Letter From Afghanistan: Ragtag Army

The grim reminders are everywhere in this hostile terrain. Every road, every ditch and field from Afghanistan's capital of Kabul up to the Hindu Kush 80 miles to the north, is littered with the rusting and twisted remains of Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Every vegetable garden and irrigation system incorporates pieces of dismembered military hardware, ingeniously adapted into sluices and gates, and the boys working in the fields wear distinctive brass-buckled belts taken from dead Russians. Further up in the Panjshir Valley, once the heartland of the anti-Soviet-and now of the anti-Taliban resistance-a boy-soldier carries a Martini-Henry rifle of 1880s vintage. That's a souvenir of an even earlier incursion: the British attempt to subdue the tribes of Afghanistan.

Not all the debris is defunct. Some of the hardware left behind by the Soviets from their 1979-89 occupation is still in action, constantly patched up as it changes hands from one group to another in Afghanistan's never-ending civil war.

Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, an oddly matched group of forces opposed to the country's ruling Taliban, rolled out its crack troops for the benefit of two dozen Western journalists on a dusty hillside on the outskirts of Jebel-us-Saraj late this week. The intention was probably to show that the alliance is willing and ready to topple the Taliban regime. It ended up looking more like something out of the Keystone Cops. A row of much-patched Soviet-vintage T-56 tanks and armored personnel carriers stood at one end of a long stretch of waste ground outside the town, while a ragged crowd of locals in traditional tribal dress lined up along a raised bank like spectators at a village soccer match.

Journalists, many in newly bought Afghan checked headscarves and brightly colored Gore-Tex clothing, mobbed a dozen-strong group of elite Afghan soldiers and commanders who were formed up a little way from the crowd. They were obviously elite troops because they had uniforms-some even had matching uniforms-a huge rarity in Afghan combat. One of the tanks roared into life, sending a column of thick black diesel smoke high into the air. It ground into gear and jerked forward, towing an armored personnel carrier behind it to jump-start its engine.

The second vehicle started, belching its own plume of smoke, and both roared up the field and behind the spectators, scattering children and stray dogs in their path. On cue, a line of soldiers crept stealthily down a gully and up a small hillside opposite the audience, while the tanks began firing volleys at a mock command post at the top of the hill. A ripple of applause spread as the rounds hit more-or-less near the target. One of the advancing soldiers stood and fired a series of rocket-propelled grenades smack into the post-the best marksmanship of the morning-and they advanced to "take" the position. This was spin doctoring, Afghan style, a made-for-television mock battle designed to show off the alliance's military expertise and hardware.

At least the locals seemed heartened. But the display did more to illustrate why the alliance has over the last five years lost some 95 percent of the territory of Afghanistan to the Taliban: their equipment is obsolete, they have no idea of how to present themselves to the outside world, and, though their men are among the best irregular infantry in the world, they are poorly led.

A visitor gets a better sense of the realities of warfare in this murderous terrain not on the playing fields of Jebel-us-Saraj, but up in the mountain gorge of the Ghor Band, about 40 miles north of Kabul. Like the Panjshir, its twin valley to the east, the Ghor Band is a natural fortress. Mud-brick and stone villages cling to the hillsides, approachable only on foot via a long series of switchback paths, every turn overlooked by watchful boy-soldiers in dugouts and watchtowers.

Just beyond the village of Ruyoq is one of the front lines where the Northern Alliance meets the Taliban. A giddy climb above the village is the first of a series of "sangars"-emplacements dug into the rocky scree and reinforced with mud bricks, which have been the basic unit of warfare in these mountains ever since the invention of the bow and arrow. Commander Abdul Quayum, 44, creeps up to one of the outlying dugouts and points through the firing slits to the mass of towering cliffs beyond. He points out Taliban positions a few hundred yards away, but to a foreign eye they remain invisible.

"Without our help the Americans will not be able to do anything," says Quayum, a native of the nearby Salang district. "It is difficult for me to imagine how Americans can fight here."

Below the rock ridge where Quayum sits and chats with visitors, the cliff falls a thousand feet to the valley bottom. Every inch of the approach is visible from the position. And though Quayum's front-line troops consist of just 35 village men and boys who rotate on a daily basis, with perhaps 10 times that number in reserve, the murderous terrain makes them nearly invulnerable. Up in these hills, it is clear that anyone trying to conquer this country will need the help of the locals.

Haji Mohammed Siddiq, a great bear of a man with a long black beard who doesn't know his age but reckons he's been fighting for 25 years, commands a small band of fighters in the Ghor Band. He smiles when asked whether he's ready to help foreigners find Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan. "It will be very difficult for foreigners to fight here," says Siddiq, sitting in his tribal robes under a mulberry tree in the Ghor valley. "But it will also be impossible for bin Laden to hide. Mountain people always know what is going on in the hills, who is coming, who is going."

