How Northern Alliance Has Fought Taliban

The Northern Alliance, which has been fighting the Taliban, has vowed to help the United States in its effort to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. The following excerpt comes from Fire by Sebastian Junger, a journalist who spent time with the Northern Alliance prior to the Sept. 9 assassination of the group's military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud.

The Lion in Winter

The fighters were down by the river, getting ready to cross over, and we drove out there in the late afternoon to see them off. We parked our truck behind a mud wall, where it was out of sight, and then walked one by one down to the position. In an hour or so, it would be dark, and they'd go over. Some were loading up an old Soviet truck with crates of ammunition, and some were cleaning their rifles, and some were just standing in loose bunches behind the trees, where the enemy couldn't see them. They were wearing old snow parkas and blankets thrown over their shoulders, and some had old Soviet Army pants, and others didn't have any shoes. They drew themselves into an uneven line when we walked up, and they stood there with their Kalashnikovs and their RPGs cradled in their arms, smiling shyly.

Across the floodplain, low, grassy hills turned purple as the sun sank behind them, and those were the hills these men were going to attack. They were fighting for Ahmad Shah Massoud — genius guerrilla leader, last hope of the shattered Afghan government — and all along those hills were trenches filled with Taliban soldiers. The Taliban had grown out of the madrasahs, or religious schools, that had sprung up in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion, and they had emerged in 1994 as Afghanistan sank into anarchy following the Soviet withdrawal. Armed and trained by Pakistan and driven by moral principles so extreme that many Muslims feel they can only be described as a perversion of Islam, the Taliban quickly overran most of the country and imposed their ironfisted version of koranic law. Adulterers faced stoning; women's rights became nonexistent. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognize their government as legitimate, but it is generally thought that the rest of the world will have to follow suit if the Taliban complete their takeover of the country. The only thing that still stands in their way are the last ditch defenses of Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The sun set, and the valley edged into darkness. It was a clear, cold November night, and we could see artillery rounds flashing against the ridge line in the distance. Hundreds of Taliban soldiers were dug in up there, waiting to be attacked, and hundreds of Massoud's soldiers were down here along the Kowkcheh River, waiting to attack them. In a few hours, they would cross the river by truck and make their way through the fields and destroyed villages of no man's land. Then it would begin.

We wished Massoud's men well and walked back to the truck. The stars had come out, and the only sound was of dogs baying in the distance. Then the whole front line, from the Tajik border to Farkhar Gorge, rumbled to life.

I'd wanted to meet Massoud for years, ever since I'd first heard of his remarkable defense of Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s. A brilliant strategist and an uncompromising fighter, Massoud had been the bane of the Soviet Army's existence and had been largely responsible for finally driving them out of the country. He was fiercely independent, accepting little, if any, direction from Pakistan, which controlled the flow of American arms to the mujahidin. His independence made it impossible for the CIA to trust him, but agency officials grudgingly admitted that he was an almost mythological figure among many Afghans. He was a native of the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, the third of six sons born to an ethnic Tajik army officer. In 1974, he went to college to study engineering, but he dropped out in his first year to join a student resistance movement. After a crackdown on dissidents, Massoud fled to Pakistan, where he underwent military training. By 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up the teetering Communist government, Massoud had already collected a small band of resistance fighters in the Panjshir Valley.

As a guerrilla base the Panjshir couldn't have been better. Protected by the mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and blocked at the entrance by a narrow gorge named Dalan Sang, the seventy mile long valley was the perfect staging area for raids against a highway that supplied the Soviet bases around Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. Massoud quickly organized his Panjshiri fighters, rumored to number as few as three thousand men, into defense groups comprising four or five villages each.

The groups were self sufficient and could call in mobile units if they were threatened with being overrun. Whenever a Soviet convoy rumbled up the highway, the mujahidin would mine the road, then wait in ambush. Most of the fighters would provide covering fire while a few insanely brave men worked their way in close to the convoy and tried to take out the first and last vehicles with rocket propelled grenades. With the convoy pinned down, the rest of the unit would pepper it with gunfire and then retreat. They rarely stood and fought, and the Soviets rarely pursued them beyond the protection of their armored vehicles. It was classic guerrilla warfare, and if anything, Massoud was amazed at how easy it was. For his defense of the valley, Massoud became known as the Lion of Panjshir.

