Warriors muster to fight the Taliban

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Bala Morghab, Afghanistan -

At first sight the Morghab Valley in north-west Afghanistan seems a blessed place. The fields are carpeted in poppies; sheep and horses graze together in peace and men are out trapping quail with nets.

On closer inspection, however, the grazing horses turn out to be the mounts of an Uzbek cavalry unit; the quail netters are all soldiers, seeking to supplement their meagre front-line rations; and the villages nestling idyllically on the valley floor are all empty, their Pashtun residents either having fled or been killed.

This is the western front in the fight between the Taliban, the Muslim fundamentalist militia who captured Kabul seven months ago, and a flimsy alliance of mujahedin commanders and communists.

There has been little fighting since the winter, when the Taliban's northward advance was blocked on three fronts. But with the melting of the snows, the two sides have been dancing around each other, testing each other's defences in expectation of the battle to come.

Nowhere is it more likely to start than in the Morghab Valley, where Ismail Khan, a legend in the struggle against the Russian invaders in the 1980s, is busy preparing a counter-attack. Khan, 49, a man with shrewd, twinkling eyes and a snowy white beard, was ousted from the governorship of the key western province of Herat two years ago.

This week, in his first interview for six months, he vowed to take it back, with or without the support of General Abdul Rashid Dostam, the former deputy defence minister who has emerged as the main player in the northern alliance.

"Internal pressure is beginning to tell on the Taliban," he said at his headquarters, a ruined farmhouse near Bala Morghab. "Heratis are enlightened, good people, different from the rest of the country. They will rise and support us as we advance. Dostam's support is not essential."

There may be another reason for his confidence, in the shape of military support from Iran, sworn enemies of the Taliban. Khan denies this support exists, even though the helicopter that ferried me to the front-line meeting was loaded with Iranian-made anti-tank and anti personnel landmines. He is also thought to have two bases in Iran, east of Meshed, raising the prospects of a two-pronged attack on Herat.

Much of his talk is bravado, but his soldiers are evidently intensely loyal, and driven by the pain of dispossession. "Three hundred of my boys have vowed to fight the Talibs with their last drop of blood," he says, before explaining the Koranic concept of amanat: "Those that die here will be buried where they fall, but later we will disinter them and take them to Herat."

Dostam's troops, by contrast, are taken back to their home provinces to be buried. They are also noticeably less well-disciplined.

Like most Afghans, Ismail Khan blames his country's troubles on foreign intervention. The Taliban revolution, he believes, is less to do with religious fervour than with the profits to be made from the vast reserves of natural gas in Turkmenistan, a few miles to the north.

The pipeline that will take this gas to market in the industrial world has yet to be built, although one possible route is through Afghanistan; any such pipeline must necessarily pass through Herat province. He is convinced that Pakistan's support for the Taliban is based on the belief that only the Taliban can provide the security necessary for a pipeline.

"Three years ago I met with the Taliban and Benazir Bhutto in Turkmenistan and assured them that I could provide security. The Taliban agreed not to take Herat, but then the US ambassador in Islamabad paid them a visit and they changed their minds." The front runner for the pipeline contract is Unocal, a Texas-based company.

"The oil companies gambled badly when they backed the Taliban. If they send the pipeline through Herat they will have to build a checkpoint at every metre, otherwise we will blow it up."