Taliban and others, often overgrown with thistles, as the graves of those killed by the Russians.
The commander took us on a tour of his sector of the front with the Taliban. Inside the Northern Alliance lines was the remains of yet another wrecked tank, though more modern than others we had seen. With some pride, Commander Mustapha said: “It was a Taliban T54 tank that broke through three years ago. I hit it myself with a rocket-propelled grenade.”
Each side has made forays into the other’s territory down the years only to be driven back. The tactical situation is complicated. The Northern Alliance holds this part of the plain, but Taliban fighters are on the tops of the mountains on either side. Commander Mustapha and his men act as a sort of trip wire, while most of the Northern Alliance forces are held further back, poised for a counter-attack.
The alliance only claims to have 15,000 professional soldiers, backed by another 40,000 militia. Its support comes mainly from Afganistan’s minorities such as the Tajiks who made up a quarters of the population, the Shiah Muslims and the Uzbecks. The Taliban draw their support mainly from the Pushtun who make up 38 per cent of the population.
We asked soldiers and civilians about the growing crisis over the Taliban’s support for Osama bin Laden. Some said in a dutiful tone of voice that “We support the US in its battle against terrorism”.
But after 23 years of war, Afghans are understandably cynical about the motives of any new saviour. They also have other worries.
Most Afghans live in conditions of terrible poverty. Returning from the front we met two men who were waiting with donkeys and broken down carts for passengers. In countries like Afghanistan I often look at people’s shoes to see how poor they really are. In this case the two men, called Abdul Hamid and Abdul Haliq, were wearing the cheapest green plastic sandals. But there were only three of them. Abdul Haliq had lost one plastic sandal and was too poor to replace it.
They said they had little knowledge about what was happening in the outside world. They live with 150 other people in no-man’s land. “When the Talibs open fire, we go away,” said Abdul Hamid. “Our main problem is that we don’t have enough water. We try to farm the land.” Yet there is interest in what is happening in the rest of the world. As we were talking to Abdul Hamid and Abdul Haliq, an elderly man with a dark blue turban arrives in a donkey cart. He was holding a primitive battery in a wooden box. He told us: “We have no electricity. I bought the battery because I wanted to listen to the radio so I can hear the news about Afghanistan.”
Afghans are less excited about President Bush’s policies of war against all those who support terrorism because most of them, like Commander Mustapha, have been at war all their lives. At a more senior level in the Northern Alliance, people like Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister, are truly worried about what use the US will make of the Pakistani intelligence service, which he regards as the true creator of the Taliban, to eradicate its own child.
Just possibly a war which destroys the Taliban would make life better for a man like Abdul Haliq, living in no-man’s land, with little water and only able to afford one green sandal. But it is easy to understand why, after the last quarter of a century in Afghanistan, he has his doubts about it.