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Afghan Civilians Braced for War

Civilians in Northern Alliance-held territory express mixed feelings over the Afghan conflict, as opposition troops prepare to advance on Taleban positions.
By Tim Judah

A strange air of hope, fear and expectation hangs over opposition-controlled northern Afghanistan.


There is hope that the American and British air-strikes will bring about the rapid collapse of the Taleban; fear for the safety of relatives living on the other side of the lines; and the expectation that very soon orders will be given for the Northern Alliance's armies to launch an all out attack on Mullah Omar's forces.


"It is okay if they hit Taleban headquarters," said one solider, "but not civilians." A taxi driver and refugee from the Taleban-held city of Mazar-e-Sharif said, "All I care about is that my family in Mazar is safe."


A male nurse, also a refugee, with family in Taleban territory said, "I hope they are finished off as quickly as possible." A soldier signalled his pleasure at the air-strikes, saying only "Tony Blair!", accompanied by a broad grin.


Nowhere are there any public displays of joy, but people here are following developments anxiously on small shortwave radios tuned into stations as diverse as the Radio Iran and the various language services of the BBC and Germany's World Service.


Meanwhile, a drive on the back of an army truck behind the steep and dusty Kalakata hills, close to Afghanistan's frontier with Tajikistan, reveals that Northern Alliance forces are primed for action. While the front-line remains eerily quiet, bar the desultory exchange of the odd tank or artillery shell, it is clear that almost everything is now in place for a major push to break Taleban lines.


In otherwise empty, mud brick villages hundreds of soldiers are living in small barracks compounds, which would not look out of place on set of a film about the French Foreign Legion in the 1930s. On the top of every hill trenches and positions have been dug, while in each compound final preparations are being made.


At the barracks of a refugee unit, from Mazar-e-Sharif, the 01 Brigade, soldiers were making five metre long rakes. When the offensive comes, the first troops to advance will use them to clear Taleban mines in their path.


As dozens of his men crowded around, General Abdul Manon, the leader of the 01 Brigade sat cross-legged on the floor. "We have been fighting the Taleban and terrorism for six years but the world did not know about their dangers.


"Now we hope that the UN and the whole world will fight against them and destroy their army, then only (Osama) bin Laden will be left. He will be alone and have nowhere to hide."


According to General Manon, who can monitor conversations between Taleban commanders on their walkie-talkies, Mullah Omar's forces counted Pakistanis and Arabs amongst their number, plus Uzbek fundamentalists belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, whom he referred to as "Yuldash's men". Takhir Yuldash is the leader of the IMU.


The bulk of General Manon's men are Tajiks, but they include considerable numbers of Uzbeks plus a sprinkling of others, including Pashtun. Their common language is Tajik. Being refugees all of General Manon's men are full-time soldiers. They are housed and fed and paid some 12-20 US dollars a month.


Ten minutes walk from the brigade headquarters, General Manon's men have positions atop a steep hill. They have dug trenches and sandbagged their bunkers in readiness for action. Across the valley, the landscape is pockmarked with shell craters.


Less than a mile away two figures could be seen moving on the top of a facing hill. "Dushman! Dushman!" (Enemy! Enemy!) shouted the soldiers excitedly before loosing off rounds from heavy machine guns.


The Taleban response was swift. Barely a minute later fire was returned. As the group of visiting journalists alternated between sprinting for their lives and falling into the deep dust of the trenches, the crowd of thirty or so accompanying soldiers fell about in hysterical laughter, before taking cover themselves.


As the return fire died down, they sprinted back down the hill to safety whooping and screaming for all the world like kids plunging down a roller-coaster at a funfair.


If they survive the coming storm, General Manon says that he and his men, some of whom, like himself, have been fighting for the last 22 years with barely a break, have a dream. They want to go home to Mazar-e-Sharif, and then, "if people agree, I hope we will have a good government. Our people are hungry for peace. We hope that then we will be able to put our guns away and build agriculture, build roads, build schools and build hospitals."


Tim Judah is a regular IWPR contributor and Balkans specialist. He is the author of Kosovo: War and Revenge and The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, both published by Yale University Press.


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