New Afghan Generation at War ; Fresh Battles Erupted This Month in a State Where Radicals Are a Main Import, and Export

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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 Mountains.

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 clashes.

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 tantalizing prize.

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. …

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