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As Ramadan begins, Afghans hope for elusive peace

November 18, 2001

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

DASHT-E-QAL’EH, Afghanistan (Nov. 18) –  Sahibnuzar remembers a time nearly 30 years ago when the streets of this village in northern Afghanistan were clean and the stores were stocked with food and other supplies.

Roads were being built throughout the country. There was a five-year plan towards economic improvement.  The regime of President Sadar Mohammed Daud was the most peaceful and prosperous in Afghanistan’s history.

But that time is an ancient memory, an almost idyllic interlude before the 1979 Soviet invasion and the 22 years of war that have followed.

“The difference” between then and now, “the 42-year-old farmer notes wryly, “is as great as that between the earth and the sky.”

From the moment one crosses the Amu Darya River from neighboring Tajikistan, only a few kilometers away, the signs of war that have engulfed Afghanistan for the last 22 years are everywhere.

An artillery emplacement overlooks the ferry crossing. A ruined tower stands silhouetted on a distant hill. Teenaged boys in camouflage fatigues stand idly on the far bank, AK-47 rifles slung casually over their shoulders. On the Afghan side of the river, two grenades explode in muffled thuds several minutes apart. Geysers of water erupt into the air. The soldiers are probably fishing, an interpreter notes.

American B-52 bombers crawl across the sky at 25,000 feet or more, leaving long contrails in the sky as they head towards Kunduz, where as many as 20,000 Taliban, mainly Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens, are under siege by the Northern Alliance. Their lightning offensive has left them in control of nearly all of Afghanistan. Kunduz in the north and Khandahar in the south remain the last Taliban holdouts.

Two pairs of Russian-made helicopters fly north towards the border, a couple of hours apart. The helicopters belong to the Northern Alliance, an interpreter says. They are generally used to ferry wounded soldiers to hospitals in Tajikistan and return loaded with fuel or ammunition.

Only a week ago, Taliban soldiers were entrenched on a hill across the nearby Kowkcheh River and fired regularly into the village. Their rapid collapse over the last week and half has left Sahibnuzar and other Afghans in this village a little surprised and cautiously optimistic that peace may finally return to their country after so many years of war. But they know that they cannot do it alone.

“Everyone’s eyes are turned towards Europe and America,” says Sahibnuzar. “The only way we will ever have peace is if Europe and America come in and take all of the weapons out of people’s hands, including the Northern Alliance.”

The Afghanistan that Sahibnuzar described seems centuries removed from the Afghanistan of today. The country is stuck somewhere between the medieval age and the modern world. Heavy trucks and jeeps bounce along narrow, deeply-rutted dirt roads, some of the worst in the world. A single vehicle kicks up a swirl of dust so thick at times that it blocks the surrounding landscape completely from view. The vehicles run on home-distilled gasoline sold from jerry cans at stalls along the side of the road. They compete for space along the narrow tracks with farmers herding goats, sheep and cattle in much the same way that their forefathers have done for centuries. Only two or three houses in Dasht-e-Qal’eh have electricity, which is supplied by generator. There is little running water. Plumbing is nonexistent.

“Afghanistan is the world’s poorest country,” Sahibnuzar says. “People here need bread. They need work. If anyone comes here and gives people the basics — bread and work to do, then everyone will be in favor of that country.”

Sahibnuzar and fellow residents invest a lot of hope in America. They point out that the United States initially supported the Taliban as a stabilizing force in Afghanistan in their early march towards power in the early 1990s. They say that while they support the United States in its bid to oust the Taliban and destroy Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, they feel America bears a responsibility for helping rebuild the country.

“If America just gets rid of bin Laden and doesn’t do anything else and leaves everything to the Northern Alliance, then nobody in the world will believe in anything America does anymore,” Sahibnuzar says.

So far, the United States has shown little inclination to get heavily involved with the Northern Alliance on the ground, preferring to focus primarily on aerial bombing. Actual materiel support to the Northern Alliance has been limited to a few helicopter shipments of Russian ammunition, according to an American military source familiar with the situation.

Sahibnuzar and others in Dasht-e-Qal’eh fear that soon the Northern Alliance, which is made up of a loose coalition of primarily ethnic Uzbek, Tajiks, and Hazaaras will splinter, and that the warlords will begin fighting among themselves again. They say there will never be peace in Dasht-e-Qal’eh and other Afghan towns as long as the warlords hold sway.

“You have to disband the warlords and create a normal army,” says Sho’Mohammed, a local driver. “Otherwise, we will never have peace.”

As they talk, automatic weapons fire crackles occasionally in the distance. Sahibnuzar and the other men barely seem to notice. Despite the sporadic gunfire, they and the area’s sole police officer maintain that the local roads are safe to travel, at least during the day.

As the sun goes down Sunday, a group of Northern Alliance soldiers saunter into a cafe for supper. Some of them spread out prayer cloths that they keep slung over their shoulders or tucked into their jackets. They remove their shoes, then shuck off AK-47 rifles and combat gear. They face west towards Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed.

The soldiers kneel and pray several times, then sit cross-legged on a rug on which is spread a thin dining mat. They lounge against the far wall and chat quietly as a boy brings steaming bowls of meat soup, rice and shish kebabs to them. The presence of a few American journalists piques their interest for a while, and they agree to allow a few photographs.

The men are from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where the Northern Alliance began their offensive two weeks ago. They fled the area when the Taliban took the city in 1998 and have been fighting in this area ever since. They say they intend to start the journey home on Monday.

The men seem polite enough, even offering a photographer a cup of green tea as he snaps several shots of them. But these are men who’ve likely known little else but war for most of their lives, and such men can be extremely unpredictable. An interpreter suggests that it is time to leave.

The men are asked how they intend to return home, since Kunduz, where the Taliban are under seige, stands in the way. Their answer is a familiar one in Afghanistan.

“There are two roads,” one of them says. “Maybe one of them is clear. If it’s not, then we will fight our way through. ”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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