WAR LEGACY: Northern Alliance tanks sport portraits of Masood at a parade near Khwaja BahawudinThe sun rises over Khwaja Bahawudin like a ghostly white apparition. A thick blanket of dust cloaks this desert town in northern Afghanistan throughout the day. The town is the military headquarters of the United Islamic,WAR LEGACY: Northern Alliance tanks sport portraits of Masood at a parade near Khwaja BahawudinThe sun rises over Khwaja Bahawudin like a ghostly white apparition. A thick blanket of dust cloaks this desert town in northern Afghanistan throughout the day. The town is the military headquarters of the United Islamic and National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, better known as the Northern Alliance, an unwieldy array of resistance forces.In the days after the US bombardment of Afghanistan, the alliance’s army has emerged as the key to American plans to overwhelm the Taliban on the ground.MANY WARS, SAME RESULTS: The ruins of an office of a UN agency hit by US missiles in KabulLiving conditions in the town, however, make you wonder whether its forces are as formidable as its leaders claim they are. It is like journeying back in time. The roads are dirt tracks, meant only for mules. Houses are basically mud fortifications of Indus Valley vintage. There is no electricity, no tap water and no sewerage system.Anyone wanting to do a period film of ancient Afghanistan could do so without any additional props. Since the war began, trucks carrying AK-47-toting soldiers head to the battlefront every day. Many are trooping in as well. Refugees fleeing nearby war zones pour into the town and are huddled into makeshift cloth tents. Khwaja Bahawudin is on the verge of collapse.Worshippers at a mosque which was bombed during the Soviet invasionYet from the muddy ramparts of this town, the 15,000-strong resistance forces are waging a surprisingly tough fightback against one of the most brutal and obstinate regimes in the world having an army of 50,000 troops.The alliance, in a rare show of congruity, is confronting the Taliban in an arc of fronts. It seems to be part of the overall strategy: even as US fighters pound the main cities, the Taliban would have to stretch its forces to guard their flanks.advertisementBefore the war began, the alliance forces held barely 10 per cent of the northern territory. While its army excelled in mountain warfare, it was no match for the Taliban’s military superiority on the vast plains of Afghanistan. With over 500 tanks and 30 fighter jets, the Taliban had ensured that key cities like Kandahar, Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif were impregnable. Till last week, that is.War DiaryDay 1Operation Enduring Freedom unfolds on the night of October 7-Kabul plunges into darkness. Some 50 Tomahawk missiles are dropped on Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kunduz by about 40 aircraft of the US and UK.Day 2The attack screams into its second night on October 8. Electricity supply in Kabul is immediately cut off by the Taliban. Four bombs are reportedly dropped on Kabul, of which one hits the airport. The northern cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz are also bombed. This time, a smaller fleet of about 15 bombers are used; 15 missiles hit targets. Day 3October 9 sees the first daylight raids. The house of Taliban supremo Mullah Omar is hit. 20 aircraft pound military bases and oil installations in Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. Four civilians working with UN killed.Day 4On the night of October 10, a mix of land-based bombers and carrier-based strike aircraft are used in what is the most punishing strike yet. At least five bombs land in the very heart of Kabul. US fighter jets also drop three bombs near Kandahar airport. The Taliban claims heavy civilian casualties in the attack.Day 5The campaign goes into its fifth day with the US unleashing 5,000-pound laser-guided bombs (GBU-28s) targeting Kabul, Herat and Jalalabad. The Taliban’s air defence is destroyed.In the first week of the war, the US sought to cripple the Taliban’s military capability. Using its most modern weapons, including cruise missiles, Stealth bombers and submarine-launched warheads, it destroyed Taliban fighter jets, tank regiments, artillery battalions, airports and city fortifications.The US hoped that the severe bombardment would demoralise the regime headed by the one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar and trigger its collapse. The alliance forces would be used for the mop-up operations on the ground.That way the US and its allies could minimise the loss of their own personnel, apart from claiming rather facetiously that their forces had not invaded Afghan soil. But it was not going to be as easy as the world hoped it would be.The alliance had been forged together by Ahmed Shah Masood. Using an intricate network of informers, Masood was able to frustrate the Taliban army