Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 13, 2001
One trench at a time, rebels push on
In trenches for fierce fight near Kabul.

At War With Terror

Gen. Basir Khan directs traffic on the battlefront outside Kabul.

RABAT, Afghanistan - The ashes in the cook fire of the Taliban post were still hot when Gen. Basir Khan took up his new position atop the mud-walled bunker and looked off in the direction of the capital, Kabul.

"There, there and there," said the anti-Taliban commander, pointing out in a 180-degree arc. "Those all used to be Taliban positions, but all this was taken by our soldiers."

The throaty roar of American jets and distant mushroom clouds from air strikes filled the air, but Khan's troops no longer had to duck the crackling hiss of incoming rocket rounds or the small-arms fire that kicked up dust clouds where the bullets struck the earth.

It was a triumphal moment for Khan, a celebrated commander of the Northern Alliance, whose forces yesterday fought a fierce battle to oust the Taliban from this maze of earthen houses and farm plots 25 miles north of Kabul.

In a war that has assumed global importance, where dozens of commanders yesterday coordinated thousands of troops on a 15-mile front line across the Shamali Plain, the conflict was ultimately fought on a very local level: By single squads of tanks and infantry, attacking one trench at a time.

For Khan, the day began a bit inauspiciously. The commanders twice led the troops down alleys where they discovered land mines, forcing the soldiers to carefully retrace their steps.

Finally, Khan's soldiers were directed to wait in a farmhouse. Khan said he was expecting a B-52 air strike at noon in front of his position. While he waited, aging Russian tanks flying the green-white-and-black barred flag of the Islamic State of Afghanistan creaked and clattered into position. Each was followed by a lighter armored personnel carrier. As promised, at precisely noon, the vapor trail of a B-52 appeared overhead. But then it was redirected at the last minute by spotters and made several wide circles before dropping its load of bombs on a location about five miles away. Khan's advance would have to wait for the next air strike.

Khan is well-known in the Northern Alliance. He fought with the mujaheddin in the holy war against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s and then was allied with the Islamic government that replaced the communists, which the Taliban ousted from Kabul in 1996.

His troops did not have the fine Iranian uniforms of the Zarbati attack troops, but the unit seemed confident from years of fighting together. Each man carried a gun, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or spare rockets. Most also slung wool blankets on their banks, and they had scarves filled with rations of bread, potatoes and meat.

After noon, Khan ordered his troops to proceed to the front lines behind the lumbering tanks. As the column neared enemy lines, a Taliban sniper began firing on the group, forcing all but the most brave to take cover behind mud walls. It was then that the air strikes began. Four bombs struck a Taliban position about 800 yards away, each preceded by the roar of an invisible jet and the sickening whoosh of the falling bomb. The soldiers watched in awe as a huge gray cloud filled the sky. "Allah akhbar." God is great. Some of the troops sang poetry to themselves.

"Right now we are worried that they might drop one on us here," said Jan Agha, one of Khan's unit commanders. "Once they are done with the bombing, we will attack."

Farther down the lane, after stopping for a quick meal while sitting on the ground, the troops encountered enemy fire again as a tank sought to position itself with a clear shot on Taliban trenches. Taliban troops were firing rocket-propelled grenades, which went crashing into the fields and the mud walls along the lane where the alliance troops crouched. Bullets whistled overhead.

"You go to the front lines, you get used to the sound," said Abdel Mafuz, a commander who showed the scars on his leg, his arm and his hip as proof of his close encounters with gunfire.

In the sky above, the wide arc of a B-52's vapor trail appeared directly overhead. It seemed like a minute before the concussions began, one after another, frighteningly loud even though they were a half-mile distant. Perhaps a dozen bombs fell, but they exploded so quickly, counting was impossible. The dust cloud was enormous. The commanders said the bombs struck a long entrenchment of Taliban.

Khan appeared then, marching Pattonesque down the lane with an entourage of lieutenants, oblivious to the gunfire. He worked his way to a forward command post, a farmhouse whose mud walls were pocked with bullet and missile holes from two years of being on a stationary front.

Pacing the rooftop with his radio held high, stirring the air with the antenna to improve reception, Khan directed a tank to a position where it could fire easily on the Taliban entrenchments. As Taliban rockets streaked overhead, a machine-gunner standing beside Khan sent a stream of bullets at the Taliban positions until the gun shimmered with heat.

Ten minutes later, one of the guerrillas let out a cry: "They are fleeing! We have taken the trench." They pointed to a trail of dust as the Taliban vehicles, including a tank, sped away.

Then, in a mad rush, Khan and his officers dashed out of their post and across to the former Taliban trenches, careful to walk behind the tanks in single file, keeping their feet confined to the tread marks in the dusty soil to avoid detonating a mine.

But the Taliban forces were not finished yet. They left behind booby traps in some of their bunkers. One soldier yesterday lost a leg, a foot and a hand after he entered a Taliban hut and set off an explosion that sent out a small black cloud. It happened about 100 feet from the main column of Khan's troops, but the soldiers could do little but carry the man away and then urgently signal to one another not to stray from the narrow trails left by the tanks.

As a lone alliance tank pushed its way across the field, crushing mud walls along the way, squads of soldiers rushed out to Taliban bunkers collecting the weapons left behind in haste - mortars, a recoilless rifle, rocket-propelled grenades. Khan got on his radio to request a halt to American air strikes in the area, now that it was teeming with friendly soldiers.

As dusk arrived on the hazy Shamali Plain and the temperature began to fall, Khan arrived at a bunker where the Taliban had left behind uneaten plates of bread and rice. The radio crackled with news of a broad advance to Kabul. In the distant hills, air strikes continued on the positions to which the Taliban had fled. Khan said his troops would not stop until they had encircled the capital. home page   
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