There's no sense of urgency on the front lines around Kabul. General Babajan, commander of the Northern Alliance forces at Bagram airport, about 25 miles north of Kabul and a key strategic center for any U.S. ground assault on the Taliban-held capital, sits under a tree and eats grapes as he chats with visitors. "We are ready to launch an offensive against the Taliban," he says. "We have received orders to be prepared." But the troops he commands-who wear tribal robes, not uniforms-are as relaxed as their commander, holding hands as they wander to an informal parade in front of a decrepit tank. A French television crew asks Babajan to address the troops with some rousing words, and he obliges, embarrassed and sheepish. His men smile shyly as they try to keep straight faces.

After changing hands three times between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance over the last three years, the base is now a wasteland of shattered concrete barracks and the littered wreckage of MiG-21 jets. A forlorn memorial to Soviet war dead stands among the debris, and the base's gates with their red star motif swing free. But the airport's runway, at least, is intact, and the Afghan capital is just two minutes' flying time away over a low range of dusty hills. One problem: the Taliban are dug in just a mile from the runway and have artillery and at least three tanks hidden in the hills from which they can bombard the airport. "We know where the Taliban positions are," says General Babajan, an ethnic Tajik. "If our Ministry of Defense reaches an agreement with the Americans, we will give them the details. We welcome anyone who will help us to free Afghanistan of terrorists."

Many of the Taliban dug in above Bagram are foreigners, says Babajan-the enemy's radio channels buzz with Arabic and Urdu spoken by Pakistani "logistics officers." "For every 20 Afghans there are 10 Arabs and Pakistanis," says one of Babajan's fellow commanders, Gen. Mohammed Aref. "We will kill the foreigners [on the Taliban side], but will leave the Afghans alone. They were forced to fight, many of them. They are against the Taliban, too." There is sporadic gunfire all along the line, the low report of tank rounds rolling around the hills every few hours.

Behind a row of low-rise mud-and-wattle houses that mark the Taliban lines, clouds of dust rise as jeeps race to and from Kabul to strengthen their positions in anticipation of an assault. But otherwise life goes on in the villages around Bagram. A wedding procession weaves its way though Nowabad, the women veiled in brightly colored burquas, which cover their faces behind a cloth mesh and trail down to their feet; they carry babies with heavily mascaraed eyes and rouged cheeks through the pistachio groves to the celebrations. Though this is not a Taliban area, women are still kept in strict purdah, in accordance with Afghan tradition. For ordinary villagers, there is little difference between life under the Taliban and that under the Northern Alliance-except that for a while the Taliban offered some protection from roving warlords.

Refugees who can afford it are trickling out of Kabul and into Northern Alliance-held areas. Haji Mofuz, 45, an ethnic-Tajik shopkeeper, decided to leave last Friday after the Taliban began conducting house-to-house searches in the city. "They rounded up young men, especially Tajiks, and sent them to the front line," said Mofuz, who was traveling with 15 family members in a small Soviet jeep. "Everyone is leaving. The city is empty. Even the Taliban are leaving, they are going to dugouts on the front lines." Mofuz's party left the city at dawn yesterday and walked six hours across the front lines, avoiding Taliban checkpoints. On the way they were robbed of their luggage by marauders, and when they found a car to take them to safety in the town of Charikar, they had to pay five lakhs of Afghanis-a wad of money three inches thick and worth more than $80, or four months' wages. "We will wait until the Taliban have been defeated, then we will return home," says one of Mofuz's companions, Najib Khan, 70. "Nobody likes the Taliban. We are all praying to be delivered from them."

All of the refugees fleeing north yesterday were ethnic Tajiks, which partly explains their antipathy towards the Taliban, who are ethnic Pashtuns-the dominant ethnic group in southern Afghanistan. But their resentment at Taliban-forced conscription was real enough, and rocketing food prices have made life in the capital unbearable. "All the foreign aid agencies have left, and all the people who were dependent on their food have nothing," says Khan. "They were feeding a third of the city." The Taliban managed to hold onto power in much of Afghanistan because they provided at least a semblance of law, order and stability to the civil-war-racked country. But now that support seems to be ebbing fast as townspeople start to go hungry and fear of U.S. airstrikes spreads.

On the front lines too, there are signs that military authority is breaking down among Taliban forces. The Northern Alliance's urbane foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, claims that several former mujahedin commanders who were now serving under the Taliban had made radio contact with the alliance, wanting to change sides. "We are negotiating options with these commanders," says Abdullah at one of his regular briefings in the formal Persian garden of a government guest house. "They are more useful to us if they stay in place, they can do more damage when we need them."

The most logical strategy for the United States and its allies seems to be to coordinate any air and ground attacks with the Northern Alliance, who control much of the northeast of the country, as well as pockets of terrain throughout the interior. They also have tactical information about Taliban positions, as well as invaluable knowledge of the terrain and control of Bagram, a vital staging post for Kabul. But so far the alliance says that no liaison teams have arrived in their territory. No senior alliance leaders have had any direct contact with U.S. officials, even though many of them have recently visited Dushanbe, the capital of neighboring Tajikistan and the location of the nearest Western embassies. "No one has asked us to do anything specific to help," says General Babajan as he watches Taliban positions from the gutted control tower of Bagram airport. "We are waiting."