From a hilltop 40 miles north of Kabul, across a clear night sky illuminated by a half a silver moon, I saw flashes on the skyline last night as the Allied air strikes began.
Under a canopy of stars, plumes of fire were visible across the flat, heavily populated Shomali plain, which leads to the outskirts of Kabul. There, where anti-Taliban forces are dug in along a front line that snakes within 25 miles of the city, the distant thumping that reverberated across the still air signalled the long-awaited turn in their fortunes.
As the horizon lit up with anti-aircraft fire, Taliban and opposition forces began to blaze away at each other with artillery. At one moment, there was an explosion high over Kabul, which may have been a missile directed at Allied planes overhead. At another, there were flashes of white light, almost certainly anti-aircraft fire.
From the rocky hilltop overlooking the village of Jabal Sarraj, there is a straight view south towards the Afghan capital. This has been one of the great battlefields during almost a quarter of a century of warfare in Afghanistan, and is likely to see fierce fighting in coming days as the Northern Alliance forces attempt to take the capital.
Alliance reserves were already pouring towards the front, and Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance’s foreign minister, said there was going to be a ground offensive by his troops within days of the US bombing campaign.
Civilians immediately to the north of the front line were retreating to their houses fearing that the Taliban would retaliate with rockets.
Intercepted radio traffic between Taliban commanders reveals that they have little idea as to what is going on, according to Northern Alliance commanders. They said the troops had received few orders apart from being told that they were about to be attacked and to hold the line in front of them. They have moved some reinforcements north of Kabul, but opposition commanders said there was little sign of the Taliban digging in.
Mass defections from the Taliban are expected now, but changing sides is not easy in present-day Afghanistan.
The last decade of war has seen prisoners of war locked up in containers until they died from suffocation, were thrown down wells or were lined up and shot. This was done to the Taliban and by them.
Deserter Says Ranks of Taliban are
Full of ‘Arabs and Punjabis’
Anti-Taliban fighters on the front line north of Kabul burst into song last night as the US-led military assault on Kabul began.
“I am happy! The Taliban are our enemies, but America is on our side, fighting terrorists in Afghanistan,” sang one member of the opposition Northern Alliance.
The Northern Alliance, which launched its own assault on the Taliban late last night, was already reporting desertions from the ranks of the ruling movement even before the strikes began.
One young Taliban deserter crossed enemy lines to change sides just hours before the bombs started to fall. Khan Jan, a 23-year-old with a turban and black beard, unwillingly conscripted into the Taliban army, said he waited until 4am to make his escape.
“By then the other soldiers were all sleeping,” he told me. “I did not feel any fear because I took a heavy machine gun, a kalashnikov and a pistol.”
Mass defections from the Taliban are expected now that the bombing has started. But Changing sides is not easy in present day Afghanistan.
The last decade of war has seen prisoners of war locked up in containers until they died from suffocation, thrown down wells or lined up against a wall and shot. This was done to the Taliban and by them.
For a man who must have been close to death during the delicate and dangerous process of deserting the Taliban, Khan Jan seemed perky and relaxed.
“I owned a small shop, just a booth, in Kunduz city in the north,” he explained. “One day two Taliban came and said I should come with them. Then they put me with 70 other people in a helicopter and flew us to Sedarat camp in Kabul.”
Khan Jan, like most of the others picked up in Kunduz was a Tajik, while the Taliban are primarily Pashtun.
A month ago Khan Jan was sent to a section of the front close to the battle-scarred headquarters building near Mahmoud Raqy village where we met. It is not that difficult to move across the front line because it runs through a heavily populated area of mud-brick villages and orchards.
Khan Jan had good reasons for deserting the Taliban. “I decided to leave the Taliban as soon as possible because their ranks were full of Punjabis [Pakistanis] and Arabs and they hate women.”
This was certainly the politically correct thing to say for a defecting Taliban being interviewed by a foreign journalist in the presence of about 10 opposition soldiers. It is also true, however, that Afghans, who are nothing if not xenophobic, deeply resent the presence of all foreigners.
But Khan Jan, who eyed his captors with intelligent half-amused, half-wary eyes, also probably had a good idea that something unpleasant was about to happen to Taliban soldiers. “America is very strong,” he mused. How had the Taliban soldiers reacted to news of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon? Khan Jan said: “We discussed them a lot. Some people said it was a great victory for us. Also they were happy to have killed [Ahmad Shah] Masud, [the Northern Alliance military leader].
“Many soldiers said: ‘Now the Americans will attack us.’ But then Mullah Omar [the Taliban spiritual leader] said: ‘Don’t worry about America.'” The last point made the Northern Alliance soldiers in the room laugh loudly.
Khan Jan’s first plan to escape did not work. He contacted soldiers in the trenches opposite his own on his field radio suggesting that they cross no-man’s land and pick him up. Presumably fearing a trap they refused. “I talked to them twice,” he said. “They told me to cross over myself on foot.” A night later he made his way, heavily armed, across the frontline.
The opposition is hoping that Khan Jan will be the first of many deserters. They may well be right.