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Highland Soldiers Face Two Enemies

Afghanistan: For Northern Alliance troops positioned near the Salang tunnel, the Taliban and the winter cold are deadly foes.


SHAWOL, Afghanistan — In a high mountain pass that cuts through the barren Hindu Kush range, opposition fighters have another enemy to worry about beyond the Taliban soldiers just a few hundred yards down the road. The winter wind can kill too.

It blows in from the north like an icy knife, a howling gale that can dump so much snow at once that soldiers on post each night, in shifts of an hour or two, have to be careful that they aren't buried alive.

While they wait for their spell in the deathly cold, the other eight men huddle in a stone hut about 12 feet by 6 feet. In turns, someone builds a fire outside, and when the wood is well burned, he carries the red-hot embers into the stone hut and pours them into a small pit dug in the dirt.

Then he covers the pit with a little wooden table, which radiates heat like a wood stove.

As the men encircle it, lying shoulder to shoulder under blankets, they are warmed by the dying remnants of fire and the shared heat of their own bodies. And in the glow of an oil lamp, they talk, about the news, about the weather, about their families, about the war.

Lately, they have passed many hours in the half-light imagining the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an almost mythical place to them in the arid lowlands about 125 miles to the northwest that only one of the soldiers has ever seen, and where they all hope to be soon.

"Of course we are looking forward to seeing Mazar because it is warm there, and it isn't in the mountains," said Najibullah Ghulami, 32. He commands the opposition soldiers at the Shawol post next to the main road from Kabul, the capital, to Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Northern Alliance lost Mazar-i-Sharif to the Taliban in 1998, and the opposition is now fighting to retake it with the help of U.S. bombers and small groups of American soldiers acting as advisors on the ground.

Two former rivals, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammed, are leading a two-pronged assault on Mazar-i-Sharif. It would be an ideal bridge for resupply to the poorly armed alliance, which says it has advanced almost to the city's southern outskirts and about 25 miles to the southwest.

Anti-Taliban forces are near the village of Cheshme Shafta, about 10 miles south of Mazar-i-Sharif, according to Gen. Abdul Basir, whose forces are poised at the top of the Salang Pass, ready to seize the main north-south highway if Mazar-i-Sharif falls.

Basir said he has already received the order from the alliance's high command to make preparations for clearing the vital Salang tunnel of steel beams, concrete slabs and other heavy debris that have blocked both ends since 1997, when opposition troops blew them up to stop a Taliban advance.

"We would be able to clear the way to Mazar in 10 days' time," Basir said. "We don't have sophisticated equipment, but I will get 200 or 500 people to clear the inside of the tunnel and both entrances with shovels. We will start work before Mazar-i-Sharif falls."

The opposition soldiers on the front line at Shawol, northwest of the Salang tunnel, say they expect to be told to advance and take the road if the Taliban loses control of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The former Soviet Union built the 1.6-mile-long tunnel, reportedly the highest in the world at 11,034 feet, as an aid project that was officially opened in November 1964.

But Moscow had more than better trade in mind when its engineers bored deep into the mountains to link southern Afghanistan with the north, and its border with Soviet Central Asia. Long convoys of Soviet tanks and other military vehicles passed through the tunnel to occupy Afghanistan in 1979, and then in retreat a decade later.

Now the only way through the Salang tunnel is on foot. It's a freezing half-hour hike through a pitch-black cavern, with severed electrical cables, giant air ducts and pieces of concrete and twisted steel hanging like stalactites from the ceiling.

From there, it's a 45-minute trek through snow-covered mountains to the isolated men of Shawol, waiting for action on the road to Mazar-i-Sharif.

In peacetime, Mazar-i-Sharif wasn't known for being strategically located, but for being the site of the Tomb of Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad who was the fourth caliph of Islam.

On good days, visitors would gather in a huge open plaza next to the city's beautiful blue-tiled mosque and pose for pictures among white doves that landed on their heads, shoulders and outstretched arms.

There was no more picture-taking after the Taliban stormed the city in 1998, killing between 5,000 and 8,000 civilians. The hard-line Islamic regime prohibited photographs of living beings, forced all women to cover themselves under the head-to-foot burka and enforced a long list of other edicts.

The men posted at Shawol dream of a different Mazar-i-Sharif, from the time before the Taliban, when young women could attend university, uncovered, and men gathered in kebab restaurants to ogle episodes of "Baywatch" on satellite TV.

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