For some, choosing sides is a matter of survival

Defectors say hunger motivated their decision to join Taliban army

War On Terrorism

The World

October 19, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JAMJI, Afghanistan - Five years ago, a small group of poor villagers joined with the Taliban because food prices were rising drastically in their isolated territory controlled by the opposition. The men needed to eat, they couldn't afford to do so, and they joined the Taliban army.

This week, they defected. And yesterday they vowed to fight the army of Islamic radicals they had served so faithfully - until a few days ago.

After decades of fighting invaders and each other, Afghanistan's soldiers have learned how to survive. They know when to change sides.

Malang Shah, the 25-year-old leader of these 10 soldiers, said he wouldn't hesitate to fire on friends left behind with the Taliban.

"Right now, they are my enemy and I will shoot them if I catch them," said Shah, who was wearing a turban and carrying a Kalashnikov, a Soviet-era rifle. Officers with the opposition Northern Alliance here said they hope that, if and when they advance on Kabul, the current trickle of defectors will swell to a flood, washing away the Taliban lines.

"God willing, we can defeat them without fighting," said Gul Mohammed, a Northern Alliance officer.

Three other groups of Taliban soldiers have been in radio contact with him, he said, talking about switching sides.

The soldiers who defected yesterday were not Islamic militants determined to wage jihad, or holy war. They were simply hungry people.

When the Taliban squeezed the Northern Alliance into a sliver of countryside, supply lines were cut off in that area and prices began to rise.

"I didn't believe in the Taliban jihad," said 18-year-old Farid, a Taliban quartermaster who brought a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with him when he defected. "We had to fight for the Taliban. We were obligated, because of our poverty."

The defectors said they never saw combat but ferried weapons and ammunition to the Taliban's front lines on their backs. `They didn't trust us to be on the front lines," Shah said.

About three years ago, they said, they began radioing reports about Taliban positions to Northern Alliance officers, using secret frequencies and codes.

They finally decided to defect, Shah said, after the assassination of the charismatic Northern Alliance military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and the terror attacks in the United States two days later. The soldiers plotted switching sides along with about 300 other Taliban soldiers here in Kapissa Province, northeast of Kabul.

Shah said the larger group of defectors planned to surround a Taliban position and force its surrender. But the Taliban discovered the plot when they overheard a radio transmission, and Shah and his tiny group had to flee north by themselves Tuesday night through this heavily mined area.

Now he worries about the would-be defectors he left behind. "Maybe the Taliban, they already sent them to jail, or they killed them," he said.

Many civilians have been caught up in the long war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, especially in this area. The front lines here straddle the thickly settled Shomali Plain, one of Afghanistan's richest agricultural areas, fed by major rivers and flanked by the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains.

Northern Alliance officers arranged for the defectors to meet with journalists yesterday in an abandoned, mud-walled home in this tiny village. At one point, the defectors posed with their weapons for photographers on the ruins of the villa's back porch.

Several Northern Alliance commanders say that Taliban troops have poured into this area after the United States airstrikes began - both to reinforce the front and avoid the bombing.

But Shah and his fellow defectors said the opposite was true, at least in their section of the front. "They started escaping at the start of the bombardment," Shah said.

"They are getting weaker," Farid said. "There are fewer on the front line."

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