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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Generals and Defectors Alike Revel in Booty Left in Wake of the Taliban

Afghanistan: Everyone is out for what he can get. One defining symbol is a truck. Stakes are higher for leaders--tanks, airstrips, towns.

November 25, 2001|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGI, Afghanistan — Vasudin, 25, a Taliban fighter, was the proud possessor of his dream car, a Datsun Hilux pickup truck, for not much more than one glorious hour.

He took possession of the truck as a trophy of war. Asked when, he looked at his gold watch. "About an hour ago," he grinned Saturday.

Vasudin--one of many Afghans who uses a single name--said he grabbed the truck on the Taliban side after a fight over its ownership and defected to the Northern Alliance as part of a big Taliban convoy that crossed the front line Saturday.

But half an hour later he was back on foot again, hoofing it around the convoy looking for a lift on the back of someone else's truck.

"Of course, I would have liked to keep it," he said, admitting that he had no hope of ever buying his own car. "But some commander is going take it."

In Afghanistan, everyone from the front-line fighters to the generals is out for what he can get from the war, and one of the defining symbols of the Afghan warrior is the Japanese pickup truck. With their blacked-out windows, garish velour seats and plastic prayer medallions swinging from their rear-view mirrors, they are rated as highly desirable war booty.

They're like personnel carriers, except cool. Fighters cram on board; weapons protrude at every angle like the branches of a parched tree.

For the generals the stakes are higher. Tanks, helicopters, airstrips, whole towns are there to be gobbled up in their advance--hence the rivalry among Northern Alliance commanders to be the first into the strategic city of Kunduz, the last northern stronghold of the Taliban, staking their claims to the spoils.

Mohammed Alim, 20, a Northern Alliance soldier, and three other armed fighters were walking to war Saturday when they flagged down someone else's taxi and climbed on board, airily brushing aside objections.

"Sometimes we go to war on foot. Sometimes we walk for five hours," Alim said.

He dreams that one day he won't be walking back but driving his own pickup. Even a Soviet-made jeep would do just fine.

"You can get a pickup or a jeep or weapons. Our commander said we can't take money or valuables. We can only take things indispensable to us, like a car or guns," he said.

Mohammed Hasan, 33, another Northern Alliance fighter, seized his pickup truck in the advance toward Taloqan more than two weeks ago.

"There was fighting. The Taliban ran away and left their jeeps. I came and saw the keys were in this one so I just sat in it and drove off," he said in Taloqan.

Some Loot Repeatedly Changes Hands

According to the unofficial rules of Afghan combat, he said, the first man to see and take an abandoned car in war becomes its new owner. But the seesaw nature of Afghanistan's civil war means that some jeeps and pickups have changed hands several times.

As the convoy of Taliban defecting with pickups, other trucks, antiaircraft guns and multiple-rocket launchers crawled along the road toward Taloqan on Saturday, having crossed the front line, the Northern Alliance was quick to count the vehicles, reporting that more than 40 had come over to alliance control.

Some of the pickups were smeared with mud for camouflage, while others shone metallic blue or claret red. Several vehicles had broken down and were being towed. A Soviet GAZ-66 truck, its windows pierced with several bullet holes, trembled and shook, its engine shrieking as the driver revved it to prevent the engine from dying.

Rows of Northern Alliance soldiers peered over the top of a wall staring at the surrendering Taliban fighters like kids in the front row at a circus.

The convoy crawled along, pickups jostling for position, the clouds of dust it raised mingling with choking black smoke from the tanks and trucks. The tanks were the first to peel off, close to the bridge at Bangi, several miles from the front line.

Zabihullo, 22, another Taliban fighter, was behind the wheel of a Soviet UAZ jeep. He says he grabbed it about 18 months ago, at a time when the Northern Alliance moujahedeen were retreating, not the Taliban.

"It was standing on the road, and everyone had run away. There were no keys so I hot-wired it," he said. "It's a good car. I repaired it myself."

In fact, the jeep seemed to have been commandeered by Zabihullo's commander, Nozikmir, who uses the fighter as his driver.

Nozikmir was horrified at the idea that he and other Taliban might be expected to surrender their vehicles as part of the defection deal.

"How can they take our cars from us? This is our country," he complained. His indignation at the unfairness was beyond logic, yet it was somehow fitting in an atmosphere where fighters who were enemies just a day earlier were suddenly embracing one another and no one bothered to disarm the defectors.

Ahmed Shah, 30, a Northern Alliance deputy commander helping oversee the transfer of the convoy to a military base outside Taloqan, confirmed that the alliance would seize all of the vehicles.

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