Army of god runs into the Afghan sands

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The Independent Online
The Taliban religious militia, the conquerors of Kabul, are facing the same miseries that confronted the Soviet army in its doomed war in Afghanistan.

Even with an armada of helicopter gunships and MiG fighter planes, the Soviet army failed to prise the rebels of Ahmed Shah Massoud out of the Panjshir valley, a long, deep vein running through the Hindu Kush range.

Now Mr Massoud's forces are back again in the Panjshir, fighting the Taliban who two weeks ago chased them out of Kabul.

It could not be much worse for the Taliban. Apart from a few helicopters and aged fighter aircraft (flown by ex-Communist pilots who do it for money, not from Islamic zeal), the Taliban cannot fall back on aerial support.

Their warriors are expected to climb mountains wearing plastic sandals and wrapped in blankets against the icy winds. As southerners, the Taliban are as unfamiliar with the craggy defiles of the Hindu Kush as were the fair-haired Soviet conscripts from Ukraine.

Using the same hit-and-run tactics perfected against the Soviet army, Mr Massoud and his men have dealt the Taliban their worst reverses since the militia began their victorious sweep across most of Afghanistan almost two years ago.

Stealing down out of the mountains, Mr Massoud's men have succeeded in encircling Jabal os-Siraj and Charikar, two key towns on the Salang highway, which connects Kabul to Central Asia. The Taliban "information minister" in Kabul, Amed Khan Muttaqi, conceded yesterday that the militiamen had made a "tactical withdrawal" from these two besieged towns.

At the same time, Mr Massoud's men have struck even closer to Kabul. For several nights running, forces loyal to Mr Massoud and the ousted President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, have attacked Baghram airbase, only 30 miles from the capital.

The Taliban fighters are devout and illiterate: one shaggy gunman defending Baghram pointed at me and asked my translator if it was true that killing a non-Muslim would guarantee a place in paradise. My guide convinced him that to shoot me would not incur divine merit.

The militiamen believe the Prophet Mohamad revealed himself to the Taliban's 35-year-old leader, Mullah Mohamed Omar, in a dream and ordered him to purify Afghanistan of thieves. They believe angels ride into battle with them, shimmering above their armoured vehicles. The Taliban are unaccustomed to losing, and the hundreds of casualties Mr Massoud inflicted on them in the past few days has sapped their morale.

At Charikar, when rockets fell recently, several Taliban gathered on the roadside, trying to flee in any passing vehicle. A Taliban jeep, practically empty, roared past them, but the driver was too worried about his own life to stop. Their willingness to become battlefield martyrs is also open to doubt. One Taliban fighter, Abdul Hamid, 24, explained how they succeeded in capturing a ridge at the Panjshir's entrance. "The thief Massoud had never been pushed off that mountain by the Russians but we did it," he bragged. "Of course, our commander threatened that he'd kill us if we tried to run away," he grinned.

Most worrying for the Taliban is the new alliance between their growing band of ethnic enemies. The Taliban draw their fighters from the Pathan tribes of the south. The alliance unites Tajiks, under Mr Massoud, the Uzbeks of General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara Shias from central Afghanistan. General Dostum, an old foe of Mr Massoud, has yet to hurl his air force and tanks into the fray but he may do so.

Gen Dostum is a former Communist who switches sides when it suits. But he is probably being persuaded by Iran and the Central Asian republics to swallow his rancour against Mr Massoud. The Taliban yesterday warned Iran not to interfere in its war against the ousted regime.

Even though Mr Massoud's Tajik forces are skirmishing with the Taliban only six miles from the northern gates of Kabul, he may not gamble on a direct attack immediately. Most likely, say observers, he will first capture Sarobi, to the east, blocking Kabul's supply line to Pakistan. Then he might try to overrun Baghram, so that his forces and Gen Dostum's can use it as a launching-pad to besiege Kabul.

The Taliban scored numerous victories by outmanoeuvring their enemy, using fast vehicles armed with rocket-launchers.

This worked well as long as they were attacking but now they are stuck defending Kabul, the Taliban may have no choice but to sit and wait for Mr Massoud's approach.