As we made our way out of the recently liberated town of Taloqan toward the large city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, we passed about a dozen Soviet-era T-55 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and some mobile artillery parked on the outskirts.
Some were being washed in a large puddle of water and another was apparently being serviced. There appeared to be no rush to get them to the front lines, 25 miles to the southwest.
Maybe because the road is paved and flat and straight, meaning the fight, when it starts, is less than an hour away. It's that road that has made the city of Kunduz one of the most strategically vital objectives of this five-year-long war.
But with the rapid retreat of the Taliban throughout Afghanistan, Kunduz has become more than an important outpost; after the falls of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad, Kabul, and reports of a possible negotiated, peaceful turnover of Kandahar to anti-Taliban forces, Kunduz has become the unlikely site of the Taliban's last stand.
'Surrender or Die'
The day after we arrived in this area, the Northern Alliance commander, Gen. Daoud, issued an ultimatum to the Taliban in Kunduz: Surrender in two days, or die. That deadline came and passed.
Along with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Taliban fighters surrounded in the city, the general says there are at least 1,000 mercenaries: Chechens, Arabs and Pakistanis who are allegedly affiliated with al Qaeda, and who face an uncertain future if captured by the Northern Alliance.
Reports are the Taliban has been trying to negotiate their safe passage out of the country, but Daoud stated unequivocally that those mercenaries are assassins and terrorists, similar to the people who killed the alliance's beloved leader, Shah Ahmed Massoud. The general expressed no sympathy for the foreigners trapped behind the lines.
Warning: Land Mines
About 10 miles out of Taloqan we began to see large groups of alliance troops, resting next to the highway. Trucks with large recoil-less rifles and anti-aircraft guns mounted on the beds sat with their weapons facing southward.
As we neared the front lines we noticed softball-sized rocks lining the road in 20-foot intervals, with one-half of each rock painted red. Warning signs. Step past these rocks, the message was, and you risk stepping on a land mine. That explained why some of the soldiers opted to sleep lying on the pavement, despite constant vehicular traffic that had to weave around their prone bodies.
Eventually, we crossed a bridge and pulled over at the base of a hill. Our military escort pointed to the southwest and said, "Kunduz." We were still 6 miles from the city, but when we climbed a dusty hill that had only fallen to the alliance two days ago, we could see Taliban soldiers in the distance.
The mood on the hilltop emplacement was anything but tense. Alliance soldiers lounged around, napping and chatting, watching with curiosity the gaggle of foreign journalists who began showing up after we'd been there awhile. Many of the journalists wore flak jackets and army helmets to do their on-camera spots, speaking in urgent and dramatic tones, despite the fact that there was a virtual cease-fire in effect — this to the delight of the soldiers.
Foreseeing a Heavy Offensive
We even heard one radio report later on short-wave from a respected European network in which the reporter, who was at the front while we were, breathlessly described bombs falling from a B-52 and predicted the offensive would start "within hours."
Ultimately, the bombs didn't start within hours, but two days later, on Monday.
In the distance, as I write this, another B-52 is carving a fishtail-pattern across Afghanistan's blue skies. A muffled boom floats over Taloqan's mud roofs. Then another.