The vultures are circling
KARACHI - In the plains of southwestern Afghanistan, confident Taliban move around openly with their weaponry, to the frustration of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops who can see them, but seem helpless in containing them.
Indeed, foreign troops are mostly held hostage in their bases, and their alternatives are stark: conduct aerial bombings in which civilians would surely be heavy casualties, or pull out.
The mood on the ground in Afghanistan is that the latter option will prevail.
"It was really fun to fight with the Soviets [in the 1980s], but not so with the Americans. I remember once, three Soviet soldiers were besieged by mujahideen. They were injured and they had the chance to retreat and be airlifted. But they refused and fought till their last. They had a certain level of conviction. The Americans do not have this," Khuda-i-Rahim told Asia Times Online.
Khuda-i-Rahim is a veteran commander. He lost a leg, both arms and some sight in a bomb explosion in Kandahar while fighting against Russian troops. He spent some time in the US in the 1980s and now lives in Baghran in the northernmost district of Helmand province.
"They [Americans] hear the sound of a single bullet fired in the air and they do not dare to go to the place where the bullet was fired. The Russians stayed in Afghanistan for 11 years because of their conviction, but against the determination of the Afghan resistance they finally withdrew. I don't see a chance that once there is a national uprising like the one against the Russians, the Americans will stay for a few months," said Khuda-i-Rahim.
The current Afghan insurgency is widely viewed as a highly ideologically motivated movement along the lines of al-Qaeda and similar to the Taliban uprising of the mid-1990s in which fanatical madrassa-educated youths seized power.
Certainly, the present Afghan resistance against foreign troops and the administration of President Hamid Karzai is undoubtedly led by Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Islam is unquestionably the binding force. Nevertheless, at ground level the field command is in the hands of seasoned commanders who fought against the Soviets and who are driven more by Afghan traditions than by ideology.
The Afghan battle strategy has always been based on preserving strength by appearing to give way to the enemy by letting them parade through the country in search operations that only upset the population.
For the invaders, this is exhausting and brings small results. The resistance, meanwhile, is everywhere, watching and waiting like vultures, ready to swoop. Such is the situation in the Sangin district of Helmand province, just 2.5 kilometers from Kandahar city.
A long and rough road
We were due to travel from Musa Qala to Sangin to meet Qari Hazrat, the younger brother of slain veteran Afghan commander Abdul Khaliq. Qari Hazrat is the commander of the Gerishk district and a part of the Taliban movement. Parts of Sangin also fall under his jurisdiction. We were to meet him here, just a few kilometers from a NATO base.
After a long and rough ride we came to the village where we were to meet Qari Hazrat. It was virtually deserted and we didn't have a clue as to how to get to the meeting place among the maze of narrow streets.
I finally spotted a youngster, and asked, "Do you know where Qari Hazrat lives?" It seemed foolish to be asking this kid for the whereabouts of one of the most wanted Taliban figures in southwestern Afghanistan, but to my surprise the boy thought for a moment and asked, "Taliban?" He pondered some more and gave us directions to a place where he said we should ask about the Taliban. "They live there," said the boy, speaking quickly.
I thanked him, thinking how strange it was that a youngster should have such information.
Eventually we arrived at Qari Hazrat's residence, where we were greeted by his brother. In the meantime, the villagers, as happens when any strangers arrive, gathered in the courtyard to gape at us sitting on mats on the floor. The compound's grass was burned, as if it had been bombed. After a few cups of plain black tea, several young men took us to a nearby field from where we could see the NATO base.
"This is the area where US Special Forces conducted their first ground operations in Helmand province after the fall of the Taliban [in 2001] and arrested about 300 Taliban," said Abdul Rauf, one of the lads.
"Until last year, foreigners came to the area every now and then and conducted house-to-house searches. They used to enter any house of their choice at any time, whether day or night. Now the Taliban have come to the area and whenever they [NATO] try to do any patrolling or search operations, they come under heavy attack.
"For three months now, there has hardly been any effort on the part of NATO forces to come out from their base. They are sitting in their base and the Taliban are sitting in the village. The Taliban don't attack their base, nor do they attack us," said Abdul Rauf.
The area has suffered aerial bombardment in the past, and the remains of mud houses are visible all over the village. We reached a watercourse used to irrigate poppy fields, and stopped to take pictures of the NATO base. Suddenly, we saw helicopters - one Apache and one ordinary one - taking off from the NATO base and heading toward us.
