K H O J A B A H A U D D I N, Afghanistan, Oct. 8, 2001 -- The Northern Alliance local commander, Mohammed Naim, motioned for me to bend down and look carefully over the windowsill toward a scattering of shell-pocked and burned out mud huts that were mirror images of the ones we hunker in.
"Taliban," he stated, pointing at a white-washed building a little over 100 yards away. He made a crooked motion with his index finger, the universal sign of a gun being fired. The message was clear: Keep my head down.
In the 10 minutes we'd been at the front, machine-gun fire had been traded with the unseen forces across the way. The dirt floor was littered with brass AK-47 shell casings. From what I could see, no one and nothing was hit, but the smiles on the curious and friendly faces of the Northern Alliance fighters belied the simple fact that this was one of the many places where the killing and dying of this five-year long war with the Taliban happened.
Most of the men gathered around us in this once-bustling village of Zard-Kamar were locals from the area; Tajik by ethnicity, Afghan by residence.
On the way here we met a 16-year-old soldier wearing a Soviet Army belt, oblivious to the irony. The Afghan war against the Soviets ended when he was just an infant, he'd fought in this one since he was 14 years old. Having never known a moment of peace in his life, I wondered if and when it ever arrived here it would seem like he was a blind man seeing color for the first time, or whether he would simply and sadly be completely bored.
Different Interests United By Need
The Northern Alliance, or United Front as their Foreign Minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah wishes to have it referred to, is a patchwork quilt of rival self-interest, united, for the moment, by need. Outnumbered by the Taliban at last guess, according to Jane's Defence Weekly, by as much as four-to-one, the Alliance commanders scattered across half a dozen fronts depend on each other to keep the Taliban forces busy and fragmented.
But prior to the emergence of the Taliban, the Alliance's main military leaders were almost all mortal enemies, and the adage "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" proved true only as long as the mutual enemy was still a threat.
The Taliban was born in reaction to the violent power struggles of those who now call themselves allies and who are now, in theory at least, allied with the U.S.
I tell Mohammed Naim we've heard that the Taliban soldiers in this area are Arabic speaking, and that radio intercepts have revealed them to be fighters with Osama bin Laden's group, al Qaeda. Reportedly, the Taliban is bolstered by dedicated mercenaries from other Islamic groups hoping to export their brand of Islam throughout Central Asia. He shrugs and says, "We hear Arabic and Pakistani and Pashtun and Chechen and Sudanese."
He's being polite, but the expression on his face tells me it really doesn't matter whether they're al Qaeda or not. They want to kill his men and his men want to kill them. Here on the front, it's as simple as that.