Week In The Life Ahmed Shah Massood, Warlord: Warlord plots defeat of the Taliban

IT IS Thursday morning and Ahmed Shah Massood, the Afghan warlord, is at home and receiving visitors. Lots of them. Once every couple ofmonths he returns to his home village in the beautiful Panjshir valley, deep among the mountains of northwest Afghanistan, to listen to his supporters' grievances, solve their problems, bolster their morale.

This is his home ground, his cultural constituency, his spiritual heartland.

It was from the Panjshir that Massood, the most famous of the Afghan guerrilla commanders who fought the Russian occupation, launched the attacks that made him such a thorn in the side of the Red Army, and it is from the Panjshir that he is fighting his last stand against the Taliban - the hardline Islamic militia which has imposed its regime on 80 per cent of Afghanistan.

Over the summer, the Taliban hope to defeat Massood and his 15,000 fighters - the sole obstacle to their complete domination of the country - once and for all. Mr Massood has his back to the wall.

THIS MORNING, however, the Commander, as he is known to his men, is showing no sign of tension. He is sitting on the floor in his mud-walled home with 10 of his senior officers. They are drinking tea and discussing tactics for the forthcoming battle. Some favour a pre-emptive strike across the Shomali plains - a plateau north of Kabul, the Taliban-held capital. Others say it would be better to wait for the enemy to attack.

Mr Massood's men are well dug in and fighting on their home turf, their argument goes, and will soon stop a Taliban offensive and inflict heavy casualties into the bargain.

EARLY IN the morning, Mr Massood had arrived from Taloqan, a northern town which is the administrative headquarters of the opposition. He flew down in one of the seven old Russian helicopters that the rough alliance of factions runs for its senior men. The roads are so bad in northern Afghanistan that helicopters are often the only realistic means of transport.

After a 40-minute flight over the snowy mountains of Badakshan, the ancient MiG landed on the water meadow 200 yards from Mr Massood's home. His top commanders were already waiting for him. The debate goes on until lunch- time when Massood decides to see the potential battle ground.

He sets off in a truck south-west, down the Panjshir valley, towards the Shomali plains. The 100-mile drive to the front line takes more than three hours. After spending the afternoon inspecting his men's bunkers and trenches he drives back to the small town of Charikar where he spends the night in the house of Bismillah Khan, one of his key frontline commanders. The tactical discussions are resumed and go on late into the night.

ON FRIDAY morning, after a light breakfast, the Commander heads back up to the Panjshir. He is 46 and the gruelling life that he has been leading for more than two decades is beginning to show. Although his eyes are still bright there are bags beneath them and deep wrinkles at their corners. His famous curly black hair and beard arestreaked with grey.

At 11am, he stops at his father-in-law's house in the small village of Bazarak. Sitting at a desk in his library - full of books on military strategy and political analysis - he holds another series of meetings.

Waiting outside is Hazrat Ali, his military commander in the key eastern province of Laghman. "Of course he is tired," Hazrat Ali says.

"Anyone would be after fighting for 22 years. But he's still the best general in Afghanistan. Now he is experienced as well as inspired."

ON SATURDAY, Mr Massood returns to the trenches dug among the orchards and vineyards of the Shomali plains. Every soldier, no matter how senior, is anxious to prove his loyalty. And with good reason.

The word is out that Mr Massood's frequent visits to the front line are not just to encourage the troops: one of the frontline commanders is believed to have been bought off by the Taliban. It is a classic Taliban ploy. So through every meeting Mr Massood has sifted the evidence, watched and waited.

On Monday, he acts. Mullah Taj Muhammad - who commands nearly 1,000 troops on the eastern flank of the Massood positions - is picked up by the commander's bodyguard and held in the Panjshir.

On Tuesday, Taliban jets drop cluster bombs on the Panjshir, destroying dozens of homes and killing an unknown number of people.

Locals say it is the heaviest bombing of the valley since the Russians left 10 years ago. Mr Massood is unharmed but the message is clear. On the Shomali plains, his men make themselves ready. They know the battle is coming.

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