THE BAGHRAM FRONT, Afghanistan – The young soldier leads the way to the front line, moving swiftly through a maze of baked mud walls. Ammunition clips strapped to his belt and his Kalashnikov at the ready, he pads like a panther past spent cartridges and pools of fresh blood.
Two fierce battles – the heaviest fighting this year in war-torn Afghanistan – broke out earlier this month along the Baghram Front, just 30 miles north of the capital, Kabul. The soldier and his comrades, opponents of the radical Islamic Taliban regime, pause at the edge of an eerie no man’s land. In the distance looms the wreckage of a truck that was transporting Taliban warriors when it took a direct hit.
The soldier, a three-year veteran, looks far younger than the 18 years he claims. His entire life is framed by the savage fighting that has gripped Afghanistan for more than two decades. Despite recent appeals for peace by the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the renewed hostilities portend yet another summer of bloodshed at the base of the mighty Hindu Kush Mountains.
The persistent instability in Afghanistan continues to raise high-level concern among countries with security agendas as divergent as the United States, Russia, China, and the Central Asian republics.
New fuel fires Afghanistan’s 20-year war
Now a cessation of hostilities seems all the more remote.
Each of the warring sides blames the other for the renewed clashes.
For the Taliban forces, which control some 90 percent of the country, breaking through at Baghram would be the first step in attacking the Panjshir Valley, mountain stronghold of Ahmad Shah Masood, commander of the Northern Alliance. For the legendary mujahideen commander, who is putting up the last significant resistance to the Taliban, recapturing nearby Kabul would be a tantalizing prize.
In the stalemate that resulted from three failed Taliban thrusts at the Panjshir Valley in previous years, the rival forces could be testing each other’s strengths. Or the fighting may be at the prompting of other regional players.
Neighboring Pakistan in particular has played a significant role in the sad fortunes of Afghanistan, first funneling billions of dollars of CIA aid to the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s, then providing vital backing to the Taliban, who rose up in 1994 promising to restore order in the warlord-driven factional chaos that followed Russia’s withdrawal.
“This is not a civil war, it is a Pakistani attack,” maintains Commander Masood. “We are defending ourselves from foreigners. The Taliban were created by Pakistan to fight for Pakistani goals.” This summer’s battles are the first major fighting since Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power in Pakistan last fall. Masood says the robust performance of his forces may have a “good effect” on General Musharraf’s future policy toward Afghanistan.
A ‘patriotic’ war
Up and down the front line, Masood’s soldiers – many of them veterans of the jihad, or holy war, that finally drove out the Soviets in 1989 – echo their commander’s stubborn patriotism. “We only fight those who are servants of foreign countries,” says Abdul Karim, who joined the mujahideen at age 15 and has been fighting ever since. “The communists [under Afghan President Najibullah] were Russian slaves, just as the Taliban are slaves of Pakistan.”
The father of six commands a dozen men on a lonely hilltop position on the Bangi front in northern Afghanistan. His main motivation to keep on fighting, Mr. Karim says, is his opposition to the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). “They say they’re bringing sharia,” he says. “But it’s not sharia to beat women and children or build terrorist bases.” (The United States and UN accuse the Taliban of harboring indicted international terrorist Osama bin Laden.)
Those unwilling to submit to Taliban rule have abandoned farms on the fertile Shomali plain north of Kabul for camps that sprout up in the relative safety of the Panjshir Valley. Aid workers in the region estimate that tens of thousands of displaced people, refugees in their own country, are living in tents. Hundreds, if not thousands, joined them in late June, fearful of the new summer fighting.
“I escaped with the clothes on my back,” says Mohammad Hassan, a recent arrival. “It’s dangerous. The Taliban were bombing us with planes and rockets.” His extended family – 16 people in all – is living under plastic sheeting attached to the side of a rickety bus. Five members of his family, says Mr. Hassan, are on the front line, and he plans to join them soon.
While the men of the region switch from farming to fighting in grim seasonal rotation, dirt-poor Afghanistan continues to suffer the privations of continuous warfare. In the northwest corner of the country controlled by Masood, no town has working electricity or sewage systems. Roads have disintegrated into little more than dusty tracks.
“Development can only take place when there is peace. But it is impossible to rebuild the country as long as there’s war,” says Kim-Gordon Bates, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross office in Gulbahar. “Who’s going to build a bridge if it will get blown up tomorrow? This is the message we’re trying to get across to Afghans themselves.”
For commanders on the ground, however, tactical objectives remain the most pressing concerns – and foreign aid is most welcome in the form of military hardware.
Russian, US influence
Former enemy Russia, united with border states Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in its fear of a virulent brand of Islam sweeping north, is now supplying Masood’s forces with weapons, ammunition, and jeeps. This spring, Moscow threatened to bomb the Taliban in retaliation for its alleged support of Chechen rebels in southern Russia, and in late May the Taliban accused Uzbekistan of sending fighter jets over Afghan airspace, a charge denied by the the Uzbek foreign ministry.
At a summit in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, earlier this month, the presidents of Russia, China, and three Central Asian states pledged to cooperate in combating Islamic separatist movements and agreed to set up a joint anti-terrorist center in the region.
Moscow and Washington are also expected to hold meetings in the coming weeks on how to counter terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan.
Still, Masood and his supporters don’t hide their disappointment with the diminished role of the US, which during the cold war channeled $3 billion in aid to the Afghan rebels via Pakistan.
“When we were fighting the Russians, it was to the Americans’ advantage to help us. But when the Soviets were destroyed, they forgot about us. Now they’re only talking about Osama bin Laden,” says Masood. More important, Masood says, the US should use its leverage over Pakistan to stop the flow of fighters and arms to the Taliban.
Yet while artillery volleys north of Kabul resound louder than international appeals to cease fighting, a second generation of young Afghans is growing up knowing little more than the reality of war.
At Dolansang in the Panjshir Valley, farmer Ahmed Khan and his 10 grandchildren have been camping in the shadow of two destroyed Soviet tanks for almost a year. When asked about how children can grow up in such conditions, Mr. Khan only says: “When they see these tanks, they’ll get braver. And then they’ll be ready to fight.”
REPORTERS ON THE JOB
TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER: During the ride into Afghanistan, reporter Lucian Kim was pleased to see the commander of the mujahideen, Ahmed Shah Masood, on board the aircraft. Lucian tried to introduce himself, but conversation was impossible over the din of the Russian-made helicopter. Besides, Commander Masood was busy praying.
Upon landing, he put in his official request for an interview. But Lucian heard nothing. A week later, Lucian glimpsed the commander in the shadows of the house (no electricity) where Lucian was staying. But the commander flitted upstairs, followed by his whole general staff – each member politely shook Lucian’s hand as they passed.
Only on his last day in the country, did Lucian learn that an elaborate lunch with Masood had been mysteriously arranged. “It was a feast, really. We had fried fish from the Panjshir River, stewed eggplant, and some meat,” says Lucian. After their meal at Masood’s brother-in-law’s house, Lucian got his interview.