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29 October 2001

We got into bed with the wrong ’uns

The US has sidelined its Afghan allies in the fight against the Taliban. Tim Lambon reports

By Tim Lambon

It’s like one of those long-lens Hollywood shots. Sheet-white heat shimmering off the dun-coloured hills. Distant objects that waver and shift in the aqueous atmosphere. It is very quiet. Across the runway, the needle nose of a MiG-21 protrudes from a revetment. Other jet fighters stand propped up on bits of junk in front of a roofless hangar.

It’s mid-morning at Bagram airbase, front line between the Taliban and the opposition United Front forces. Only 56km north of Kabul, despite two weeks of bombing by the US-led global anti-terror coalition, the lines of confrontation are less active now than they were on 11 September.

The man in charge of the Bagram front, General Babajan, sits on a chair facing three benches full of journalists; he is shifty and restless. The week before the bombing commenced, Babajan was keen to get on with the war.

“We’ll start the offensive to take Kabul, maybe as soon as three days’ time,” he said. This was puzzling, as he had just admitted that the Taliban outnumbered his troops three to one. He had also described how he now faced not only indigenous Afghan fighters, but newly arrived Arab, Pakistani and Kashmiri soldiers. Informers told him that the foreigners had been rushed out of Kabul in advance of the bombing for their own safety, and to bolster the defences in case of a simultaneous attack by the United Front towards the capital.

But the United Front forces never looked like they were going anywhere. In the first week of October, before the bombing, there was no activity. The numerous journalists camping in Jabal Saraj had easy access to rebel commanders with empty schedules. The roads were not busy with troop transports or ammunition trucks.

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“We are expecting up to 10,000 Taliban to defect to us as soon as the bombing begins,” Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the United Front foreign minister, told a press conference. Field commanders echoed the line, saying they were in radio contact with would-be deserters among the enemy.

As coalition-building talks proceeded and the west searched for an alternative regime to put in Kabul, it became clear that the United Front was being sidelined. Led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, a respected mujahedin leader during the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the United Front might be recognised as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by the United Nations, but many people back home fear the Front’s return to power.

No wonder: the factions that make up what was previously known as the Northern Alliance were responsible for terrible bloodshed and human rights abuses during the 1990s. Their violence prompted many inside and outside Afghanistan to support the Taliban – initially supported by Pakistan, in its search for a more stable client state to the west. They rapidly took more than two-thirds of the country. By 1996, the deposed Rabbani government had established itself as the rebel opposition against the de facto Taliban regime in Kabul.

“The Pakistanis have got to them,” said General Azimi, commander of the Kapisa front line, east of Bagram. Indeed, it seems that, to secure Pakistani co-operation for its new war, the US-sponsored coalition has at best adopted a neutral stance towards the Front. But without concerted air strikes, the Front cannot defeat the Taliban.

Above the roof of a house overlooking the Shomali Plains, which stretch south from the Panjshir mountains, explosions flashed in the darkness. It turned out to be a sympathetic artillery barrage. Only a distant flickering beyond the horizon indicated the detonation of American ordnance falling on Kabul.

For a week, the United Front stuck to the idea that its attack towards the city was imminent and would be victorious. Then the line began to change. “We will attack soon and advance to the gates of Kabul, but to avoid a bloodbath we will stop outside . . . Then we have a security force which will enter to protect the citizens until the new government takes control,” said General Azimi, sitting under the pergola of his residence in Gulbahar, 80km north of Kabul.

And so the days wore on. The Front’s guns remained largely silent, except for the occasional shell fired for the television cameras. The attack was patently not imminent and, once again, the opposition’s line changed. When asked why the Kabul offensive had not started, General Sayed Hussein Anwari, a member of the Front’s nine-strong high council, insisted: “A decision was taken even before the bombing started that no attack would be made on Kabul until it was over and the Taliban regime was crumbling.”

General Babajan uncrossed his legs and glanced up from under his bushy eyebrows. Although he had not given specific target co-ordinates (there is no evidence that he actually has a map) to the US Defence Department, he said, he had sent a list of several targets for the US to hit. The list was forwarded to the Front’s defence ministry, but Babajan was unsure whether the four bombs dropped in the Bagram area the previous week were in response to his requests. “If they were, they were hardly more than a joke,” he said, “just something that would keep the Taliban’s heads down for a little bit.”

It seems unlikely that the US-led coalition forces will be bombing the Taliban out of General Babajan’s frontyard soon. Indeed, a move on Kabul by the United Front seems as improbable as it was before the attacks on America last month.

Tim Lambon is working with Channel 4 News in Afghanistan

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