Afghans still willing to fight after decades of war

Resistance buoyed by U.S. as violence becomes norm

War On Terrorism : The World

October 12, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MAHMOUD RALEY VALLEY, Afghanistan - When Aghashir and two friends were yanked out of his school a year ago and told by elders to join the forces fighting the Taliban, they did as two earlier generations of Afghans had done. They armed themselves with Kalashnikov rifles and fought.

The three friends came from the same village in the Panjshir valley, the center of resistance to the Taliban regime that has dominated Kandahar and Kabul, the capital. As children, Aghashir - who like many Afghans uses only one name - and the other boys played together in orchards filled with yellow apples.

The three 20-year-olds started to play grimmer games last year. Within months, both of Aghashir's friends had been killed by the Taliban in clashes over this section of the front, a broad river valley about 40 miles northeast of Kabul. Then, several soldiers in his tank unit died when a Taliban plane bombed an arms and ammunition container near a command post.

Aghashir, in his one year in the Northern Alliance, has seen combat five times. He insists he is enjoying himself: "I like it when there is fighting and we keep at it all the time and we are in contact."

One of the puzzles of Afghanistan is why, after 20 years of war, anyone is willing to keep fighting. Morale is now high among Northern Alliance soldiers because the United States has bombed the Taliban every day this week. And war has come to seem an almost normal part of life.

Fields, river beds and city streets are littered with the hulks of armored vehicles destroyed in conflicts. Tea houses and bazaars are jammed with heavily armed men. Graveyards - patches of bare earth distinguished only by ragged rows of unmarked stones - are filled with victims of the marathon bloodshed.

And men like the 21-year-old Aghashir are still willing to fight.

He has one of the worst imaginable jobs. He is radioman on an antique Russian tank. When the tank rattles toward the enemy across the valley, Aghashir crouches on the outside of the turret - shaped like the top of a mushroom - and shouts messages to the operator. The tank has room for only person inside.

For a harrowing five hours one recent day, Aghashir hung on while the Taliban aimed rockets at his tank. The rockets missed.

When he is not on the tank, Aghashir works out of a second floor office of the former provincial government building on a hilltop here. But his desk duties aren't necessarily safer. The building, which sits on a bluff with a commanding view of the valley, has changed hands four times in the past four years. The alliance captured it from the Taliban, which had captured it from the alliance - more than once. A Taliban plane bombed a corner into rubble.

Aghashir says he wants to be a doctor. He acknowledges that he entered the war only because he was conscripted. His village had two doctors, both of them poorly educated, he says. But he says he won't leave the army until the Taliban are defeated. "If there is no peace in our country, I am ready to keep fighting," he said.

Not everyone in Aghashir's family is as enthusiastic about the war. One of Aghashir's younger brothers served in an alliance unit in his early teens but then quit and, at age 16, fled to Iran.

Aghashir was drinking tea yesterday in his bombed-out building when an alliance rocket launcher fired a salvo. Each launch was like a muffled explosion. He watched through a gaping hole in the building as one of the 122 mm rockets burst near four Taliban tanks in a field, about four miles away. At that distance, the tanks resembled green mites on a brown carpet. The rocket exploded in a pinprick of light, followed by a spray of dust.

He is asked whether he can he imagine an Afghanistan without war. "We don't want war all the time," he said. "But it's difficult to say when the war will be finished."

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