Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 18, 2001
A warrior for 20 of his 30 years
At 10, he fought the Soviets. Now, with a new generation, he fights the Taliban. 

At War With Terror

RABAT, Afghanistan - At midday yesterday, a war-weary soldier named Mirza Khan and his Northern Alliance comrades saw their first daytime American air strike, at a Taliban target just four miles away.

The plane swooped in out of the west, its roar and the explosion from two huge bomb blasts apparent before the streaking jet was seen banking up over a mountain, returning to the west. The Northern Alliance soldiers here did not know the target, but they hoped it was an enemy encampment.

For weeks, the alliance has been urging U.S. strikes on the Taliban forces to allow alliance soldiers to attack the capital, 25 miles away.

One of those infantrymen poised to attack is Khan. He joined the jihad against the Soviets at age 10. He lost his right foot to a Russian land mine when he was 17. Now, looking much more weathered than his 30 years, he is still posted at the front line of Afghanistan's endless civil war.

"I have known war all my life," said Khan, one of the many older Afghan soldiers who serve beside a new generation of mujaheddin, or holy warriors.

Khan yesterday passed the time in a farmhouse a few hundred yards behind the front line at Rabat, a village about 25 miles north of Kabul, the capital.

For Khan, the Taliban is just another foreign invader, as the Soviet Union was in the 1980s. The rebels regard the Taliban forces as the puppets of Pakistan and Arab extremists such as Osama bin Laden. "I will fight the Taliban until I die," Khan said. "They don't recognize God. They don't believe in the Koran. They put innocent people in jail."

The front line here on the Shamali Plain has been stable for more than two years, but that does not mean it is quiet. As Khan spoke, rebel soldiers and Taliban troops traded rocket-propelled grenades and artillery rounds. The night before, American jets struck a Taliban antiaircraft position a few miles away near Bagram, an indication that U.S. air strikes are getting closer to frontline positions.

For most Afghans, the rapid series of events in the last two weeks contrasts with the long-term view of war commonly held here.

"These young men you see are the sons of experienced soldiers," said Abdul Zahir, 55, who has four sons on the front line in Rabat. He sat in the local commander's office, sharing tea with a few officers.

"It has been 23 years since the war began," he said. "Everybody in the country is armed. Even my grandchildren will take up arms and fight if the war comes to that. Give us freedom or give us death."

At his farmhouse post, where Khan shares a plain room of bare mud-and-straw walls and a few wool blankets, Khan also views the conflict as a life-work rather than an interruption.

When he was 10, Soviet forces moved into his village, Lachmani. As the oldest child in a fatherless family, he felt obliged to join the resistance forces.

"I was a single man," he said. "We wanted to struggle against the communist government and the occupation forces." He never attended school, he can't read or write, and he has only vague recollections of peace.

Khan underwent training at a camp in Pakistan - the CIA was sponsoring the mujaheddin through Pakistan at the time - and then spent years living in the mountains with the mujaheddin. It was a hard, spare life, evading Soviet air strikes and setting up ambushes.

It was easy to find inspiration to fight the Soviets. They were non-Muslims occupying an Islamic country. The air war by the Americans presents Khan with no such sentiment. "Of course I know the Americans are not Muslims," he said. "They don't want to occupy our country. The Russians wanted to stay here. There's a big difference."

In 1988, when Khan was approaching a Soviet encampment, one of his platoon stepped on a land mine. Three mujaheddin died. Khan's right foot was blown off.

"I thought I couldn't fight anymore," he said. "But then they gave me the new foot, and I knew I could fight again. If I am alive, I will fight."

Fitted with a prosthesis, he returned to the war in six months, just as the Soviet troops were pulling out of Afghanistan. The mujaheddin then set their sights on the communist government in Kabul, which resisted for nearly three years before surrendering the capital in 1992.

But the mujaheddin proved themselves better at fighting than governing. Various factions turned their guns on one another and the citizens of Kabul, leading to such great discontent that the Taliban, when it ousted the mujaheddin government from Kabul in 1996, was widely welcomed as a stabilizing force.

"When the Russians left, we expected peace and calm," said Khan, dressed in a frayed olive coat over an argyle sweater and the standard Afghan chemise, the long-tailed shirt and billowy pants. "We were disappointed because more than two million people died here. So many people emigrated. Every time I see an orphan, I become upset."

With the Taliban in power, Khan returned to war once more.

"Muslims shouldn't be fighting each other," he said of the Taliban. He believes the Taliban forces cannot become holy martyrs - shahid - if they die in the course of killing other Muslims. "They are foreigners, most of them."

Like most Northern Alliance soldiers, Khan is a volunteer and is on duty in shifts: ten days in a reserve position, a few hundred yards behind the front. Ten days on the front line itself. Most of the duty is boring.

Every 20 days, the soldiers are allowed to spend 10 days at home with their families. Khan spends his with his wife and five children, tending to two small farm plots near Charikar, about seven miles from the front. If a big battle begins, soldiers who are on leave are under orders to pick up their weapons and rush to the front.

Like him, his four sons and daughter are not attending school because there are no schools other than religious madrassas. The oldest child is 7, three years younger than Khan was when he first picked up arms.

"God is merciful," he said. "We hope there will be peace. If there is peace, my children will choose another occupation. If not, they'll be soldiers, too." home page   
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