Crouched on a hill overlooking the tanks defending one of the last two cities in Afghanistan still under Taliban control, we listened yesterday to the voice of one of the Taliban making a last stand in Kunduz. Down below, just over a mile across the burning plain, the Taliban tanks fired defiantly into the hills around us.
"It doesn't make any sense to fight on," a Northern Alliance soldier was shouting into the radio. "We already control all the rest of Afghanistan: Kabul, Bamiyan, Jalalabad. Come over and join us."
Through the static and the boom of the tanks, the voice of the Talib came back. "Do not worry about us, God is merciful. We are not going to surrender," he said calmly. "We shall fight to the last."
Beyond the Taliban tanks, lay a city under siege. Kunduz is surrounded on all sides by the Northern Alliance. Inside, at least 20,000 Taliban are holed up, according to the Northern Alliance, maybe as many as 30,000. By the side of the road, an Alliance soldier ignored the red-painted stones warning of mines and prayed on a carpet spread in the middle of a minefield.
Apart from Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban in the south, Kunduz is now the only city in Afghanistan that opposition forces do not control – and, according to the Northern Alliance, even in Kandahar, the Taliban are fleeing.
The last place anyone expected the Taliban to hold out was here, in the north. But the Taliban fled to Kunduz from across the north as other cities fell to the Northern Alliance. The road to Kabul runs right through the front line, and the north-east is, in effect, cut off from the rest of the country.
Little information that emerges about conditions inside one of the last cities ruled by the Taliban is verifiable, but some strange stories do come out. A few days ago, according to a local who had just fled, the Taliban hanged five of their own commanders in the city – and one of the men swinging from a rope was not just any commander but Mullah Abdul Khaliq, a famous and respected leader. It seems he was trying to defect to the Northern Alliance. "When we tried to reach them on the radio, no one answers," said Pir Mohammed, a senior Alliance commander.
It is not the strangest tale to come out of Kunduz. In the dead of night this week, two Pakistani army planes were said to have landed in the city. They left again after taking on passengers, according to Northern Alliance intelligence.
But who could be inside the besieged city that Pakistan is so keen to get out – and why did the Americans allow the planes to travel there? The US controls the skies of Afghanistan: B-52s and F-18s are constantly criss-crossing above.
Inside Kunduz, it is the "Afghan Arabs", the foreign volunteers believed to be led by Osama bin Laden, who appear to be in control. Little is known about the foreign Taliban. Afghan Taliban soldiers taken prisoner by the Northern Alliance say the foreigners do not fight side by side with them, but in separate units, under their own commanders.
The mayor of Kunduz trekked through the surrounding mountains to meet General Mohammed Daud of the Northern Alliance. Sitting in a garden in nearby Taloqan, with Alliance helicopters on their way to Kunduz thundering overhead, General Daud said the mayor was ready to surrender, but was still negotiating with the foreign volunteers, who are bitterly opposed to surrender.
The foreigners have little incentive to give up. On the hill overlooking the Taliban defensive positions, Khayreddin, a Northern Alliance soldier brandished a fearsome-looking bayonet, said: "When we get into Kunduz, I am going to make kebabs out of the Arabs."
Then he ran the bayonet blade along his throat, and mimed stabbing himself in the heart with it. "These foreigners have killed thousands of civilians," added his commander, Pir Mohammed. "Their hands are covered with the blood of our people. We will avenge this."
All over the country, former Taliban are changing allegiance in the traditional seamless Afghan way, quietly swapping their black turbans for the pakoul cap favoured by the Northern Alliance's assassinated leader, Ahmed Shah Masood. Bin Laden's foreigners are becoming the scapegoats, the outsiders who caused all the trouble by setting Afghan against Afghan and there are fears of reprisals if the Alliance take Kunduz.
The Northern Alliance insists there will be no massacres. "We will allow the low-ranking foreigners to appear before a court," General Daud told reporters yesterday. "But we will not deal with the high-ranking ones. They murdered our commander, Ahmed Shah Masood. We will not deal with them." What will become of them? "There will be a trial," the general said, lamely.
But it is not only foreigners holding out in Kunduz. The voice we heard over the radio had a heavy Kandahar accent.
The Northern Alliance have not stormed Afghanistan through any military brilliance of their own – they were steadily losing the war here, for five years, even when Masood was still alive. Most of their sensational advances have come because of defections, on the back of the US bombing.
If the Taliban mount a serious defence, Kunduz presents a much tougher problem. The road to the front line is littered with the burnt-out relics of Afghanistan's endless wars: a passenger bus blown to pieces by the Soviets, a tank ripped apart by the victorious Taliban as they marched this way to conquer Masood's capital in Taloqan 14 months ago.
Near the front line lies the latest, a blackened Russian truck, half melted. It was ambushed by the Taliban three days ago when Alliance soldiers naively tried to drive into Kunduz on the promise that the local commander was defecting. According to soldiers at the front, Alliance commanders did not even bother to secure the hills overlooking the road in the euphoria of sweeping Afghanistan.
Now, the most striking thing on the road is not the frontline positions, but the tanks guarding the approach to Taloqan, the next city up the road. The Alliance is nervous in Taloqan. The word is that they fear the Taliban will not only defend Kunduz but could attack Taloqan in an attempt to break out to the south.
Everybody here, it seems, hates the bin Laden foreigners equally – but no one doubts their military prowess.Reuse content