Taliban are shaken but defiant as bombing fails to instill terror

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The Independent Online

We could see the American special forces team guiding the bombs in, five men watching from a ridge just a few hundred metres from the Taliban front line, within range of Taliban rifles. And, less than an hour after the bombs ploughed into the hills, sending great columns of smoke into the sky, we saw the Taliban emerge unscathed from their trenches.

The tiny figures were clearly visible against the golden sunset, where only a short while before there had been smoke and flames. And there was no mistaking what they were doing. They were praying.

It could have been a gesture of defiance, the way they knelt and rose in prayer, keeping the regular hour of evening prayer, despite the bombs that seemed to make the hills burn in slow motion where they stood, less than an hour before.

A Northern Alliance radio crackled. The voice of a Taliban soldier came across the static. "We are alright," he said. His voice was shaken, but defiant. These are the soldiers who are supposed to be dying, or fleeing in terror before the American onslaught.

Sherendel Sohol, a Northern Alliance general, said he often heard men screaming and crying out for help when the American bombs fell. They have bombed this ridge of hills relentlessly in the last week, wave after wave of carpet-bombing.

Only 20 Taliban soldiers have died in the bombing on this front line, Saeedjalal Saeedi, a senior Northern Alliance commander said yesterday, and only 15 have been injured. More than 100 bombs fell here on Sunday, but only six Taliban died in the onslaught that day, according to General Saeedi.

Often the bombs only succeed in blowing chunks out of the hillside. You can see a white crater where one landed close to the Northern Alliance positions.

The Northern Alliance soldiers watched from beside the rusting hulk of a Russian tank destroyed more than a decade ago in the war with the Soviets, and left in position. A functioning Northern Alliance tank was sandbagged in beside it.

Across the wide valley, where the sun glinted off the many snaking streams of the Kokche river, that has seen countless invading armies come and go, from Alexander the Great to the Russians, was a perfect view of the Americans' war in Afghanistan.

We could see the US ground forces in Afghanistan through the crosshairs of an old pair of Russian military binoculars mounted on a tripod: five men crouched among the sandbags of a Northern Alliance position on the near ridge of hills. Just a few hundred metres beyond were the Taliban positions, on a second, higher ridge called Kalaqata.

A B52 circled lazily overhead, dropping bombs that sent great columns of black smoke rising in neat rows each time it passed over Kalaqata. There was an occasional stutter of anti-aircraft fire as the Taliban tried to shoot it down, but it was thousands of feet above the range of their guns. All that technological sophistication, that could allow the Americans to rain devastation from the safety of the skies, was being guided by five men crouching on a perilous hillside, within easy range of the Taliban's snipers. When the B52 had finished its work, the special forces raced down from the hillside in green Russian military truck, driving straight through the deep streams of the Kokche that most people here ford on horseback. They use a different vehicle every day, to avoid detection. Another day, we saw them use two jeeps with blacked out windows.

Once they had gone, the Northern Alliance started trying to radio the Taliban. The soldier we got through to they knew only by his call-sign, Omari, but they seemed almost concerned that he was alright. They speak whenever there is a bombardment – and only then. "Once, Omari's commander came on the radio, and asked me why I didn't defect to them and fight against the Americans," laughed a Northern Alliance commander.

On another frequency, Northern Alliance propaganda started up. "You are not brave people," someone intoned in a high voice. "You have brought shame to the name of Islam."

A Northern Alliance soldier sat and stared moodily at the hills. "Once, some of us in this army fought against the Russians, and some fought with them," he said. "Now we are together against the Taliban. And I think that soon we will be together with them," he gestured towards the Taliban positions, "fighting against..." he hesitated "...some one". Did he mean the Americans? "The Americans are imperialists," he said.

The US special forces had disappeared into the gathering night. Up on Kalaqata, the Taliban were still prowling around.