Taliban fighters advance and pray for martyrdom

Afghanistan's Islamic warriors face two formidable enemies in the Panjshir valley, writes Tim McGirk
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The Independent Online
The entrance to the Panjshir valley was sure death. From an invisible spot on top of the soaring canyon walls, the artillery men of the former Afghan defence minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, were aiming their mortar shells at the dirt track beside the river with the precision of someone sighting down a microscope.

The first mortar crashed against the far side of the canyon wall, 100 yards away from the Taliban road crew who were cowering under a rock ledge. The second shell splash-ed into the river. The third, in quick succession, hit the road, advancing towards the Taliban like blows from a giant sledgehammer. Then there was nothing, only the roaring river. A fish jumped. The road crew, who had been glued by fear to the rocky overhang, relaxed and left their hiding place.

Led by a bearded, pot-bellied clergyman, the Taliban went back to their work, clearing away huge boulders dynamited on to the road by Commander Massoud to cover his retreat from the Taliban forces into the Panjshir valley.

Then the mortars screamed down, loosening rocks from the canyon wall and shooting up dust. It might have been the sixth or seventh mortar that caught the road crew. One man was gashed in the face and his pantaloon trousers were stuck to his legs with blood. Another mortar smashed down and they all ran.

Back at the Russian-made tank on the road, I asked a young gunner who wore a head bandage under his glittering skullcap if he would lead the Taliban charge into the narrow gorge. He nodded. But it was the way to certain death, I argued. "It is the way to Allah," he replied matter-of- factly.

Before sunset, on the other side of Gulbahar, at the beginning of the Panjshir, I saw hundreds of Taliban fighters hiking in single file up the barren mountain. They would pray and then try to advance higher up the mountain and capture Commander Massoud's gun emplacements. Hundreds, may die when the assault comes; it is the way to Allah. Or so the Taliban would have us believe.

A goateed young fighter named Abdul Hamid gave us a different version of how the Taliban motivate their fighters. He jumped into our taxi at the roadblock with his AK-47 rifle, but at least had the decency to snap out his clip full of bullets so that he wouldn't shoot me by mistake.

"Follow that bus!" he ordered. "I waved for the driver to stop, and he drove by, so now I want to beat up the driver."

The Taliban may control 70 per cent of Afghanistan, but they still have two formidable enemies waiting for them in the Hindu Kush mountains. One is Commander Massoud, who has the loyalty of thousands of fellow Tajiks in the Panjshir. The Taliban are Pathans, a rival ethnic community.

The other adversary is a former communist general, Abdul Rashid Dostam, who rules the Uzbeks of northern Afghanistan. General Dostam has powerful allies across the border among former Soviet republics, who view the advance of the Taliban Islamic warriors with growing alarm.

The clerics of the Taliban are hoping that General Dostam hates Commander Massoud more than he hates them, but the new Islamic lords of Kabul may be wrong in that assumption. The general yesterday closed off the Solang tunnel which leads into his northern domain, and fighting broke out below the tunnel's mouth, at Jabal os Sarraj.

The Taliban's chances of prising Commander Massoud from the Panjshir are greatly diminished if they have to divert their forces over to fight General Dostam, who has MiG fighter-planes and hundreds of tanks at his command.