On Front Line, Afghan Rebels Brace for Wider War

It's pretty easy to tell the difference between an American air strike and the regular shelling that takes place a few miles from this de facto rebel capital.

"The air attacks make a deeper noise and they can make the windows here shake," Dr. Sayid Kamil, the Northern Alliance's top doctor, said in an interview Monday from the local hospital. "The usual shelling doesn't do much. People here are used to it."

The people of Khwaja-Bahauddin are used to many things. The town has no electricity. Natural resources, including drinkable water, are almost nonexistent. Any goods must be brought in from neighboring Tajikistan by way of a dangerous road that can only be negotiated by four-wheel drive vehicles or motorcycles. The roadway often closes in winter.

The local residents aren't accustomed to the sound of American bombers, which hit Taliban frontline positions near the border for the first time on Sunday. The attacks sparked hopes here the anti-Taliban campaign is cranking up, and will open military opportunities for the Alliance to advance both south and west.

A series of tank and mortar blasts could be heard here throughout Monday and came at a much more frequent pace than they had in recent weeks, according to local residents. The shelling was directed at the nearest Taliban troops, now located along a recently-stabilized front 20 miles to the south.

"The Americans had really ignored this area until recently," said Mohammed Khan, a 24-year-old Jalalabad native who came here 14 months ago to escape the Taliban. "Now it looks like they're going to get them where we can do something. We are anxious to move."

The explosions continued into Monday night and were expected to resume in the morning, soldiers said. An Alliance spokesman said Monday's shelling did not necessarily mark the beginning of a major offensive. The official also said — as have many others before him in similar cases — that the Alliance's military moves are not being coordinated with the U.S.

Alliance soldiers said Monday that they were eager for the U.S. attacks to dislodge the Taliban from their frontline positions. "The attacks have so far been only about 10 percent effective," said Cubkhat Amir, a soldier who returned on Monday from what he called "on and off fighting" from the area around Taleqan, to the south.

"People in the area are living more or less normally," Amir said. "We are waiting for the command to go forward to launch a full attack. So far, that command hasn't come."

Before Sunday, local residents said the only thing to drop from U.S. planes were the thousands of bright yellow bags of humanitarian aid. The packets have fed hundreds around Khwaja-Bahauddin, though some local residents joke that the drops have caused their own damage, ripping open a number of tents and sending one man to the hospital with cuts on his head.

Khwaja-Bahauddin, which barely existed four years ago, has actually flourished in the weeks since airstikes began in Afghanistan. The town has become a home base of operations for a number of aid agencies and news organizations, and local landowners are having a hard time keeping up with the demand for new buildings.

"Business was good before, with the Northern Alliance, but it's been much better lately," said a merchant in the town's market area, where shoppers can pick up a wide variety of smuggled western-made products at exorbitant prices.

Khwaja-Bahauddin was best known as the place where former Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud was killed by a suicide bomber just days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Not surprisingly, most everyone interviewed here said they believe Massoud's killing and the September 11 attacks were part of a joint military and terrorist operation organized by both the Taliban and Usama Bin Laden.

As a result, the townspeople here say they have a particularly close affinity with Americans. "You'll find support for America is much stronger here than in other parts of Afghanistan," said Mohammed Shah, a 40-year-old Alliance fighter. "We are grateful for the aid drops, and now for the bombing of the Taliban. Civilians should not die, but it is a war we must win."