“Take cover! Don’t worry about those idiots if they want to kill themselves,” shouted Major Danger, pointing at us. His men crouched behind the dozen sandbags on the roof parapet.
Sayed Khatar, or Major Danger as we call him, was reacting to the sighting of a Taliban heavy machine-gun. Two enemy heads bobbed up and down as the weapon fired single rounds at something off to our right. Each shot raised a cloud of dust giving away its position, but because the gun was more than 800 metres away we couldn’t even hear it firing. Provided with such a clear target, the Major couldn’t resist having a go. He sent two men down to their derelict Soviet armoured vehicle, from which they fired four slim missiles at the Taliban.
The first landed left. A slight adjustment. The second landed right. Further correction. The next two landed in the right direction, but the weapon was so badly maintained that the barrel couldn’t be raised enough to increase the range. When the Major called for effective fire, the rounds fell well short of the emplacement.
And so, perhaps, we recorded the first exchange in anger between the Northern Alliance, or United Front, forces and the Taliban at Bagram, north of Kabul. It was a good illustration of exactly what is going on here: not a lot. After three days of sitting on Major Danger’s roof, this was the only thing that had happened not for the cameras. Contrary to most press reports, the United Front forces are not about to take on a foe that outnumbers them by almost three to one.
To further slow things down, winter has arrived. In just three days, Jabal Saraj, the tiny town at the mouth of the Salang valley, went from dusty, dry and hot to muddy, cold and sluiced with icy rain. Snow already blocks the Anjoman pass, the resupply route from the north to the southern regions of opposition-held territory. No wheeled vehicles could pass.
During the day, the United States air force has carried out desultory bombing on the margins of the Shomali plains, north of Kabul. The targets, we are told, are strategic: artillery positions, ammunition dumps and those elusive military entities, command and control centres. Widely reported as carpet-bombing, the strikes are in fact highly targeted. I have watched each morning as a single B-52 bomber makes two runs. Each time, 25 old-fashioned “dumb” bombs explode, causing an impressive array of black smoke plumes that quickly mix with the brown of the desert and drift off on the winter wind.
This bombing is not rattling “every window-pane on the Shomali plains”, as the BBC World Service reported last week; in the 14th century, which pervades most of the country, houses don’t have glass in their windows – and anyway, the raids are momentary and geographically spread out. Every day, we groan as we read another colleague’s copy describing how “yesterday’s bombing was the most intense yet”. You would be forgiven for believing that, at this rate, the plains will soon look like a First World War battleground, all stumps and craters.
Hyperbole is not confined to the bombing. New combat fatigues ordered by the famous mujahedin commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, before he was assassinated pre-11 September, were distributed to a mustering of 350 fighters. An Associated Press writer described how “the appearance of some 800 to 1,000 elite troops near the front here [was] the first tangible sign the opposition [is] gearing up for a move on the capital”.
Others have similarly brought an enthusiastic lack of analysis to their reporting, failing to compare the claims of front-line commanders and United Front politicians with what they actually see. Drive around the rear areas of the Kabul front and there are no signs of an impending campaign. Artillery ammunition is not stacked in readiness. Troops are not bivouacked along the roads. Armoured vehicles are not massing to be fuelled and munitioned.
The concentration of journalists in Jabal Saraj to cover the United Front’s war on the Taliban has resulted in many gross exaggerations. With little to report as the “new” war grinds along to an Afghan timetable, we are all under western time constraints to report progress on the ground. After all, journalists are not paid to report that there’s nothing to report.
Last weekend, the first US operatives arrived on the Kabul front, when a Twin Otter light aircraft touched down on the newly finished Gulbahar airstrip. An American radio reporter who found himself a few feet from the five non-uniformed and short-haired men who disembarked asked if they were journalists – and got no reply. Yonus Qanoni, the opposition interior minister, later detailed how the new airstrip will become the United Front’s air bridge. Having finally realised that the opposition forces are the only hope on the ground, the US has bought ammunition and material from the Russians to resupply the United Front. The Gulbahar strip will allow its shipment to the Kabul front for the much-vaunted offensive. “We are at the top of our readiness,” Major Danger said, with a generous sweep of the hand indicating the indolent soldiers lounging on his rooftop between air strikes. But when asked why so few men were in evidence, he admitted: “It has started raining, so they have gone to plant in their fields.”
Tim Lambon is working with Channel 4 News in Afghanistan