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October 18, 2001
Through the binoculars, ominous figures in dark robes could be seen moving about the mountain ridges to the west.
This was the Taliban's front line near the city of Taloqan, dotted with mortar emplacements and riven with trenches carved into the beige, barren ground. Intermingled were soldiers in fatigues, but it was the mysterious black-clad men who sent a chill up the spine.
Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization has soldiers and training camps scattered throughout Afghanistan, even here in the north. Gen. Mohammed Ayun, who is the Northern Alliance commander in charge of this region along the Kowkcheh River, says he has captured Taliban fighters who were Arabic-speaking, or Chechen (from the region of Russia undergoing its own tortured civil war), or even Chinese, which the general says means they're al Qaeda mercenaries.
One thing was for sure: The figures in black were clearly not from around here.
The Northern Alliance holds the high ground overlooking Taloqan. They were pushed into these dusky peaks by a Taliban offensive last year that robbed the alliance of the city and a supply road to armies in the north near the oft-contested key city of Mazar-e-Sharif. It was a devastating loss, but Ayun ordered the retreat when he saw the Taliban shelling Taloqan itself, causing massive civilian casualties. Rather than watch the destruction of innocent lives and a beautiful city, he pulled his men back into these mountain parapets, and began the long chess game of tank and mortar fire.
Along the ridges, the alliance has set up a series of bunkers and gun emplacements. There are Soviet-era T-55 tanks buried up to their turrets for added protection, which, as of a few weeks ago, is evidently not that necessary anymore.
A lucky or amazingly accurate shot from an alliance tank took out the Taliban's only artillery gun capable of reaching the mountaintops, so now the alliance fighters rain shells on their enemy's positions at their leisure. They do so infrequently, though, because they're saving their ammunition for the day - soon to come, they say - when the American airstrikes have softened up the Taliban sufficiently and it's time to roll down from the heights and retake Taloqan. That's a day they're all praying for.
Late one night, we shivered in the cold as we watched the lights of Taliban vehicles moving around in the valley below and the occasional rooster tail of antiaircraft tracers lift into the skies, reaching out for high-altitude American warplanes, either real or imagined.
Overhead, however, the only thing visible to us was the stunning light show from a zillion stars on this moonless night, the Milky Way stretched out like salt cast onto a deep blue tablecloth. We could see no jets, though, and neither could we hear any.
The Americans had struck here the two preceding evenings and we were hoping to witness another airstrike this night. A handful of alliance soldiers hung around with us, even though most of their comrades were cozy and warm in their bunkers, one of which was equipped with a black and white television set powered by a bootleg generator. The movie tonight was Broadcast News, dubbed in Pashtu (I think).
One of the sentries, also named Mohammed Ayun (no relation to the general), put his hands together at the wrists in the sign of bondage and said "Taliban." It turns out he'd been a prisoner of war for a year, and still had his International Committee of the Red Cross prisoner-exchange voucher. He kept it in a small leather wallet hanging from a thong around his neck, like some kind of talisman. Or maybe, a "get out of jail free" card.
It was when he lifted his shirt and showed us a still-suppurating bullet wound in his stomach that I began to understand the determination these men have to rid their country of the Taliban. Ayun had been wounded three times, held captive for more than a year in which he was only fed one piece of bread in the mornings, and here he stood, as close to the enemy as a John Elway touchdown pass. "I don't have a choice," he says. "They come here, they invade our country, they ruin our lives. We have to fight."
Given Afghanistan's history of dealing with uninvited visitors, from Ghengis Khan to the British to the Soviets, I'd say the odds favor the Afghans. The invaders always leave with fewer men than they came with. And the Taliban, being largely from Pakistan or Arabic countries, are seen as a foreign presence. It is, however, part of the complexity of this land that the Northern Alliance is largely comprised of ethnic groups from other areas, too, Tajiks and Uzbeks and Shiites, but they consider themselves to be Afghans as well.
At a little after 1 a.m., the Taliban sent a stream of antiaircraft fire skyward over Taloqan, but no bombs rained down on their front lines. Instead, we saw three enormous flashes of light far to the north that could only have been caused by huge explosions.
We found out later the only thing in that area that could have been a target was a suspected al Qaeda training camp.