Very quickly, the Soviets understood that there was no way to control Afghanistan without controlling the Panjshir Valley, and they started attacking it with forces of up to fifteen thousand men, backed by tanks, artillery, and massive air support. Massoud knew that he couldn't stop them, and he didn't even try. He would evacuate as many civilians as possible and then retreat to the surrounding peaks of the Hindu Kush; when the Soviets entered the Panjshir, they would find it completely deserted. That was when the real fighting began. Massoud and his men slept in caves and prayed to Allah and lived on nothing but bread and dried mulberries; they killed Russians with guns taken from other dead Russians and they fought and fought and fought, until the Soviets simply couldn't afford to fight anymore. Then the Soviets would pull back, and the whole cycle would start all over again.

Between 1979 and their withdrawal ten years later, the Soviets launched nine major offensives into the Panjshir Valley. They never took it. They tried assassinating Massoud, but his intelligence network always warned him in time. They made local peace deals, but he used the respite to organize resistance elsewhere in the country. The ultimate Soviet humiliation came in the mid eighties, after the Red Army had lost hundreds of soldiers trying to take the Panjshir. The mujahidin had shot down a Soviet helicopter, and some resourceful Panjshiri mechanic patched it up, put a truck engine in it, and started running it up and down the valley as a bus. The Soviets got wind of this, and the next time their troops invaded, the commanders decided to inspect the helicopter. The last thing they must have seen was a flash; Massoud's men had booby trapped it with explosives.

The night attack on the Taliban positions began with waves of Katyusha rockets streaming from Massoud's positions and arcing across the valley. The rockets were fired in volleys of ten or twelve, and we could see the red glare of their engines wobble through the darkness and then wink out one by one as they found their trajectories and headed for their targets. Occasionally an incoming round would explode somewhere down the line with a sound like a huge oak door slamming shut.

The artillery exchange lasted an hour, and then the ground assault started, Massoud's men moving under the cover of darkness through minefields and machine gun fire toward the Taliban trenches. The fighting was three or four miles away and came to us only as a soft, frantic pap pap pap across the valley. We had driven to a hilltop command post to watch the attack. The position had a code name, Darya, which means "river" in Dari, the Persian dialect that's Afghanistan's lingua franca, and on the radio we could hear field commanders yelling, "Darya! Darya! Darya!" as they called in reports or shouted for artillery. The commander of the position, a gentle looking man in his thirties named Harun, was dressed for war in corduroy pants and a cardigan. He was responsible for all the artillery on the front line; we found him in a bunker, studying maps by the light of a kerosene lantern. He was using a schoolboy's plastic protractor to figure out trajectory angles for his tanks.

Harun was working three radios and consulting the map continually. After a while a soldier brought in tea, and we sat crosslegged on the floor and drank it. Calls kept streaming in on the radios. "We've just captured another position; it's got a big ammo depot," one commander shouted. Another reported, "The enemy has no morale at all; they're just running away. We've just taken ten more prisoners." Harun showed us on the map what was happening. As we spoke, Massoud's men were taking small positions around the ridge line and moving into the hills on either side of a town called Khvajeh Ghar, which was at a critical part of the front line.

Khvajeh Ghar was held by Pakistani and Arab volunteers, part of an odd assortment of foreigners — Burmese, Chinese, Chechens, Algerians — who are fighting alongside the Taliban to spread fundamentalist Islam throughout Central Asia. Their presence here is partly due to Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden, who has been harbored by the Taliban since 1997 and is said to repay his hosts with millions of dollars and thousands of holy warriors. The biggest supporter of the Taliban, however, is Pakistan, which has sent commandos, military advisers, and regular army troops. More than a hundred Pakistani prisoners of war sit in Massoud's jails; most of them — like the Taliban — are ethnic Pashtuns who trained in the madrasahs.

None of the help was doing the Taliban fighters much good at the moment, though. Harun switched his radio to a Taliban frequency and tilted it toward us. They were being overrun, and the panic in their voices was unmistakable. One commander screamed that he was almost out of ammunition; another started insulting the fighters at a neighboring position. "Are you crazy are you crazy are you crazy?" he demanded. "They've already taken a hundred prisoners! Do you want to be taken prisoner as well?" He went on to accuse them all of sodomy. Harun shook his head incredulously. "They are supposed to represent true Islam," he said. "Do you see how they talk?"

Copyright 2001 by Sebastian Junger— From Fire by Sebastian Junger. © Sept. 24, 2001, W.W. Norton & Company, used by permission.

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