Fighter by trade yearns for peace

Soldier: For more than 20 years, war has been his way of life in northern Afghanistan. Now he's ready for a change

War On Terrorism

The World

October 31, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TOGHMA, Afghanistan - Delagha takes the gun and turns it over with his thick hands, to display the number stamped on the blue metal: 964492. This was his first Kalashnikov, and he got it when he was 16, wresting it away from a Soviet officer who cornered him on the mountain slope above his home. He shot the soldier with it.

Now one of Delagha's soldiers keeps the wood polished, the metal oiled and the banana-shaped clip filled with bullets. The gun is more than a souvenir of a warrior past: It is still the main tool of his trade. Even though he is 20 years older, even though he is a husband and father, and sometimes thinks of leaving Afghanistan to start a new life, Delagha is still at war.

He fought the Soviets, then the communist government in Kabul and later against an Afghan military chieftain supported by Pakistan. For the past six years, he has fought the Taliban.

War has been his college, his graduate school, his career and his life. And by Afghanistan's standards, Delagha, who uses only one name, is a success. He is the top assistant to what Afghans call a "commander," which means a warlord. He helps direct more than 300 part- and full-time soldiers fighting on two fronts. And he may one day become a commander himself.

The U.S. war against the Taliban has just begun. If the Taliban are defeated, Afghanistan may find peace and stability. But that will come true only if the next generation of leaders, including Delagha, is sick of fighting. Those leaders will have to turn away from the violence that has given them power and status, and embrace new ways.

Delagha, for one, is ready for change.

"I am tired of the war," he says, sitting on a cushion on the flat roof of a Northern Alliance command post in the steep, rocky slopes of the Salang Valley. He wears dark glasses, black combat boots, a fatigue jacket and pants, and sits with his legs folded under him. His Kalashnikov rests on a pillow to his right.

Some young commanders say bluntly that they would not accept democratic elections, fearing an end to their power. But Delagha says the loose coalition that is the Northern Alliance will in the end unite behind an elected government.

"We want a good government, with reasonable policies that everyone in Afghanistan supports," he says. "We will vote in elections, to decide what are the wishes of all the groups in Afghanistan. And we will accept the results of those elections."

Delagha's father was a prosperous furniture merchant with a home and business in Kabul, as well as the family's ancestral compound in the Salang, surrounded by walnut and mulberry trees and terraced wheat fields that march up the slopes.

But the war changed his family's fortunes. Delagha spent years roaming mountain passes, attacking Soviet convoys and eluding aircraft. Members of his family were shot by Soviet troops. Kabul, where he grew up, was nearly leveled; thousands died there during the early 1990s in fighting between mujahedeen groups. Later, Delagha's home in Kabul was seized by the Taliban. His wife and three children are refugees living in Iran.

`Things we cannot forget'

The war has killed many of his friends and relatives. In one day, he recalls, he attended 25 funerals. "I think about them all the time," he says. "There are things that we cannot forget."

He is a big man with a square jaw; he stands about 5 feet 10 and weighs 200 pounds. In school and the army, he was a boxer. When he learns that a visitor once met American boxer Muhammad Ali, he breaks into a broad grin - revealing a quarter-inch gap between his front teeth. His broad nose takes an odd turn about halfway down the bridge. But he says few men have been able to hurt him in the ring.

He rarely boxes anymore. He moves gracefully, but stiffly, and grimaces when he folds his legs under him in the Afghan style. The discomfort comes from his having been shot three times, once in the right arm and twice in the back.

Delagha began waging war while in high school. "One night, I heard the radio saying that the enemy, that the Red Army of Russia, was invading Afghanistan," he says. Within weeks, he watched tanks roll down the streets of Kabul. He went to one of the city's secret mujahedeen committees and shook the hands of the leaders. "From that time on, I was a soldier."

Three years after he started fighting, Delagha met Ahmed Shah Massood, who became his commander, friend and mentor in the dark art of war. "We became the best of friends," he says. "Because the Russian army occupied our country, I promised Massood that I would fight with him."

Massood emerged as head of the Northern Alliance and showed genuine skill as a military leader and diplomat. He also helped support Delagha's family in exile in Iran. When Massood was assassinated in a suicide bombing Sept. 9 by two men posing as journalists, Delagha wept.

"Every time I think of it, I cannot speak," he says. "I don't have the heart to speak. I lose all my heart. I didn't sleep at night. I cried over and over."

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