Message delivers Taliban courier

Soldiers taunt man headed wrong way

War On Terrorism

The World

November 22, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHURVORI, Afghanistan - Amir Mohammed and his men sprawled on the scattered straw, soaking up yesterday's cool, hazy sunshine. Life at the forward post of the Northern Alliance had become easy since the fighting stopped nine days before.

A steady trickle of refugees came by, from the Taliban lines just a mile or so away to the west. A little girl rode in a sack on the side of a donkey, but none of Mohammed's men paid her any mind.

A Northern Alliance tank on a bare tan mountain on the southern rim of the valley had been firing intermittently, a boom and fizz, and then a distant puff of smoke and dust, but sometime after noon even the tank fell silent.

A gaunt older man appeared from behind the mud-walled village, walking steadily up the dirt road, westward toward the Taliban. He had to walk past the soldiers. He could have been as easily ignored as the little girl in the donkey sack, except that he was strikingly tall and had the unusually dark skin of a Ghujur, a tribe of nomads. And he was headed the wrong way.

"Hey," called out Mohammed. "I know who that is. He's one of the Taliban."

The soldiers were on their feet and blocked his way.

"He's with the Taliban," Mohammed said again. "I remember seeing him in Takhar province."

"Oh, I'm just going back to where the others are. They stayed over there," the Ghujur replied.

His answer didn't make much sense, but the soldiers could see he was trying to control his fear.

"You're Taliban," Mohammed said. "I know you are."

"I'm from Kishim," the Ghujur said, naming a town in Northern Alliance territory.

"I swear by Allah, he's a Taliban," said Mohammed. The man was shaking. He tugged at the brown blanket draped over his shoulder.

Mohammed stepped up to him and flicked his long, salt-and- pepper beard.

The soldiers were grinning. They started shouting catcalls.

Mohammed made up a name, then told the Ghujur that if he was from Kishim he must know the man. The Ghujur fell into the trap.

"Of course I do," he said.

"Where is he now?" asked Mohammed.

"I don't know," the Ghujur replied, fighting desperation.

"You're lying," said Mohammed.

The Ghujur could see where he stood. Yes, he admitted, he was with the Taliban. His name was Okil. Those he was talking about rejoining were his Taliban comrades.

Mohammed's men gripped their guns and looked pleased. Something was about to happen that would be very satisfying. A gleeful mood lifted them all.

The scarlet letter

Then Okil said he had a letter. He was a messenger, he said, and had been to see Commander Akhmadi of the Northern Alliance.

He reached into the pocket of his camouflage jacket and pulled out a creased and worn piece of paper. Carefully, he unfolded it and showed Mohammed the message, written in Arabic script in red ink. But neither Mohammed nor his men can read.

Okil would have been sorely out of luck, except that a reporter for Radio Liberty - among a group of four foreigners watching the scene unfold - was able to read the letter. It was from Akhmadi to Selim Khan, a Taliban commander.

"I ask you to defect unconditionally," the letter read. "I can guarantee your life and property if you do. Otherwise, it will be your end."

Okil said he had come across from the Taliban lines three days earlier with a message from Khan, and had spent all that time on Northern Alliance ground. Selim Khan and another Taliban commander, Akhbar Khan, were trying to arrange a way to switch sides.

A practical way out

The Taliban, surrounded in Kunduz province, have no other way out, Okil said. The foreign fighters among the Taliban have no way out at all, he said, but the two Khans have only Afghans under their command and they didn't want to get caught in a noose.

The tension, and the sense of anticipation, slackened. Okil was talking a language these men could understand. These letters were only the beginning. Everyone understood that. There would be more back-and-forth. Fighting was the last thing anyone wanted.

Later in the day, a Taliban commander claimed that all his forces, Afghans and foreigners alike, would surrender peacefully, but no one here knew whether it was true.

Mohammed and his men reached this forward outpost as the Taliban control of northern Afghanistan was collapsing early last week. From here, they could see a battle raging on the low mountains to the south that ended after a day. They could have advanced farther east into the valley that leads to the city of Kunduz, but that would have meant fighting. So, they stopped instead.

There are 100 or so men, and they settled down in the almost abandoned village. A few of the villagers still tend their plots. The only way in from the rest of the Northern Alliance forces is over an old stone bridge.

Khurvori is dry and the color of morning smoke. The men sleep on sheets of cloth spread out over straw. Someone has drawn a prominent picture of a man having sex with a goat. Their diet consists mostly of rice. Their footwear is what they can find; Mohammed wears black loafers.

Okil carefully folded the letter and returned it to his pocket. Then he walked away. His tall, white turban stood out against the ash-colored landscape. He was alone, and didn't hurry. Mohammed's men paid him no mind.

Then three of them decided to shoot their Kalashnikovs at a rock about 80 yards off. They fired round after round, but never hit it.

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