Ragtag anti-Taliban forces fight in hopes of U.S. help
It will be no easy task for these patchwork forces, despite mounting hopes that U.S. strikes against the Taliban might help.
Taliban forces control the heights on one mountain and Kabul, beyond. The opposition Northern Alliance controls a peak across a desolate valley.
Over the day, both sides traded fire. They fire machine guns at each other every night and sometimes hurl insults over a common radio frequency. No major military activity was reported yesterday.
The opposition unit says this forward position, a place with no name, is four miles from Kabul — but with a mountain in between, that's far.
The ragtag forces have been battling for years against the Taliban, who control more than 90 percent of Afghanistan, with little change in the balance of power.
But now the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States have sparked an upsurge in fighting and raised hopes that the U.S.-backed anti-terror coalition will help. Already, Russia has said it will provide more arms and equipment.
Opposition fighters hope U.S. military strikes against the Taliban will tip the war in their favor.
At least six former Mujahedeen groups, who marched into Kabul in May 1992 to seize the capital from the Russian-backed communist government, have gathered under the Northern Alliance's umbrella. They represented a panoply of ethnicities and Islamic backgrounds, a welter of loyalties to religious and military leaders.
They stare out through dark eyes, weathered faces and heavy beards. Their uniform of choice is not camouflage but the flowing traditional Afghan robes. Instead of boots, they wear sandals or black pull-on shoes.
While the Bush administration reportedly is considering providing weapons and supplies, the movement, according to all analysts who have studied it, remains fragile and suffused with conflicting aims and personalities.
Its member groups also have committed widespread human-rights violations that constitute crimes against humanity, according to the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch.
Taking Kabul is not their primary objective, the alliance says. "We are waiting for American strikes and once they begin we will decide whether we should launch our offense on Kabul," said Rakhmat Ramazan, an official in the alliance's foreign ministry.
The front line north of Kabul generally lies about 12 miles north of the city, though patrols sometimes push even closer. Western and Pakistani sources estimate the Taliban can field about 40,000 fighters, while the opposition numbers up to 20,000.
In their long conflict, changes on the battlefield have been determined as much by shifting alliances as by military might.
Guerrillas have vanished into the crevices of the Afghan terrain to evade the British, the Soviets, and each other for so long it comes naturally. "We're mountain people," said Qayum, 44, squatting in the dust just outside the sangar, the mountain base. "We're used to fighting here. For us, its not difficult. For others, I don't know."
Although the men of the Northern Alliance are determined to fight, they also are ready for the war with the Taliban to end.
"It's not possible for Osama bin Laden to come here to hide," said Siddig, 40, a commander who has been fighting one foe or another here for 25 years.
It might be easy to dismiss such assurances were it not for the mountain fighters' record. One young guerrilla offered a telling reminder of that past as he hoisted his Kalashnikov for inspection.
"This came from the hand of a Russian," he bragged.
He meant a dead Russian.
Compiled from Associated Press, Newsday and Washington Post reports.