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Waiting For the Missiles to Fall

People fled their homes in Kabul yesterday fearing a US air attack when they heard Taliban anti-aircraft gunners open fire. It turned out to be a military exercise.

The opening of an air offensive is expected to lead to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Afghan cities, but it is not clear where they can go. Only a trickle of people, mainly Tajiks, are making the difficult journey to areas north of Kabul held by the opposition Northern Alliance.

Afghanistan has only two weeks’ supply of drugs left in its hospitals, a senior Taliban foreign ministry official told a Western doctor. This may be a sign that the country’s shattered health system may be finally about to collapse.

The Northern Alliance says it has launched limited probing attacks against Taliban positions, but fighting has been light, and hardly any wounded fighters have reached the Panjshir Valley, the main opposition stronghold.

Afghans in this part of the country persistently ask foreigners, almost invariably journalists, about the date when the US air assault will begin. Few believe, however, that a bombing attack alone will remove the Taliban. “Afghanistan is a mountainous country and bombs don’t have much effect,” said Mohammed Shaqer, a Tajik police officer working for the Northern Alliance.

He suggested that the United States and its allies provide air support for the opposition ground forces, which would then defeat the Taliban. It is doubtful, however, if the Northern Alliance army of 15,000 men has the numbers or the political support to beat the Taliban, even if the US was prepared to give it air support. Its victory would also be strongly opposed by Pakistan.

Defections from Taliban ranks ? much heralded in the US media ? may occur, but the Taliban, notorious in the treacherous world of Afghan politics, are closely watching those whose loyalty is suspect.

For the moment Afghans at every level, from the humblest villagers to commanders of the Northern Alliance, are waiting to see what the US will do. Although their information is often scant all have a firm grip on the realities of power. In interviews, opposition leaders stress their determination to join the battle against terrorism, though those speaking English usually pronounce the word as “tourism”. “I have been fighting against tourism in Afghanistan for 24 years,” one commander told us stoutly.

So many Afghans live close to or below subsistence level that it would not take much to reduce them to starvation. Life in the Panjshir Valley, as in much of Afghanistan, is medieval in the real sense of the word. There is no electricity, clean water supplies, sewage or health systems. Children have not been immunised against diseases such as TB, polio, diphtheria or measles for four or five years.

Ordinary Afghans show interest but little excitement over the international crisis centred on their country. This is because they have been at war for almost a quarter of a century. In any case, many Afghans, though badgered by journalists for their political views, have interests which have nothing to do with the possible US invasion.

The Western stereotype of the Afghan male pictures him either as a sturdy mountain warrior, a starving refugee or a religious fanatic. In the midst of hunger and war, the Afghans maintain a touching obsession with flowers. You see them planted and carefully watered in the front line and on patches of ground beside the road in impoverished, dusty villages.

Abdullah Abdullah , the foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, gives his press conferences in the splendid garden of a government guest house, which is filled with carefully tended orange, pink and scarlet flowers.

The gardener in charge is determined to show his blooms to television viewers around the world. At the last press conference he first placed a large jug of them on the table in front of Mr Abdullah. This was rapidly removed to make way for reporters’ microphones.

Undaunted the gardener then tied a bouquet of pink flowers to a sapling just behind the minister’s head until an officious security man told him to take them away.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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