Afghan Alliance fighters unite on ruined front

The stout general hoisted himself up the steep metal staircase of the airport control tower and surveyed the nearby front line - as close as it gets to the capital, Kabul.

The windows are gone. The buildings below are in ruins. The carcasses of scavenged MiG jet fighters rot in a collapsing hangar nearby. Taliban troops line trenches and man rocket launchers less than two miles away.

But General Babajan doesn't see wreckage at this military air strip just 18 miles north of Kabul. He sees an opportunity, now that the US has pledged to begin its war against terrorism with his foe, the radical Islamic Taliban militia.

"American forces can use it if they want," the general says magnanimously.

While few believe that the Northern Alliance - an umbrella grouping of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek and other minority militias, united only in their opposition to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban - can rule this unruly country, the 15,000-strong alliance is a powerful card for the US to play.

And there is other good news for the Alliance. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah on Wednesday announced that he has the names of "dozens" of Taliban commanders who are willing to change sides. Many were paid for their allegiance in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban swept across Afghanistan, and reportedly have no ideological connection to the Taliban.

Dr. Abdullah claims that "it will not be exaggerating to talk about 10,000" Taliban fighters who would switch over to the Alliance side. Such figures, though, are impossible to independently verify.

"These people have been living under Taliban control for a long time, and they are willing to change sides," he says.

But any such defections do not necessarily mean that Taliban morale is flagging, according to Babajan, who claims that 1,000 Taliban fighters crossed over early this week in three regions.

"The morale of the Taliban is too high, because they burned the US Embassy [in Kabul] and burned effigies of President Bush," says the general.

"They are telling the people, 'Americans can't do anything against us, and many Islamic countries will help us,' " Babajan says. "So day by day, they are becoming hopeful."

But there is hope, too, budding among Alliance fighters, that one more battle could spell the end of a generation of war. Before proudly touring the broken airbase, he had been speaking before a group of 200 of his soldiers - one-tenth of those under his command at Bagram.

In the days before and after the assassination of Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood on Sept. 9 - two days before the suicide attacks in the US that killed more than 6,000 people - the Taliban bolstered their 3,000 troops at the Bagram front with 2,000 more.

Just six months ago, the Taliban had seized the airbase for two days. It was their third capture in recent years, but took on added significance as the Northern Alliance seemed set for imminent defeat in coming months - despite heavy military support from Russia, India, and Iran.

Now, despite the death of their leader - known as the "Lion of the Panjshir" for his role in fighting as a mujahed against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s - the tide has turned against the Taliban.

"We are emancipators, we like peace and tranquility, and want that to come to Afghanistan," says the general, though when the alliance ruled Afghanistan in the early 1990s, it was known more for infighting, corruption, and the leveling of entire districts of Kabul.

When the Taliban first came to power, it did so with the popular mandate of people tired of such misrule. Corrupt commanders were hung by the Taliban from lampposts, with their pockets stuffed with money.

Massood waged an effective guerrilla campaign, but analysts say that his genius was in keeping the disparate forces in the alliance from scrapping with each other.

But now the battle with the Taliban is being cast in an antiterrorism light - to better woo Washington. "For six years we are fighting against terrorism, and you [in the West] pay attention only now," says Babajan, with a chiding look. "The source of terrorism is Afghanistan, under the protection of the Taliban."

Turning to his assembled troops, he asks, loudly: "Are you ready to fight against the Taliban?"

"We are ready!" the troops shout back, raising their guns. Then they disperse, wearing a wide collection of black and white and colored scarves, turbans, and brimmed wool Afghan hats. They carry AK-47 assault rifles and shoulder-held rocket grenades. Most have beards, though some were too young.

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