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A Flood of Refugees

Northern Afghanistan is now on the verge of all-out conflict, prompting people across the country to prepare to flee their homes and increasing the likelihood of an overwhelming humanitarian crisis.

The reason for the mass flight is less the American and British air attacks than fear that a savage ground war is about to erupt between the Taliban and its enemies, the Northern Alliance.

Mohammed Faroq, a local security official in the Northern Alliance, said: “We have already ordered people to leave their houses if they live close to the frontline and tens of thousands of others will leave if the fighting increases.”

In the fertile Shomali plain, north of Kabul, up to 800,000 may have to flee their mud-brick villages.

In opposition-held parts of northern Afghanistan, few refugees have as yet arrived. “This is because life in Kabul is still fairly normal despite the bombings,” said another security officer who identified himself only as Omeria, citing a cousin who had just arrived from the capital. “Electricity is off, but this is because the Taliban have imposed a blackout to confuse the US pilots. Otherwise, the shops are open.”

People leaving Kabul include taxi and truck drivers using their vehicles to get their families out of the city, he said. “This means that, unless you have your car, it is difficult to find anybody to drive you, though the Taliban checkpoints are letting people through.”

The danger is that in a few days the multiple rocket launchers and howitzers visible beside many roads will start firing into the closely-packed villages on the other side. Few villagers have cellars to hide in and so will have to flee.

It has all happened before. In a bleak part of the Panjshir valley, about 10,000 people from the frontline village of Karabagh–from which they were driven by the Taliban three years ago–have pitched their white tents on stony ground near the village of Anaba.

“We wanted to stay, but when the Taliban advanced they drove us out of our houses and set fire to them,” said Abdul Khalil, formerly the librarian in the village school. “They killed some of the young men and even the women.”

A man with a grey beard called Shot Mohammed, who said he was 53 but looked 20 years older, exclaimed: “Even the Russians were better than the Taliban.” The Karabagh refugees have not received any outside food aid for nine months. “We live on stuff like this,” said Shot Mohammed, holding out some dried corn.

He had owned a small teashop in Karabagh and spoke nostalgically of its grapes and fruit trees. Like the others in Anaba, all Tajiks, he liked the idea of the United States bombing the Taliban because it allowed him to hope that he could soon go home.

Shot Mohammed thought that the American idea of dropping food as well as bombs was a nice gesture, but did not seem to take the idea very seriously. “I pray that a three or four kilo box of food lands near my tent,” he said to laughter from the other refugees.

There are jobs for the refugees from Karabagh, but only of one kind. All those who said they were employed turned out to be soldiers in the Northern Alliance’s army. A black-bearded man called Feruz said: “I am just back from the front to see my family. There are many soldiers here in the camp.”

It is not necessary to be a refugee in Afghanistan to be poor and underfed. Local health workers say that about 80 per cent of children who live in the Shomali plain are malnourished.

Apart from war, the only way for families to make money is to send one or more of their sons abroad to work, usually to Iran, where there are already two million Afghan refugees.

Most Afghans live lives of terrible insecurity. Muktar Mohammed, the bodyguard of a Northern Alliance general, confided at the military airport at Bagram that the rest of his family all live in Isfahan in Iran. “They had no choice but to go,” he said. “I’ve been a soldier seven years, but four years ago my unit attacked the Taliban and when they counter-attacked I was captured.

“They put me in Kabul jail and my family had nothing to live on, so they went to Iran. I was eventually exchanged, but by that time they had gone. I have not seen them since.”

Taliban Defections Multiply

Forty Taliban commanders leading 1,200 men have defected to the opposition and cut off one of the last remaining road links between the Taliban in Kabul and their forces in the north, the opposition Northern Alliance claimed on Tuesday.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister of the opposition Northern Alliance, jubilantly announced the defections and the closure of the only road linking north and south Afghanistan. “About 40 commanders with 1,200 men under arms joined the alliance and closed the Bagram-Bamiyan road to the Taliban on Monday night,” he said. “There wasn’t any fighting, they basically came right over. Without that road the Taliban can only supply the north of Afghanistan by the road leading from Kabul all the way to the west via Herat.”

The defections, if confirmed, would be a severe blow to the Taliban, virtually cutting off their southern power base from cities they hold in the north, where they face rebellion from ethnic minorities. The Northern Alliance has long blocked the Salang Pass, which commands the main road linking Kabul with cities in the north.

The Bagram to Bamiyan road reported to have been closed by the deserters is the main detour linking Kabul with the pivotal northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. As a result, Taliban forces will only be able to supply the northeast by the highway across western Afghanistan and the city of Herat, a much longer route. Dr Abdullah said the defections would make the north very difficult for the Taliban to control. “It has put the Taliban in northern Afghanistan in a very difficult situation, the most difficult situation in all their years.”

Mazar-i-Sharif, hit hard in the first two nights of American and British bombing raids, has been identified by Pentagon military planners as a target because of the numbers of Taliban forces dug in there. The dusty town has for years been a hub for Taliban efforts to defeat the Northern Alliance.

The belief in Washington is that if Taliban fighters in bases near the city are expelled and supplies cut off, the regime’s defences in eastern Afghanistan would be vulnerable. That would give the opposition the opening it needs to break down Taliban defences and take control over most of the north of the country.

The battle for Mazar-i-Sharif, which is populated by ethnic Uzbeks, has been raging for years because of its strategic importance both to the Taliban and their Tajik enemies who dominate the Northern Alliance.

According to American officials, the Taliban have up to 60,000 soldiers throughout Afghanistan but there have been reports of negotiations with potential defectors. The Pentagon believes the number of reliable Taliban soldiers could drop from 60,000 to 20,000 in a week, and views defections as crucial to its aim of breaking the morale and will of the Taliban–at least as important as destroying their missile sites and artillery.

Dr Abdullah has been forecasting mass defections and an implosion in the ranks of the Taliban since Sunday, when he was informed by the Americans that air strikes were about to begin. “We knew these people and we knew that under these circumstances they would have no choice.” The Americans had been informed of the development, he said last night. “They are pleased.” CP