for years with his strategic retreats, encirclements and ambushes. Masood’s death on September 11, left a gaping void in the alliance. But it managed to move quickly to establish a collegiate style of leadership and even pushed back an attempt by the Taliban to gain fresh territory around Khwaja Bahawudin.advertisementMohammed Fahim Khan, Masood’s trusted lieutenant, succeeded him as defence minister. Khan, however, lacks Masood’s charisma and does not appear to harbour political ambitions. In some ways it may help when the spoils of the war have to be distributed among the power brokers that will control a new set-up in Afghanistan.Of more immediate importance is the fact that the alliance is now flush with military supplies. Hours before the US strike, Attiqula Baryalai, Fahim’s key deputy, drove to an incongruous outpost in Dasht-e-Kala, about 30 km from Khwaja Bahawudin. There the lean and muscular Baryalai met key commanders to decide on distribution of the ammunition.On slips of paper, he scribbled the figures for each sector: 1,800 AK-47s, 1,000 PK-type machine guns and over 500 rocket-propelled grenade launchers. In 10 minutes, he had distributed close to 10,000 guns to the regiments guarding the northern sector.It looked as if the Russians and Iranians had stepped up the supplies. That included an entire regiment of T-55 tanks and armoured personnel carriers, which lay sheltered behind a bend in the Amu river close to the barge we had used to cross the border.It was noon when we reached the regiment and the sun was mercilessly hot. Yet General Abdul Muneer, the strapping regiment commander from Panjshir Valley, was willing to demonstrate how eager his men were to do battle. He ordered them to get into half-a-dozen tanks and show off their prowess.The tank engines roared to life and they moved swiftly across the banks of the river raising a cloud of dust. Most tanks carried a picture of Masood who is fast acquiring a Che Guevara-like stature in the region. I got inside one of the tanks with Muneer.Ammunition is packed tightly all over and there is barely enough space to stretch your legs. Muneer said determinedly, “The Talibs are terrorists. They have become slaves to foreign powers. They will soon be thrown out.” The way he pronounces the word “terrorists”, it sounds like tourists.TENT CITY: More than 15,000 refugee families, fleeing war, famine and Taliban terror, subsist on rations doled out by foreign aid agencies at camps on the banks of Amu riverA little later we are invited to lunch by General Abdul Wahid, who runs an army base workshop. His tent offers a magnificent view of the Amu. His deputy, Dadullah, joins us and is delighted to know we are from India.He lost a leg in a mine blast four years ago and spent six months in a Delhi hospital where an artificial leg was fitted. Wahid apologises for the simple lunch of pulao and dal. We tell him it’s the best meal we have had in days. “The dal is from India,” he says, “We won’t touch anything that is from Pakistan.”advertisementThe visceral hatred for Pakistanis and their interference in Afghan affairs is something that one encounters right across northern Afghanistan. There is much anger against Pakistan’s support to the Taliban and the deep involvement of the ISI in building and training its army.Even our translator Javed, who studied Urdu in Peshawar, is upset with their devious ways. Referring to the US move to bail out Pakistan’s economy he said, “All it takes is money for Pakistan to switch sides and dump Afghanistan.”The Northern Alliance forces have other concerns about Pakistan’s involvement. In an innocuous house in Dasht-e-Kala, we met General Rahimutallah Mohibullah. He is the commander of the 7,000-strong alliance forces that has been lined up to regain Talukhan from the Taliban.Dressed in army fatigues, the stocky Mohibullah explained, “The Talibs we can take on any time. But it is the former Pakistani officers and Osama bin Laden’s men that will make the fight a tough one.”TENSION IN AIR: News from the battlefront is eagerly followed on radio, the only sourceThere are nagging suspicions that the US has entered into a deal with Pakistan to deprive the Northern Alliance of a final victory by inducting defectors from the Taliban into a future government.Reports that the US may be on the verge of deploying ground forces from bases in Uzbekistan are viewed with alarm. The alliance plans to counter this by capturing as much territory in the north-particularly the cities of Kunduz, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif-so that it has an adequate bargaining clout for the future.Pakistan’s role will again be key to the stability of any future Afghanistan regime. Over the years, Pakistan has invested much of its resources in nurturing the Taliban and will now make every effort to have a say in the emerging dispensation.Islamabad has always been against the alliance saying it lacked the support