Montreal Gazette
Thursday, November 1, 2001
Page: A1 / FRONT
Section: News
Column: LEVON SEVUNTS In Afghanistan
Dateline: LALA MAYDAN, Afghanistan
Source: The Gazette

The Gazette’s Levon Sevunts visits a Northern Alliance training camp for tank operators in northern Afghanistan.

General Attiqola Bareollay, deputy defence minister of the anti-Taliban coalition, wants U.S. respect, even more than American tanks, jets and ammunition.

“We want to be treated as equals,” Bareollay said yesterday, speaking to reporters at a tank training ground just across the border from Tajikistan, in the northern Afghan province of Takhor. “If Americans want to deal with us, they have to speak with us as a government with another government.

“Any country that wants to participate in the solution to the Afghan problem must establish strong ties with our government.”

Bareollay said that the United Islamic Front for Salvation of Afghanistan, the official name of the Northern Alliance, has been fighting the Taliban for almost eight years and is the only force capable of defeating the Taliban on the ground.

“The bombing alone will never win this war,” Bareollay said. “You have to follow up with ground forces – and we are the ground force.”

At the training camp at Lala Maydan on the shores of the Amudarya River, Bareollay was making sure that his troops are ready for the eventual ground assault.

Bareollay made a routine spot check to keep the crews of about three dozen Russian-made armoured personnel carriers and T-55 tanks on their toes.

As he suddenly appeared in the camp with an entourage of officers carrying walkie-talkies, soldiers rushed to hide sleeping bags that were left to dry on the tank cannons and put aside their comfortable slippers, struggling to get into Russian combat boots.

“These tanks and APCs are reserved for the ground offensive,” Bareollay said as he passed by tank commander Zalmay Safi’s T-55.

Safi, whose older brother Azim lives in Scarborough, Ont., said he has been fighting for 13 years. His eyes lit up when he heard I was from Canada.

“The last time I saw my brother was 10 years ago,” Safi said. “If you see him, tell him that I’m in good health and I’m fighting to liberate our land.”

Safi said that even though his native Parwan region was free of the Taliban, he wouldn’t go home until all of Afghanistan is rid of them.

“God willing, we will go home soon,” Safi said. “But I’m ready to fight as long as it takes.”

The T-55s would be crucial for any ground offensive because they are going to be the tip of the lance that will pierce through Taliban lines, Safi said.

In 1992 and ’93, these tanks played a decisive role in the victory of the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud over the Hazaras, a Shiite ethnic minority supported by Iran.

Bareollay seemed satisfied with his spot check, but he could barely hide his frustration when asked about co-operation with the U.S. military.

He conceded that there were some “limited connections with high military authorities in the U.S.,” but seemed dissatisfied with their level and intensity.

U.S. Chose Targets

He emphasized that the U.S. bombing of Taliban positions at Kala Kata on Sunday and Tuesday was part of an exclusive U.S. plan and the targets were chosen by Americans.

He also denied reports that 50 U.S. soldiers in uniform were helping the Northern Alliance, particularly that 10 U.S. servicemen called in air strikes Sunday from Alliance positions at Puze Pulekhomry hill.

“We have no U.S. soldiers in this area,” he said.

Bareollay also said that he was unaware of any ammunition drops for his troops as was reported by U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“We haven’t asked for military assistance from the United States,” Bareollay said. “Even if they dropped ammunition, it would be in very limited quantity.”

But Bareollay later suggested the United States might have dropped ammunition for some specific commanders.

Bareollay also seemed dissatisfied with the intensity of U.S. air strikes, although he said he was very happy with the results of Tuesday’s “extremely precise” bombing, which he said killed at least 40 Arab Taliban fighters.

“But even at Kala Kata, the 10 bombs they dropped Tuesday are not enough,” Bareollay said as he took reporters for a tour of his positions on Aykhonum hill. “It’s a very big hill and the Americans hit two bunkers, but they have much more work to do.”

Now is the best time to hit the Taliban, who have moved to the front lines to escape U.S. bombing in cities, Bareollay said, showing reporters the Taliban positions at Kala Kata through powerful field glasses.

‘Nothing left of airport’

“I understand that for American people bombing some hill in Afghanistan might not seem as important as bombing the Kandahar airport,” Bareollay said.

“But there is nothing left of the Kandahar airport, while the Taliban fighters have moved to the front lines like these. This is where you can really hurt the Taliban.”

He said for the Americans there is an added bonus in bombing the Kala Kata and Khoja Ghar hill ranges.

“Juma Namangani, one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted deputies, is holding positions in these hills,” Bareollay said.

Namangani, an Uzbek and a former Soviet paratrooper who fought against the mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, has been one of the key figures in bin Laden’s Al-Qa’ida network.

His Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was put on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations two years ago, shortly after it attempted to assassinate Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent.

Responding to questions about a growing disappointment in the United States about the lack of ground action by the Alliance, Bareollay said that people who make such comments simply do not understand how complicated the situation is on the ground in northern Afghanistan.

“We have several isolated enclaves, and supplying them with enough ammunition to start a major offensive is very difficult,” Bareollay said. “But we will start the ground offensive before the winter sets in, and I hope by that time we will have more understanding with the Americans.”

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