MAIDANSHAR, Vardak province, Afghanistan – It may sound and feel sometimes like a toy battle in slow motion around desert and bare mountains – without the drama of thunderous mayhem in the trenches. But in a minute it can become ferociously deadly. The New Afghan War is alive and kicking a mere 30 kilometers southwest of Kabul – less than a half-hour’s drive, in the village of Maidanshar, on the main road to Ghazni and Kandahar.
Figures in Afghanistan notoriously stretch the imagination, but local commanders say about 4,000 Taliban – including Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens – are holding back 5,000 Northern Alliance troops. Arabs are basically concentrated on bunkers on top of three hills and in high mountains, armed basically with cannons.
According to Maulavi Ahmad Jan Ahmadi, editor of the now-defunct “The Islamic Emirate” – the Taliban’s wacky monthly mouthpiece in English – “the month of Ramadan is a month of jihad, martyrdom and action, and not a month of idleness, inactivity and laziness.” The Taliban are strictly following the dictum. Although some argue these Taliban and Arabs were left behind during the Mullah Omar-induced “strategic retreat” from Kabul, most probably they’ve positioned themselves to cause maximum trouble to Northern Alliance forces in the capital.
In Maidanshar, the Taliban are actually surrounded on three sides. Northern Alliance positions encircle them on a 180-degree arc across the newly-paved road to Ghazni. The Alliance is receiving help from troops of Rasool Sayyaf, the Pashtun intellectual heavily supported by Saudi Arabia. Behind the hills are 600 to 1,000 Hazara troops – who answer directly to commander Khalil Khalili, one of the top Northern Alliance commanders. The Taliban have two possibilities for a way out, according to local commanders: to Bamiyan province, towards the northwest, or to Ghazni province, towards the west, through a series of mountain passes.
The Taliban have no tanks, but a cluster of RPGs and BM-12 heavy mortar launchers, with a range of fire of around six kilometers, and a few rocket launchers.
The Northern Alliance started with a T-55 tank with a 10- to 12-kilometer range on top of a hill, a BM-40 opposite, plus another two T-55 tanks and a few extra BM-12s – but soon got reinforcements. Local mujahideen are extremely upbeat. One of them, from the north side of Kabul province, relishes his prospects, “I will kill the Taliban,” he says with a smile.
These mujahideen answer to commander Amanullah Guzer – for the moment in Kabul for consultations with General Mohammed Fahim, army chief of the Northern Alliance. Another mujahideen insists that the Taliban “can resist only for a few days. Then they will run out of ammunition. They cannot receive more supplies.”
Further on down the road, the situation is far murkier. Ghazni is controlled by the Northern Alliance, but with many Taliban lurking outside the city’s perimeters. There are also plenty of Taliban on the road to Kandahar. It is clear that the Taliban are adopting the classic guerrilla strategy outlined in 1998 by Al-Qaeda’s Al Zawiri – the “government forces” may control the day, but the Taliban want to control the night.
The main Arab commander in Maidanshar is Abu Yousuf, a close supporter of Osama bin Laden. The main Taliban commander is Ghulam Muhamad – notorious for his financial gluttony and elaborated ruses to deceive his enemies. The “government forces” – as the Northern Alliance is now referred to – tried to buy his surrender and that of his troops for US$300,000. When they were about to deliver the money, apparently there was $100,000 missing, so Ghulam decided to open fire.
The mujahideen, a lot of them coming from Parwan, with the Sayyaf people coming from Paghman, are now waiting for permission from commander Fahim – now minister of defense in Kabul – to mount an offensive. Ghulam added more sauce to the mix when he decided that if resistance was impossible against the mujahideen, he would surrender – but to the ethnic Hazaras. The Hazaras are reportedly unhappy with the “government forces” because they were not given permission to enter Kabul. The Hazaras are not attacking Taliban’s positions: they are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Ghulam is sure to explore these ill feelings, although a knowledgeable source from Takhar province says that the relationship between Fahim and Khalili is “good” and that they are “determined to agree with each other.”
