Artillery shells whined above the bare, leathery hills south-west of Kabul on Friday as forces of the Northern Alliance fought to prise Taliban and Arab fighters out of entrenched positions near densely populated villages in a place called Maidan Shar, "Field of the King''.
Kabul's new rulers used tanks and rocket launchers to bombard the enemy from a distance of about half a mile, while heavy machine-guns chattered closer at hand.
Soldiers with the Northern Alliance said 2,000 Taliban and Arab and Pakistani fighters were resisting in the area, with 5,000 Northern Alliance troops ranged against them and up to 40,000 civilians stuck in the middle.
The stand-off at Maidan Shar, only 20 miles from Kabul on the newly tarred road that leads to Kandahar, began earlier this week. On Thursday, the Taliban commander, Ghulam Mohammed, agreed to surrender but, when the Northern Alliance approached his forces to disarm them, they were fired upon and withdrew. Ghulam Mohammed has a reputation for deception: two years ago, during a battle against Northern Alliance forces, he took $300,000 (£210,000) as an inducement to surrender but reneged on the deal and carried on fighting.
As the battle resumed yesterday morning with tank shells sending up clouds of smoke and dust after apparently landing in the middle of a village, yet more of Afghanistan's endlessly expanding population of internal refugees began streaming up the road towards Kabul.
Some came in old lorries piled with their possessions, one old man hobbled up the road leading a single cow. Two Northern Alliance soldiers had reportedly been killed and two wounded by mid-morning but there was no information about civilian casualties.
What we saw was a battle so neatly laid out it could have been a miniature conflict laid on a table. A monochrome village of mud houses, Takona, sits at the foot of the bare hills. Another, smaller village is located a few hundred yards to the left. The smaller village is held by the Taliban, the larger one disputed between the two sides. Taliban forces are also resolutely dug into positions on the tops of the hills behind the villages.
According to the Northern Alliance forces commander, up to 40,000 civilians are trapped in the middle of the fighting, spread between 14 and 20 villages. These figures seemed improbably high to us but some of the villages could have been obscured behind hills.
When we arrived at 9am, all was quiet but, within minutes, the Northern Alliance had opened up with rockets from a launcher parked close to the road, as well as with machine-guns. The fighting was much heavier than on Thursday, with artillery used by both sides for the first time.
We observed from the main road, where, at the turn-off to the disputed village of Takona, there are a few mud huts and freight containers adapted for use as shops and a bakery. The turn-off is also the mustering point for Northern Alliance fighters and, after half-an- hour, the crew of a T55 Russian tank that was parked in front of a shop received the order to engage. The tank started up and rolled a few hundred yards down the main road then began firing shells into the Taliban-held village. After three or four of these had landed, the Taliban replied with a mortar shell that exploded close to the tank.
The exchanges of fire continued through the morning then, at noon, the Northern Alliance commander, Abdul Ahmed Dorani, summoned the foreign press to his command post, a room inside a disused petrol station.
"We have warned them to leave the areas,'' he said. "We have given them a deadline of tomorrow afternoon. We do not fire on civilians, only on the artillery and heavy machine-guns. If we capture Afghans we will let them go but if we capture Arabs or other foreigners we will send them to the Defence Minister ... They are in three positions on the hills and that is why we have ordered them to leave because we are worried they might move down into the villages.''
It is an enigmatic battle. Is this the desperate last stand of stragglers left behind when the Taliban abandoned Kabul? Or is it a calculated demonstration by the Taliban of the severe limitations to the Northern Alliance's power?
The latter explanation is more persuasive. The Taliban are hemmed in by other forces: Pashtun forces commanded by Rasool Sayyef to the north, Hazara forces commanded by Khalil Khalili to the west. The mountainous route south to Kandahar 300 miles away is clear and it is rumoured they are being supplied from that direction.
They are not surrounded and can flee if hard pressed. In the meantime, their resistance makes it graphically clear that the Northern Alliance, whose peaceful occupation of the capital has given them credibility to the outside world, can claim practically no territory south of the city. The road to Kandahar remains impassably dangerous.Reuse content