Afghans expect to fight, but keep on talking

Despite negotiations, or bargaining, peace still seems far away

War On Terrorism

November 21, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TALOQAN, Afghanistan - While his men sat cross-legged on the restaurant tables, shoveling in huge helpings of pilaf with their hands, the commander came over to introduce himself and talk about war, Afghan-style.

"We're off to the front," he said merrily. "The fight starts tonight."

The little restaurant was packed last night with soldiers in new uniforms. Waiters rushed around, slapping down loaves of flat bread among customers' feet and sometimes walking on the tables to deliver more pilaf. Two cooks filled bowl after bowl at a furious pace; a big coal scuttle plied helpings of rice and carrots and raisins, and then a man-sized handful of lamb was plopped down on top.

The sun had just gone down, and, this being Ramadan, the young men were feeling the effects of their daylong fast. Food was disappearing faster than the cooks could turn it out.

They looked like a bunch of young soldiers who were eating today as if there might be no tomorrow, except that the next couple of days are likely to find them still in Taloqan, 20 miles from a front where a cease-fire is holding and where the big question is whether you should say the two sides are negotiating or, perhaps more accurately, bargaining.

So, Bobur, the commander, was engaging in a bit of swagger when talking about heading off to fight.

He said he believes the Afghans on both sides of this war have already reached an agreement on how to settle things in Kunduz province, where somewhat fewer than 20,000 Taliban fighters have been bottled up by the Northern Alliance. And settling things, he concedes, means finding just the right number of commanders on the Taliban side who can be bought off and induced to switch allegiance. Once the snowball of defections starts rolling, the battle is over.

Throughout history, warlords have trained their guns on others and demanded money. In Afghanistan, it is the reverse: You must take our money, the warlords say, or we'll have to fight.

The problem, as everyone here knows, is that there are more foreign Taliban fighters - principally Pakistanis, Uzbeks and Arabs - than Afghans in Kunduz. Foreigners don't wage war that way, and no one is proffering them money anyway. They must fight or escape.

Bobur, an ethnic Tajik from the northeastern part of the country, said he would be happy to see the foreigners fly off to Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

"We don't care," he said. "Let them go there, as long they leave here."

In fact, Bobur's boss, Gen. Daoud Khan, said earlier yesterday that just such an idea had come up. "Negotiating is continuing," he said. "We'll see what happens."

Khan said the Northern Alliance is also considering a plan to allow the foreign Taliban fighters to fly to another country under U.N. auspices, but acknowledged that no one has talked to the United Nations about it. He said he would like to bring the foreign Taliban fighters to trial, but that he was not optimistic, that he expected them to resist, and promised in such a case that they would die. But he said he is willing to give the negotiations a few more days.

He said there are more than 10,000 foreigners in Kunduz and somewhat fewer Afghan Taliban after what he claimed had been 3,000 defections already. On the scale of war in Afghanistan, those are large numbers. Bobur commands about 200 men in the presidential guard, at the age of 22, because, as he pointed out, he happens to be a relative of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Northern Alliance leader.

Bobur was the only Afghan at the restaurant without a beard, except for the soldiers who haven't started shaving yet.

Bobur was captured by the Taliban in fighting near here about three years ago. He spent a year as a prisoner on a road gang in Kandahar. Of the 40 men in prison with him, he said, 12 died of malnutrition after being fed nothing but bread and water for months.

Bobur and four others escaped because the prison commandant was paid $20,000. The commandant himself drove them across Taliban lines. When Taliban soldiers realized what was happening, they opened fire on the car, Bobur said, but no one was hurt.

The commander said his men are in good spirits because they have just received new weapons from Russia and because they have just been paid for the first time in a year. They arrived in Taloqan four days ago from their base in Balashan.

As he talked, more and more of his men gathered around, crowding in on a little table and hanging on every word. By 6 p.m., the rush to break their fast had ended. The men were putting their shoes on, smoking and taking their ease.

Bobur was asked if he thinks the end of Afghanistan's long war is near.

"Peace is still far away," he said, still with a merry smile. "Years will pass."

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