For nearly two decades, the strategic Panjshir Valley in eastern Afghanistan has been the star in the crescent moon of the Afghan resistance to rulers in Kabul, the capital.
Guarded by the soldiers of the charismatic Mujahideen (resistance) commander, Ahmad Shah Masoud, and a rocky curtain of snow-capped mountains, the Panjshir was never completely subdued by either Soviet or Afghan government forces.
Today the valley, located just 60 miles north of Kabul, is the southernmost line of defense against the forces of the Taliban Islamic militia and could hold the key to the future of the war in Afghanistan, and to stability in Central Asia.
This valley is one of three major fronts that the Taliban are advancing along in their drive to capture the 11 northern provinces that still elude their control.
A final victory for the radical group, which has gained control over two-thirds of Afghanistan since 1994, would turn yet-another nominally secular country into one ruled by fundamentalist Islamists.
The Taliban has banned everything from music tapes to movie halls, and will not allow women to work outside the house or girls to go to school. People who do not follow the group's strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, are either beaten or jailed.
Guarding a stronghold
"We don't have any fear of Taliban troops or missiles now. We are all united in our fight against these invaders," says Abdul Jabor, a young fighter guarding the ridge above Gulbahar.
From this mountain stronghold, he can clearly see the Taliban-held town of Gulbahar and the strategic importance of the Panjshir is immediately apparent. The valley ends in a narrow gorge that can be easily defended by Mr. Masoud's troops. Beyond Gulbahar, which is at the mouth of the gorge, the major supply routes running from Kabul to the north over the Salang Pass, are clearly visible. Two months of shelling have reduced Gulbahar to rubble, but neither side has made any headway.
Although Masoud was forced to leave behind large quantities of arms and ammunition when his forces were forced to retreat from Kabul last September, the morale of his soldiers and civilians here remains high.
For a whole generation now, the people of the Panjshir have known only war. Children learn how to handle a rifle before they can read or write, derelict Soviet tanks are often their playgrounds, and unexploded mines litter the countryside.
Once famous for its precious stones and scenic beauty, the Panjshir today is a barren wasteland, devastated by years of guerrilla warfare. More than 5,000 people have been killed or injured since fighting first broke out in 1979, and many thousands more have fled their homes for refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan.
The 80,000 people left behind suffer more than most other Afghanis. Until the snow melts in a month or so, the only route out of the valley will be a risky four-hour trek to the Salang Highway, which is under the control of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of Masoud's alliance partners.
Food and medicine are scarce, and the prices of basic commodities such as flour, sugar, and rice are at least double those in Kabul. Military supplies must be flown in on helicopters, which need clear weather to find their way over the 14,000-foot passes leading into the valley.
But despite the hardships, the people of the Panjshir Valley say they are prepared for another round of fighting if it means stopping the Taliban's advance.
A legendary past
Much of the the credit for stalling the Taliban advance along this strategic front-line goes to Masoud himself. His exploits as a guerrilla commander who fought the Soviet forces are legendary and earned him the title "the Lion of the Panjshir" and the respect of those who served under him.
In 1979, while fighting against the Communist-led Afghan Army, Masoud was forced to retreat deep inside the valley with only 14 soldiers left to support him. Refusing to surrender, he called for volunteers and formed a new guerrilla unit, which recaptured lost territory and went on to repulse nearly a dozen Soviet assaults over the next decade.
Earlier this week, Masoud announced the formation of an elite force of 700 specially trained volunteers, drawn from the ranks of his 10,000 strong guerrilla army, whose aim will be to turn the tide against the Taliban. "If there had been a morale problem we would never have got such numbers. Soon you will be able to judge for yourself the morale of my soldiers," Masoud said.
The guerrilla leader, who belongs to the minority Tajik ethnic group, shuns the ostentatious lifestyle of most Afghan warlords and maintains close contact with his troops and the local population. A devout Muslim, he lives with his wife and four children in a simple mud brick house overlooking the valley. Its only modern convenience is a satellite phone used to keep in touch with other military commanders.
"The people of the Panjshir know that Masoud will always be with them, he will never leave them alone," says one of Masoud's most trusted aides, Dr. Abdullah, who goes by only one name. "This is not the case with other Mujahideen leaders."
For Masoud, the war against the ultraorthodox Taliban militia, most of whose fighters belong to the dominant Pathan ethnic group, isn't a religious or an ethnic conflict, but another fight against a foreign aggressor sponsored this time, he claims, by neighboring Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. The Pakistani government denies this claim.
"When the Taliban first came they had slogans like security and stability. But since they took Kabul, their true face has been revealed," he says derisively of the group. "Once people realized who they were and who they were serving, people realized the Taliban were working against the interest of Afghanistan and against the interests of peace and stability."
Seventeen years of civil war that began with the Soviet intervention in December 1979 has left the social and physical infrastructure of this once proud and fiercely independent nation almost destroyed. Prior to the Taliban's takeover of Kabul in September, Masoud was defense minister and commander of forces loyal to ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a fellow Tajik.
Former enemies, now friends
Now he and Mr. Rabbani have formed an alliance known as the Supreme Council for the Defense of Afghanistan with their former enemies, the Uzbek chief and former communist, General Dostum and the Hezb-e-Wahadat leader, Karim Khalili.
"Our first task is to defend areas we are holding and then to spread the fighting in order to overstretch the Taliban and then go on the offensive," Masoud says, explaining the alliance's strategy.
The first test is expected in the next few days as fighting intensifies for control for the strategic Shebar Pass at the entrance of the Bamian Valley, now held by Mr. Khalili. If the Taliban are able to capture the pass, they would threaten the northern provinces of Samangan and Balkh. Fighting is also raging for the control of Badghis Province north of Herat.
The Taliban's ultimate aim is to capture the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the traditional stronghold of Dostum, which is located just 40 miles from the Uzbekistan border.
The specter of the Taliban has sent alarm bells ringing in the Central Asian republics, whose governments fear a major influx of refugees, arms, and drugs if the militia advances to the banks of the Amu Darya River, which forms much of Afghanistan's northern border.
On Wednesday, defense minister of Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan met in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent to plan a joint response to the Taliban threat. All three Central Asian countries depend on Russian troops to defend their frontiers and military analysts say that thousands of soldiers have already been deployed near the Uzbek border town of Termez.
Just how successful the anti-Taliban alliance will be in halting the militia's northward thrust now depends on the degree of military coordination between Mujahideen leaders. While it is too early to predict the final outcome for the last phase of the Afghan war, it is already clear that for Masoud, this will be the most crucial test of his military career.