Portraits of patience on the Afghan front

War is coming to northern Afghanistan, slowly.

But as surely as the winter snow, starting to creep down the Panjshir Valley toward the Shomali Plain front lines, it's coming. Kabul, the capital, is 30 miles from here. And the roar and boom of American jets are like a confident military march, drawing ever closer. For three weeks, the US and British air bombardment has gathered momentum, targeting the Taliban militia.

Patiently waiting to take advantage of the airstrikes are the forces of the opposition Northern Alliance. A rag-tag band of some 2,500 fighters is scattered along a front that stretches for miles. They face three times as many Taliban troops dug into their own trenches to the south. Nonetheless, they are integral to a US strategy to oust the Taliban.

Forced from the capital in the mid-1990s, the alliance is a loose umbrella of ethnic minority groups on the defensive: defeat looked all but certain this past summer, as the Taliban geared up to push the alliance from the remaining 10 percent sliver of the country still under its control.

But Sept. 11 marked the beginning of a shift in the balance of power. Now the alliance - with pledges of support from the US, Russia, Iran, and Turkey - is preparing for war. New uniforms are being issued. Old tanks, from Afghan wars long past, are being cannibalized to resuscitate armored forces. Ammunition is being stockpiled.

And rebel fighters here do what soldiers everywhere do. They wait, talk about family and girlfriends, and get ready for the battle they know is coming.

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