How Northern Alliance Has Fought Taliban

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.

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