Taliban fighters find safety at front line

Troops leave Kabul bases, targets of U.S. bombing

War On Terrorism

The World

October 10, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

JABAL OS SARAJ, Afghanistan - Each evening just after sundown, convoys of heavily armed Taliban fighters push out of their bases in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and drive to the safest place they know: the front line.

Their enemies across the battle line, the Northern Alliance, watch the headlights of trucks and vans pulling up as close as they can get to the front line.

In Afghanistan's vicious civil war, the front line might seem an odd place to hide. But to the Taliban fighters defending Kabul, the closer they are to the front line, the farther they are from U.S. missiles raining down on the capital.

"They go in convoys of pickup trucks like Datsuns. ... They have grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs and all kinds of other weapons," said Sharifullah, 20, a mujahedeen with the anti-Taliban opposition who was in Kabul yesterday morning and crossed to the opposition-held northern territory the same day.

Each night of U.S. strikes has brought an intense exchange of fire between the Taliban fighters pressed toward the front line and the Northern Alliance forces. But the anti-Taliban forces have used their most powerful weapon, Grad multiple-rocket launchers, very sparingly.

The Northern Alliance is somewhat hamstrung by a shortage of weaponry, mainly because of the difficulty in getting supplies to their remote valley.

As he left Kabul early yesterday, Sharifullah said, he saw some of the damage caused by the U.S. missile strikes. The airport was in ruins, as was the TV tower and the radio center.

Sharifullah said the Taliban fighters in the nightly convoys heading out of Kabul appeared more subdued than usual. They weren't singing, chanting or playing religious music on their car radios as they often did in the past.

"That's how I knew they were scared," said Sharifullah.

Support from regular Afghans appears to be dwindling. In Kabul, "people were screaming at the Talibs, `It's all because of you,'" he said, referring to the U.S. strikes.

He said some of the Taliban fighters retreated to mountain hide-outs and returned to the city during the day.

"At sundown you can see their cars approach the front line, building up their positions," Northern Alliance commander Gen. Bobojan said yesterday in Bagram, a key opposition post. "And in the morning before sunrise, as soon as the bombing stops, they go back.

"That's how they raise their morale and spirits. At night, they strengthen their front line. In the daytime, they're having a great time, walking around Kabul, saying, `Let the Americans bomb, we're not scared.'"

Sharifullah said that after the first night of bombing, Taliban fighters knocked on the doors of every house in his village of Arghandi, 13 miles west of Kabul, and ordered each family to contribute one man to fight on the front line for the Taliban.

Sharifullah is an ethnic Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. Most Taliban are Pashtun, so it's easier for him to leave the city than it is for ethnic Tajiks, who face discrimination and harassment from the Taliban.

Another Pashtun from Kabul, medical student Abdul Marouf, 19, said that since the U.S. campaign began, the Taliban had also stepped up their campaign to get young men in Kabul to fight a jihad, or holy war. "They were arresting people before," he said, "but in the last days it got worse."

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