"Until last year they used to land in these fields and drop men for ground operations, but now they remain in the air and do not drop bombs. Now they just fly around, and presumably take supplies to their troops in the base. They are no longer able to use trucks and vehicles for supplies," Abdul Rauf explained.
"Why don't you shoot down these helicopters?" I asked.
"We did shoot down one helicopter, but then they bombed the villages. So we avoid doing that," said Abdul Rauf.
Shortly before dusk, Qari Hazrat finally arrived, along with a band of men equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, mortars and machine-guns. He quickly kissed and hugged his guests and then went to do his ablutions before evening prayers (saltul magrib).
After prayers, we gathered in a room heated by a wood fire and a meal was served. "Do you have any ceasefire agreement with NATO forces or with the Afghan administration in this area?" I asked.
"No. Not at all," said Qari, a light-skinned man in his late 20s, speaking very softly.
"There is hardly any fighting. NATO forces and the Taliban visibly co-exist side by side, so in fact, what else would you call this situation but a ceasefire agreement?" I asked.
This brought a smile to Qari's face. "There is a ceasefire in Sangin district between the Taliban and the Afghan administration, but the area in which you are now sitting is Kila-i-Gaz, and according to the Taliban's administrative divisions it is part of Gerishk district. And here we do not have any ceasefire," said Qari.
"But you do not attack them and they do not attack you, or conduct air strikes on your bases," I persisted.
"They used to carry out air strikes. Now this has come to an end. They did have an effective network of informers, but we have successfully eliminated it and therefore they do not have any knowledge of our bases, so the air strikes stopped. They have conducted limited ground operations, but they came under attack. So they stopped. We do not attack their base because they would retaliate with air strikes," said Qari.
"So what are you doing here, just having your meals, drinking tea and roaming all around with your weapons?" My question elicited a burst of laughter in the room.
"Yes, and they are bored in their bases with no chance to do any activities," Qari said, smiling. "We are not in any haste. Since the masses invited the Taliban to come down [from the mountains] to their areas, our strength is increasing with every passing day. Six months ago, groups of Taliban were operating with about 10 people. Now they have 50 members and growing. So we have enough time till next spring, and they [NATO] know what will happen until next year," Qari said.
"What will happen and what do they know?" I asked.
"They know that we will mobilize our strength and occupy the Herat-Kandahar highway and establish our pockets all over," said Qari.
"So that way you will isolate the Sangin district and the district of Gerishk - cut them off from the rest of the country?" I asked.
"Yes. And then we will not give them a chance to even find an escape route in their helicopters. We will hold parts of the Kandahar-Herat highway and our friends will hold other points. So Kandahar and other places will automatically come under siege and there will be little chance of reinforcements," Qari said, eating his final piece of bread.
"Until then they are sitting here, we are sitting here, face to face and all around them."
After a final round of tea, Qari sent us to a separate place to sleep. "We are around-the-clock targets, so you will be better off staying away from us, and in the morning I will arrange for a cab to take you to your next destination," said Qari.
We had a farewell hug and went to another building surrounded by a farm. Within an hour we heard sporadic firing, which steadily became stronger, interspersed with small explosions and flashes of light that reflected in the room.
"Was there a battle last night?" I asked the lad sent by Qari the next morning to arrange a cab for us.
"No," he laughed. "They [NATO] do it every night. They fire bullets into the air to tell us that they are awake and that we dare not attack them. They throw flashes into the fields to check for any danger lurking around their base. For the past few weeks they have been inside the base all the time, and they must have the constant feeling that they are on the edge of a precipice," the lad explained.
"And what do you do?"
"What can we do? We just sleep in our rooms, and when the sounds of firing bother us, we come out into the open to watch the light from their [tracer] bullets and the flashes in the dark of the night," said the lad.
The strange events of the night set me thinking of all those troops, mostly British, holed up in their base. It brought to mind Broken Wings by Kahlil Gibran, in which a boy feels much but knows so little.
The sensitive boy is the most unfortunate creature under the sun because he is torn by two forces. The first force elevates him and shows him the beauty of existence through a cloud of dreams; the second ties him down to the earth and fills his eyes with dust and overpowers him with fears and darkness.
And all the time the vultures are circling.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com.