Fear and goading on the frontline
Maggie O'Kane on the frontline, Bagram airport, Afghanistan
Tuesday October 9, 2001
The Guardian (UK)
It is the first light after the first night of bombing and the men of the Northern Alliance are back on their walkie-talkies, speaking across a distance not much longer than a village high street. They have some questions from foreigners to put to the Taliban. At first they begin with the usual teasing. "Hey Turban-Talibs are you out there? That bombing seems to have shut you lot up." The voice that responds across the airwaves is cold, a voice of authority. An educated man, our translator says.
"Why will you not hand over Bin Laden?"
"Why should we give him over? He is Muslim," says the chilly voice.
"What kind of Muslim kills 6,500 innocent people?"
"He did a good thing. Those people were Kafirs (non-Muslims) and they are our enemies."
"What about the bombing - did you have casualties?"
"What about the bombing? It was nothing. We lost nobody. Nobody was injured."
"Why are the Taliban fleeing the cities. Are you afraid of the Afghan people?"
"Those that left can go. It is up to them. If they want to stay and fight they can. Otherwise it is up to them."
"We have nothing to say to him, or to the Russians, to any non Muslims - we are the free people."
"How long do you think you can survive without Pakistan now that Pakistan has stopped supporting you and is backing the Americans?"
"Fuck you and fuck the Pakistanis."
At the same time, Commander Baba Jan strolls to his command post, built from mud, straw and sticks, as though he might be returning from a light lunch.
The men in the commander's frontline army bring sugared green tea and toffee sweets and move the rough wooden bench into the early morning sunlight. The commander is here.
The commander, who once controlled the security of the capital, Kabul, and now runs the most important frontline with the Taliban - Bagram airport, just 40km from Kabul - arrives wearing dark green Castro khakis. In this warren of dusty tunnels, dirt, near drought, no electricity, no running water, no toilets, he has the distinction of perfectly clean and filed nails, his black leather loafers somehow escaping the coating of dust that covers all lesser beings.
"At this rate we won't be going to Kabul in a hurry," he says of the Sunday night's bombing. "It will take a lot more pressure on the Taliban lines before we will go to Kabul. It is not going to be easy."
Along the road to Bagram the only traffic heading towards the Taliban line is a horse and trap, the commander's tanks are still in their dust covers. The march to victory could be a long time coming.
At 42, and after 20 years of fighting, he talks with the voices of machine gun in the background, wallpaper music that he doesn't seem to notice.
"The Americans are not talking to us," he says. "Even to commanders like me. Maybe they are talking to our defence chiefs but not to us. But if the US wants to get results they must be in contact with us. They should understand that without us and our experience of fighting the Taliban they cannot defeat them."
Above his head is a black and white banner with the words: "There is no God except one - Mohammed is the prophet." Another tray of tea arrives. "We are not in a hurry. We need arms, we need food and action would be a lot better than words."
Behind him stretch the fields of parched grapevines that have just survived the drought. Their leaves are also covered in a film of toffee-coloured dust.
His airport, built in 1951, could have been used as a set for the opening scenes of a Mad Max movie. An angry cactus has seeded in the water tank. Under a hot sky, where a single hawk circles, the debris of 30 years of war stretches out beyond the runway. The Taliban lines are 200 metres away. So close that the dust kicked from the back wheels of their Datsun pick-up trucks leaves a track of smoke along the mountain road.
Less than a mile from the frontline, the fact that the might of a coalition of the world's most powerful armies unleashed their first salvo against the Taliban has not interrupted the preparation for the circumcision of six-year-old Hassan.
The men of his village are gathering to pray. First they must recite the entire Koran to prepare for the ceremony. The boy sits between the legs of his father, Rahman Allah, in a crisp white shirt, his big green eyes bewildered by the attention. "We will read the Holy Koran and then the doctor will come to perform the ceremony in another room with his father."
Did they consider postponing the event because of the bombing?
"Why should we. We have been listening to bombing for six years. This is a good time for us. We are happy to hit the Taliban and finish the Taliban if America brings enough pressure on them."
In the corner a 16-year-old boy, his eyes painted with black coal, begins reciting by heart from the Koran, and older men begin to shake and moan. The modulating voice of the boy, Kuri Hamad, fills the room and the younger men bend their head in devout and reverential prayer. Watching them from the wall is another hero, a fighter killed 20 years earlier in the war against the Soviets.
On Sunday night as the bombing began, Commander Baba Jan watched the car lights of hundreds of Datsun pick-ups arrive at a new second front the Taliban have set up 2km behind the airport.
"After six years of watching them we know their movement. They were taking their equipment back from the frontline and leaving the fighters there."
The ground war for control of Afghanistan will begin here at Bagram airport, if and when the commander and his fellow chiefs decide that the Taliban have been sufficiently pounded by the bombing.
Across a runway which has not seen a normal commercial flight since 1979, a small group of soldiers live in what was once the military hospital; 10 days on, 10 days off and then back to their farms.
Bagram airport has been taken and wrested from the Taliban twice in the past five years.
Clattering up the metal stairs to the control tower, the soldiers point out the Taliban positions like weary tour guides. "Over there behind that house are where the Chechen fighters have their position. The Arabs are at the back of the runway. They've been very quiet these days."
The control tower, its windows gone for decades, has lost part of its roof to a Taliban rocket. A Russian machine gun, the length of a car, with bullets as long as a pencil sits silent and waiting.
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