If the whole set-up sounds tortuous, it’s because it is. In an improvised press conference in a mujahideen-filled room inside a dilapidated roadside gas station – the local commander’s headquarters – tight-lipped commander Abdul Ahmad Dorani, with a hashish-like gaze in his eyes, tried to share some perspective. It’s a miracle that the glaringly obvious gas station has not been shelled yet by the Taliban.
Dorani is a former member of the Taliban forces, but he now has pledged his allegiance to “the Islamic State of Afghanistan.” It’s very simple: you just trade the turban for a camouflage jacket. He still looks and talks like a mullah, though. Dorani says that he has given a deadline for the evacuation of civilians from nearby villages – between 15 and 20, according to him – “and then we resume fighting.” The reason, “We don’t fire on civilian targets.” Dorani quotes a hard-to-believe figure of 30,000 to 40,000 civilians living in the area. Some of them can be seen walking by the roadside, bumping into incoming tanks, carrying their few belongings on their way to Kabul.
In one of his famous “messages,” Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) Mullah Omar said, “We order you gravely and severely to refrain from killing women and children, irrespective of the party with which they are affiliated. And if there falls into your hands combatants and elderly men, we forbid you from killing them without permission, even if the field commanders order you to kill them.” The Taliban and the Northern Alliance are not exactly following this code of ethics of not killing without permission, much to the horror of the “deeply concerned” United Nations, invoking a number of international humanitarian conventions in the daily press briefings in Kabul. There were massacres in Mazar-e-Sharif, there could still be a massacre in Kunduz, and nothing would prevent another massacre in Maidanshar.
But according to Dorani, “if we capture Afghans, we will let them escape because they are Afghans.” Fighting in Afghanistan is a way of life, regardless of who you fight for, and since allegiances can be forgotten without a blink, today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s best friend. Both sides – Northern Alliance and Taliban – are in constant radio communication.
They devise specific breaks in the action to collect casualties – not many so far, because “there has not been fierce fighting.” Dorani negotiates extensively with the Taliban: he is a local, and he knows the local elders. But the Arabs and Pakistanis are another matter entirely. “We will keep them and then send them to the defense ministry in Kabul.”
Dorani would welcome American aerial bombing to smash the Maidanshar front. “We’ve already pointed their positions to the Americans.” As we mention the possibility of a coordinated offensive with the Hazaras to dislodge the Taliban – after all, the Hazaras are on the other side of the hills – he simply says, “We are in contact with Khalili.” Dorani agrees that the situation in Maidanshar is similar to Kunduz: the Taliban are willing to surrender – or merely switch sides – but the Arabs are bent on becoming martyrs and earning eternal glory. As we finish talking, a Taliban shell lands only a few yards away from a Northern Alliance tank. The mujahideen disperse and engage in a lot of radio talk. It’s time to pack up, and come back the next day for the sequel.
The sequel is relatively uneventful. The village in the first line of fire is empty. Some 2,000 Taliban did surrender – according to commander Amanullah. An unspecified number fled to Vartak town, 10 kilometers ahead through the mountains. The mujahideen “will go after them.” Commander Amanullah – from the Shamali plains – steps out of his jeep filled with mujahideen to tell us there were no Arabs. The area is now totally controlled by the Northern Alliance – and it will be one of their bases. But “the battle is not finished.”
We jump onto a Toyota pick-up filled with deliriously happy mujahideen – Panjshiris, Hazaras – to visit the fallen village in the first line of fire. We meet a few of the Taliban who surrendered. One of them – a Taliban who should be featured as a cover story of the men’s fashion magazine L’Uomo Vogue – tells us that he abandoned the Taliban two years ago: “And what have you been doing all these years?” we ask. He’s been living in the village as a shepherd – he replies. He still keeps his turban, though. Commander Ziahuddin – not dressed in military fatigues, but simply enveloped in a blanket, in charge of 300 mujahideen – looks at him and declares, “It’s a talib.” But he’s now a free Talib – socializing with the mujahideen. We go back to the main road, catching a lift with commander Ziahuddin – happily enjoying the ride in his brand new, confiscated, former Taliban Toyota Corolla. “The battle is not finished.”