The young soldier leads the way to the front line, moving swiftly
through a maze of baked mud walls. Ammunition clips strapped to his
belt and his Kalashnikov at the ready, he pads like a panther past
spent cartridges and pools of fresh blood.
Two fierce battles - the heaviest fighting this year in war-torn
Afghanistan - broke out earlier this month along the Baghram Front,
just 30 miles north of the capital, Kabul. The soldier and his
comrades, opponents of the radical Islamic Taliban regime, pause at
the edge of an eerie no man's land. In the distance looms the
wreckage of a truck that was transporting Taliban warriors when it
took a direct hit.
The soldier, a three-year veteran, looks far younger than the 18
years he claims. His entire life is framed by the savage fighting
that has gripped Afghanistan for more than two decades. Despite
recent appeals for peace by the United Nations and the Organization
of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the renewed hostilities portend yet
another summer of bloodshed at the base of the mighty Hindu Kush
The persistent instability in Afghanistan continues to raise high-
level concern among countries with security agendas as divergent as
the New fuel fires Afghanistan's 20-year war
United States, Russia, China, and the Central Asian republics.
Now a cessation of hostilities seems all the more remote.
Each of the warring sides blames the other for the renewed
For the Taliban forces, which control some 90 percent of the
country, breaking through at Baghram would be the first step in
attacking the Panjshir Valley, mountain stronghold of Ahmad Shah
Masood, commander of the Northern Alliance. For the legendary
mujahideen commander, who is putting up the last significant
resistance to the Taliban, recapturing nearby Kabul would be a
In the stalemate that resulted from three failed Taliban thrusts
at the Panjshir Valley in previous years, the rival forces could be
testing each other's strengths. Or the fighting may be at the
prompting of other regional players.
Neighboring Pakistan in particular has played a significant role
in the sad fortunes of Afghanistan, first funneling billions of
dollars of CIA aid to the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s, then
providing vital backing to the Taliban, who rose up in 1994
promising to restore order in the warlord-driven factional chaos
that followed Russia's withdrawal.
"This is not a civil war, it is a Pakistani attack," maintains
Commander Masood. "We are defending ourselves from foreigners. The
Taliban were created by Pakistan to fight for Pakistani goals." This
summer's battles are the first major fighting since Gen. Pervez
Musharraf seized power in Pakistan last fall. Masood says the robust
performance of his forces may have a "good effect" on General
Musharraf's future policy toward Afghanistan.
A 'patriotic' war
Up and down the front line, Masood's soldiers - many of them
veterans of the jihad, or holy war, that finally drove out the
Soviets in 1989 - echo their commander's stubborn patriotism. "We
only fight those who are servants of foreign countries," says Abdul
Karim, who joined the mujahideen at age 15 and has been fighting
ever since. "The communists [under Afghan President Najibullah] were
Russian slaves, just as the Taliban are slaves of Pakistan."
The father of six commands a dozen men on a lonely hilltop
position on the Bangi front in northern Afghanistan. His main
motivation to keep on fighting, Mr. Karim says, is his opposition to
the Taliban's interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). "They say
they're bringing sharia," he says. "But it's not sharia to beat
women and children or build terrorist bases." (The United States and
UN accuse the Taliban of harboring indicted international terrorist
Osama bin Laden. …