Ex-enemies unite to fight Taliban

Montreal Gazette
Sunday, November 4, 2001
Page: A1 / FRONT
Section: News
Byline: LEVON SEVUNTS
Column: Levon Sevunts in Afghanistan
Dateline: SOWJONI, Afghanistan
Source: The Gazette

Twenty years ago, Colonel Abdul Khaleq and his deputy, Habibullah, would have cut each other’s throats.

Khaleq was a career officer in the Communist Afghan army, trained at Ryazan Paratrooper College in the Soviet Union to fight the mujaheddin. Habibullah was a mujaheddin field commander, trained in a CIA-financed camp in Pakistan.

Today, both of them are officers in the army of the United Islamic Front, which has been fighting the Taliban for almost eight years. They are united by a mutual enemy.

“The Taliban want to drag this country back to the Middle Ages,” Khaleq said.

For Habibullah, the Taliban are an aberration.

“They call themselves Muslim but they aren’t,” Habibullah said. “They are just abusing the name of Islam.”

Thus Khaleq and Habibullah work hand in hand to prepare shock troops to defeat the Taliban fighters hiding in hills, barely 30 kilometres from their training camp.

It’s a job that never ends at the 787th light infantry battalion, housed in a square mud-walled fort with a rusting BTR, an armoured Soviet troop carrier, in the centre and World War II Soviet howitzers in the corners.

For every batch of graduates Khaleq and Habibullah train and send to units, posted all over the front line, a new batch of volunteers arrives.

“This war would be won or lost on the shoulders of these men,” Khaleq said, as he looked at about 100 new volunteers, villagers dressed in a mishmash of traditional Afghan clothing, herded into a corner of the fort.

Khaleq and Habibullah will eventually make soldiers out of them, but they have to start with basics: some of the soldiers don’t know their left from their right. Most don’t know how to read or write, so everything has to be explained to them.

Standing next to them in neat rows are two companies that have almost completed their training.

“They are ready to fight,” Khaleq said. “They have guns, special uniforms and sleeping bags – everything they need to fight.”

Pte. Sher Muhammad, a former farmer who grew wheat and rice for living and raised four children, said he was itching to go to war.

“I want to fight for the sake of my country and my children,” said Muhammad, who is about to complete his training.

For the recruits the training lasts about 10 months, and by the end of that time these Afghan peasants will have to learn to march, use small arms, dig trenches, destroy enemy tanks and positions.

Some of them fought against the Soviet Union.

But now they’ll have to learn to fight against a different and more dangerous enemy.

“The Taliban know how to fight, they know the country and they fight harder than Russians,” said Habibullah, who fought the Soviet invaders for almost 10 years. “Russians couldn’t last long against us. But the Taliban do, even with American bombs falling on them every day.”

In fact, in some cases the bombs actually hamper the ability of United Islamic Front to fight the Taliban, Habibullah said, watching his troops practice frontal assaults on enemy trenches.

“They don’t bomb them hard enough to destroy many of them,” Habibullah said.

“But because of the bombing we can’t attack them for the fear of being caught under these bombs.

“Before the bombing started our front lines were more active and we were even able to capture some towns, now we just sit and wait.”

But senior UIF commanders think their troops have done enough waiting.

General Mumar Hassan, one of the top UIF commanders, said it wasn’t possible any more to wait for the Americans to intensify their air campaign.

“Every minute we stay put we lose one year,” Hassan said, speaking at his compound in Dashteqala yesterday. “As soon as we complete supplying our troops we will attack, before the Taliban are resupplied by Pakistan.”

“You can’t win this war with bombs only, you’ve got to use ground troops and that’s what we intend to do very soon.”

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