of the Pashtoon community that accounts for 41 per cent of Afghanistan’s 16 million people.There is some truth to Pakistan’s criticism. Tajiks, who form 22 per cent of the population, dominate the alliance (Masood was a Tajik). The Uzbeks account for 6 per cent and are led by General Rashid Dostum who has made a comeback after years in exile.The Hazaras constitute another 5 per cent and have rejoined the alliance. Also back is Ismail Khan, the respected former governor of Herat province.Fearing that the lack of Pashtoon support may derail their efforts, the US and its allies have begun work on other solutions. Even before the war, moves were afoot to bring back former king Mohammad Zahir Shah, who is living in exile in Rome.The idea is to get the king, who is a Pashtoon, to convene a Loya Jirga or assembly of tribal and regional leaders to determine the fate of post-war Afghanistan.CROWN OF THORNS: General Fahim Khan is Masood’s successor, but lacks his charismaAfghanistan’s real tragedy is the enormity of suffering that the many wars have wrought. Even before the US strikes began, over a million people fled to Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. Meanwhile, three years of a devastating drought has all but destroyed Afghanistan’s agricultural production.In some perverse way, the Taliban has achieved its goal of taking Afghanistan to the medieval ages in its bid to establish a purist Islamic society. Most Afghans now live in Stone-Age conditions. The once-proud people are dependent on doles from aid agencies that are constantly harassed by the Taliban.In the town square at Khwaja Bahawudin, a crowd of refugees had gathered to collect the weekly ration of sugar being distributed by Acted, a French relief organisation.Among them was 38-year-old Syed Kareem who fled with his wife and two children from nearby Khwaja Gar after the Taliban police repeatedly set fire to his house for not following their orders to pray five times a day. He lives in a tent on the banks of the Amu like 15,000 other families.Acted is the lone agency helping out refugees in the northern region and Cyril Dupree, its coordinator, says, “The real emergency is inside Afghanistan. And there is just not enough being done.” The economy lies in tatters.The Afghani, the official currency, fluctuates wildly. Moneychangers have to distribute notes in gunnysacks. A day before the war broke out the exchange rate was 80,000 Afghani to a dollar and now it hovers around 50,000 to a dollar.Prices are absurd with tomatoes and onions costing one lakh Afghanis a kg ($2). Vegetable sellers don’t have iron weights but use round stones to measure quantity. Petrol, mainly imported from Uzbekistan, is sold in tin drums with a 100 litres costing $200 (Rs 9,600).MARCH OF DESPERATION: The US bombardment sparked a fresh wave of exodus from Kabul (above) and other Taliban-controlled citiesThe progress of the war is followed keenly. At the Najibullah Hotel in Dasht-e-Kala, which serves the best kebabs in the region, every other person carries a transistor to listen to the latest from the front.Refugees are another source of news. At the centre of attention is 14-year-old Khaled who escaped from Kabul before the US bombardment began and undertook a traumatic 24-hour journey to return home. Khaled said the Taliban police were constantly picking on him for not growing a beard. They even arrested him and kept him in detention for a day.While the Taliban has shut down all girl schools, the ones that the boys go to are in no better shape. In Dasht-e-kala, for instance, constant bombing by Taliban forced the only school to shift its premises away from the town.There, next to an overflowing nullah, groups of boys learn under thatched huts. Abdul Mahmood says he hopes to become a doctor when he grows up. Headmaster Fakruddin is pessimistic. He says the drop-out rate is 80 per cent with most of the students joining the mujahideen.CHANGE OF GUARD: Alliance forces have consolidated their hold on Takhar provinceAs the war rages, the refugees in Kashlok camp No. 1, on the outskirts of Khwaja Bahawudin, wait in anticipation. Ghulam Rasool, a farmer, hopes that it will end soon so that he can return to his house in Talukhan.He recollected the trauma of escaping with his wife and three children after the Taliban captured his village. Like most Afghan women, his wife Gul Afrooz covers her face and refuses to speak. But whenever her husband misses a detail she prompts him. Rasool is in tears as he points to the torn clothes of his children Javed, 10, and Sharbana, 12. They have no shoes.By then it is evening. The sun is still an incandescent white globe on the horizon. In the ruins near the camp, the elders offer namaaz. Waiting patiently for her father to finish his prayers is five-year-old Mallika Abdul Rashid. She is clutching a schoolbook titled My Hero.What strikes me is the sparkle in her big brown eyes. I pray that it never dims.