Vancouver Sun
Wednesday, October 31, 2001
Page: A10
Section: News
Byline: Levon Sevunts
Dateline: JELAMKHOR, Afghanistan
Source: Montreal Gazette

JELAMKHOR, Afghanistan — The deafening thunder of American bombs dropped on a hilltop Taliban position near this village Tuesday was music to the ears of Commander Haji Muhammaddin.

His troops, dug into deep narrow trenches on Puze Pulekhomry hill opposite Taliban positions, need all the help they can get.

Just six months ago this range of hills in the Takhor province of northern Afghanistan was in his rearguard.

Now his troops will have to cross about two kilometres of no-man’s land, which has become a giant minefield, and fight against a dogged, numerically superior enemy to retake that hill range.

American jets bombed Kale Kata hill range, not far from the Tajik border, twice in the past three days.

In addition to its strategic location — from the hill range Taliban gunners control a narrow valley between Afghan hills and the Tajik border and can check any advance westward by the anti-Taliban forces — Kale Kata has a symbolic importance for the Americans.

According to the local commanders the hill is occupied by fighters affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida.

“We are hopeful by the mercy of God we will take that hill soon,” Muhammaddin, 34, said, as he listened to the conversations of his enemies on a walkie-talkie. “If Americans bomb, that’s good, but even if they don’t bomb we are still going to fight the Taliban. We have been fighting them for seven years now.”

A mortar burped on the neighbouring hill, lobbing a shell at Taliban positions. A white plume of smoke and dust on the slopes of the opposite hill marked where the shell landed.

One of Muhammaddin’s deputies, Commander Muhammad Omar, started taunting the invisible enemy, yelling insults in Urdu and Arabic into the walkie-talkie.

“At first the Taliban had a lot of Afghans but now it’s mostly foreigners,” Omar said. “We are facing about 1,000 people: Arabs, Punjabis, Chechnyans and fighters of Juma Namagani’s Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.”

Muhammaddin said his troops are ready to take on the Taliban.

“We have everything we need, we are just waiting for the order from the defence minister to start the offensive,” he said, repeating a mantra that every commander in the area has been repeating to visiting journalists.

However, Muhammaddin might have been exaggerating a little the military preparedness of his troops.

Most of them were armed by older Chinese or Iraqi-made AK-47 assault rifles.

They had a couple of light machine guns but their only heavy machine gun — capable of reaching Taliban positions on the opposite hill about two kilometres away — was in the repair shop.

Most soldiers were wearing new Russian combat boots, but unlike their colleagues in the valley below, instead of military uniforms they were wearing the traditional Afghan garb.

Nevertheless for Azim, a 21-year-old fighter who spent almost a year in the dusty trenches on Puze Pulekhomry, the moment when he would be ordered to attack the Taliban positions couldn’t come soon enough.

“I want to avenge my family,” Azim said, firing off his AK-47 to suppress incoming small arms fire from the Taliban positions in the valley below.

Azim’s father, a colonel in the army of president Burhannuddin Rabbani commanded by the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, was killed fighting against a Taliban offensive on his home town.

When the Taliban finally took Foryob, Azim’s home town, they lined up his six brothers and shot them in their own courtyard.

The military leadership of the Northern Alliance, meanwhile, seems to be in no hurry to start an offensive that is sure to cause enormous casualties.

“They have nothing to lose and everything to win if they drag the war throughout the winter,” said Hashmatullah Moslih, an Australian of Afghan origin who has come to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. “They can easily defend their positions now and prepare their troops for a major offensive.”

As he spoke, U.S. jets roared in the skies above and dropped a bomb on the Kata Kale Taliban positions, rattling windows in the town of Dashteqala, some 15 kilometres from Kale Kata.

Moslih said the United Front has to start the offensive on its own terms.

“Let’s face it,” Moslih said. “Americans came here for bin Laden, not for us.”