Bolstered by the arrival of thousands of zealous new fighters from neighboring Pakistan, the ruling Taliban regime is now building a multilayered defense around Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Streams of trucks, loaded with as many as 15 fighters each, are heading toward Kabul. Eyewitnesses report that several thousand armed Pakistani tribesmen crossed into neighboring Afghanistan Sunday and yesterday to join the Taliban, which is dominated by their ethnic Pashtun brethren. The fighters wield heavy machine guns and ride atop trucks, whose loudspeakers blare battle hymns filled with anti-American spite. A Northern Alliance leader, Commander Rellozai, told Reuters that he had fresh "evidence of a second front being dug by the Taliban behind the first."
Meanwhile, Taliban officers concede they are taking a beating from the American B-52 bombers that continued to pound frontline positions north of Kabul yesterday. "We are kept busy dodging the bombs," says Haji Ullah, a tall Pashtun fighter in a trenchcoat, as he stuffs a wad of tobacco under his lip. "I have already seen many friends killed or wounded. On the front line, we can do nothing but hide."
Inside Kabul, the Pakistani fighters deploy to different neighborhoods, setting up yet a third line of defense to foil an enemy invasion. Cocky fighters strut around Kabul's famous bazaars and mingle with what is left of the panicked local population. Pakistani jihadi groups like Jesh-e Mohammad and Harakat ul Mujahideen have used flags to mark off the blocks of municipal buildings and mud homes that they intend to defend.
By day, some of the zealous young Pakistani recruits wield pickaxes and shovels to gouge dugouts for machine-gun posts well inside existing front lines north of the city. By night, the new fighters take up residence in the scattered offices of dozens of international relief agencies.
"Kabul and other major cities are key to our staying power," says a senior Taliban official who writes about military affairs for a Kabul newspaper. "We enforce upon our young fighters that they must stop any invaders with the cost of their lives."
US-led airstrikes in Afghanistan are entering the fifth week with little change on either side. "They are pretty much in static positions," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of the Taliban forces, during a weekend visit to Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Yesterday, US B-52 bombers struck at three separate sites northeast of Taloqan, near the Afghan border with Tajikistan. Taloqan served as the opposition capital until Taliban troops overran it in September 2000, a major setback for the Northern Alliance.
Yesterday, Northern Alliance forces said they launched a three-pronged attack in Keshendah and Aq-Kupruk, about 45 miles south of Mazar-e Sharif, under the cover of US airpower. Mazar-e Sharif is a strategic northwestern city with an air base. Taliban officials say the attack was repulsed. Northern Alliance commanders told Agence France Presse that they had temporarily halted their advance to allow US bombers to soften up Taliban positions.
In Kabul yesterday, Reuters reported that a helicopter gunship attacked a hotel housing Taliban troops.
A recent tour of Kabul's Wazir Akhbar Khan military hospital reveals single rooms packed with 15 to 25 patients each, some of them laid out on the floor. A cold rain whipped through the paneless window onto the faces of patients. Several of them begged for blankets. Doctors said they could not cope with the influx of injured soldiers. Despite such suffering, Taliban officers say that they have other reasons to be confident in their ability to hold onto Kabul.
The Taliban remain a highly mobile force. When they captured Kabul from the mujahideen in 1996, they secured the city in a matter of days by whisking thousands of soldiers into place in the backs of small pick-up trucks. Today, these same vehicles are being used to race antiaircraft guns and multiple rocket launchers around Kabul in a game of shoot and run played with American bombers.
In and around the meandering maze of frontline tunnels and dugouts, stockpiles of ammunition are in plain view. Outside many caves where fighters dodge US bombs, piles of tank shells and extra rockets for hand-held rocket launchers are stacked several feet high. Anti-tank and antipersonnel mines, also in abundance, are being placed where advancing enemy troops will have to try their luck dancing through them.
Though it remains unclear precisely how the Taliban regime is renewing its ammunition supplies, the border with Pakistan is porous. Two Afghan eyewitnesses in Peshawar, Pakistan, say that regular truck shipments, labeled charitable donations from the Al Rasheed Trust, are entering Afghanistan. In addition to being an aid group that regularly delivers humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan, they have admitted in the past to recruiting and supplying soldiers there. US Treasury officials have long accused the charity organization of being in league with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
In villages south of Kabul, the Taliban are gearing up for anticipated US and British commando raids. For their most loyal ethnic Pashtun followers, the Taliban have launched a public-relations campaign aimed at heightening the interest in killing or capturing American commandos.
Aslam Khan, a teenage villager patrolling the hilltops near the Logar River, says, "The district administrator says US paratroopers might try to land here. He says that if we catch an American, we'll get a new home in Kabul. I am counting the hours and looking toward the skies. I know I can kill at least one."