The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 25, 2001
Fending off the Taliban
and tending to the fields
War With Terror
SALANG, Afghanistan - Most days pass peacefully enough in this village
along the Gorband River, where there is no outward sign of the menace that
lurks less than a mile outside of town.
plow their fields for winter wheat, children play in the dirt, and veiled
women hang out the wash in this seemingly idyllic community of mud homes
built into the sides of a sheer canyon bracketing a few acres of tillable
hundred yards upriver, where the stream and the dirt road turn hard left
by the rusted wreckage of a Russian tank, it suddenly becomes Taliban
territory. The front line in Afghanistan's civil war abuts the outskirts
of Riobi Salang.
with many front lines in Afghanistan, most of the men and boys who guard
the trenches and bunkers built into the hills around Riobi Salang are from
the village itself. The militiamen, who are opposed to the hard-line
Islamic regime in Kabul, have a great interest in defending the front
because their homes and their families are at risk.
are confident in our troops," said Saydol, 28, a commander here who,
like many Afghans, uses only one name. He points at his house on the
hillside, the last one in the village, the first one Taliban fighters
would encounter if they spilled over the hill. "If we were not
confident, how could we keep our families here?"
Taliban has overrun Riobi Salang three times since it pushed the
government from Kabul in 1996. The incursions coincided with Taliban
offensives in the Shamali Plain, the rich farm area 25 miles north of
Kabul where troops from the opposition Northern Alliance are lined up
against the Taliban. The Kabul front line is less than an hour's drive to
the east from Riobi Salang, so each time the Shamali fills up with Taliban
forces, people here are forced to flee their homes to escape the advancing
flood of enemy troops.
for occasional skirmishes and exchange of frontline posts, the line here
has remained stationary for more than two years. Taliban forces seem
content to stay put, occupying the next village upriver. That village is
populated by Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan - and in
the Taliban's leadership. Riobi Salang is an ethnic Tajik town.
and Uzbeks are northern minority groups whose members make up most of the
Northern Alliance troops.
people in those areas tend to be more sympathetic to the Taliban,"
said Abdul Latif, 38, another farmer-soldier. "The people there live
much like us. They continue to work in their fields like we do."
get to the front line, visitors walk to the end of town on what is left of
the main road leading to Bamiyan, site of two huge, centuries-old Buddhist
statues that the puritan Taliban destroyed this year because they were
the last dwelling, the entourage narrows into single file. Saydol suggests
staying to a footpath on the left - the rest of the road may contain
300 yards from the front line, where the road gradually is exposed to
Taliban positions on the far hills, the commander suggests the visitors
and soldiers move ahead only in pairs, to make the group less attractive
final 200 feet of the journey, through a four-foot-deep trench, are
traveled hunched over at a trot, shielded from Taliban positions only a
few hundred yards across the stream. The stone bunker at the end of the
path is like an orchestra pit, offering scant protection in front of a
vast granite amphitheater filled with Taliban spectators.
trade shots with the Taliban all the time," said Abdul Rahim, 50, a
farmer with leathery skin and a beard touched with gray. He fought to
defend Riobi Salang during the 1980s, when Soviet troops came to prop up a
been fighting to defend this place all our lives," said Rahim, who is
armed with a machine gun and a prayer rug. In rear positions, Northern
Alliance troops have mortars, rockets and tanks trained on the Taliban
the guns are silent around Rahim's position this day, but it is not always
quiet. The ground is littered with spent shells. A shipping container
beside his position is full of bullet holes and its steel sides are bowed
outward - it held a cache of ammunition that exploded when the Taliban
struck during one of its previous incursions.
has heard news that the Americans are attacking the Taliban to punish the
regime for harboring Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in last month's
terrorist attacks. But he and his comrades have seen no evidence of that
here, a short drive from the Shamali Plain where U.S. jets are making
daily strikes on frontline Taliban positions.
typical militiaman spends 10 of every 30 days at home. Rahim is assigned
to various frontline posts in the hills around Riobi Salang for 10 days,
then works 10 days in rear positions, where the duty is more relaxed.
After that, he gets to live in his own house and work in his fields.
fortifications are beefed up when it gets dark. "During the day, we
go to work," Rahim said. "At night, we go to our posts."
an emergency, everyone pitches in. "If they attack, we drop our tools
and grab our guns and run to the front," Abdul Latif said. "We
are very close to the front, so we can rush there quickly to defend
in the village, after a quick trot through the trench and a return walk
down the mined road, the sense of serenity returns.
is quiet except for the sounds of farmers urging on teams of oxen and the
splash of the Gorband River as it plunges over rocks. A cow noses through
the crisp, dry corn stalks looking for stray kernels.
colors are muted: brown houses, gray rock, leaves the color of straw
falling from the fruit and almond trees. It is all subdued except for a
single plot of brilliant red geraniums growing next to the river - a
public meeting point where villagers come to exchange news of the war and
updates on their crops.
a few weeks' time, when the frigid winter winds cut through the canyon,
the people in Riobi Salang will dig up the geraniums and take the plants
to their homes, where they will provide a little indoor color during the
spring, they will replant them by the river, and start the cycle once