Takur Ghar, Paktia Province, Afghanistan
Saturday 2 Mar 2002 0510 hrs AFT
Norowz Mohamand remained seated on his ragged carpet facing Qiblah which from here was towards the west. He held his hands cupped towards himself and offered a Du’ah—a personal prayer—as was his custom after completing Salah.
“ALLAHUM-MA ANTAS-SALAM WA-MINKAS-SALAM,” O Allah, You are the Author of peace and from You comes peace.
He continued to remain on his knees as members of his jama’at—the ever dwindling congregation of his fighters—their Fajr, the morning prayer—completed, made their way back to the field kitchen. The chai would be ready soon and there was plentiful flatbread, nuts, raisins, dates and even yogurt. Their supplies had been increasing continuously, meals being sent to the valley from a friendly village to the west. A great change from the setbacks of the last few months.
It had snowed the last two days both here on the mountain and in the valleys below. Up here the snow had not melted and lay about a half meter deep. In places a meter or more had drifted in. Only on the steepest slopes had the snow slid off to expose the bare rock beneath. In the western valley almost 800 meters below, the temperature was generally above freezing in the daytime but up here, on the top of the tallest mountain in the region, it rarely made it above freezing this time of year. At night it was always much colder. Still, he would conduct ritual ablutions with water or snow and conduct Salah in bare feet.
The valley to the west—the Lower Shah-i-Kot—and its surrounding mountains was the main base for what was now a ragtag group of almost a thousand refugee fighters that had come together here in this last stand against the invaders. The valley had four main villages and had stood as a fortress against invaders for as long as the stories had been told. Most recently, just over fifteen years ago, it had been the infidel Russians who had attacked the western side of the valley—they never reached the mountain slopes on its east side where Norowz was now posted. Then the valley had been under the control of Malawi Nasrullah Mansoor of the Harakat-e-Inqilab-i-Islami. He had turned it into a fortified supply and base camp, building trenches, bunkers, mined areas, obstacles, even a hospital fully dug into the ground. It had been stocked with supplies of all natures, from clothing to foodstuffs to weapons and ammunition. Mansoor had been a great friend of foreign fighters who came to Afghanistan for jihad providing them shelter, a place to train and, of course, taking significant payments from the Wahhabis and Deobandis for the privilege.
After his death in 1993, his son Saifur took over the operations here, continuing to provide a safe haven for the foreigners, many of whom now bore the al-Qaeda mantel. The valley fairly bristled with older soviet weapons: eight D-30 122mm howitzers; an M-30 122mm howitzer; a ZIS-3 76mm gun; an S-60 57mm anti aircraft gun; a ZPU-1 12.7mm anti aircraft gun; several DShK 12.7 mm machine guns; SA-7 Strella Surface to Air missiles; 82mm and 120mm mortars; and untold rocket propelled grenades. Most important there was ammunition—untold vast quantities hidden inside caves dug deep into the mountains.
To protect these, the defenses had been significantly strengthened. Bunkers had been reinforced with concrete. Mortar base plates were cemented into position and registered onto all likely approach paths. Soviet style dug-in strongpoints with interconnected fighting positions for riflemen and crew served weapons were established throughout the valley and the mountain sides. Outlying security checkpoints and picquets were established. Landmines were laid in gaps and across the natural approach routes and then were covered by the fire of strongpoints. A command and control system was put into place.
When the American supported Northerners progressed in their attack of southern and eastern Afghanistan, all families, including the al-Qaeda ones were moved out of the valley to Pakistan, and the defenses were manned full-time. As fighters fell back from other engagements they swelled the numbers in the valley making it possible to man the outer cordon, the defenses in the village and the ones in the mountain simultaneously.
Norowz was a rarity amongst the Taliban in this part of Afghanistan. He was actually born in and had lived his life in Afghanistan. Most of those here were foreigners, remnants of the Sheik’s 55th Brigade. Even the Taliban here were mostly from Pakistan although that really didn’t matter because the border that separated Afghan Pashtuns from their Pakistani cousins was artificial: the infamous Durand line created by the colonial British and the Russians as they vied for influence in the northwest corner of South Asia.
Further, he had not been a Madrasah educated scholar of the Qur’an. What he was recognized as was a devoted and devout leader and a fierce fighter. In a movement known for its extreme Deobandi fundamentalism his pragmatic approach to problem solving was accepted despite his inability to refer to dogmatic religious principles to support his decisions. That is not to say that he was found wanting in his devotion to Islam or to Pashtunwali, the cultural and social norms that governed Pashtuns on both sides of the border.
Norowz was born into the Noorzai branch of the Duranni tribe in Panjwaii, a district about thirty kilometers west of the city of Kandahar. The Panjwaii district itself did not have a large population, somewhat fewer than 80,000, but they farmed lush fields irrigated by the Arghandab River and straddling the Herat-Kandahar Highway. While the area could sustain any crops, its chief cash crop was opium poppies and marijuana. Even though they produced nowhere near the volume of nearby Helmand province, Panjwaii's farmers reaped enormous profits from their operations. Unfortunately, they had paid a price. A plethora of corrupt warlords blocked roads for tolls, extorted payments from merchants and in general harassed the countryside.
When in early 1994 a mullah from the town of Sang-i-Hsar gathered together a group of thirty former anti-soviet mujahideen comrades to free two girls kidnapped and raped by a local warlord, Norowz was there. Norowz had been impressed with the mullah’s altruistic values to halt the corruption rampant throughout southern Afghanistan. Taking up his AK-47, Norowz, then in his mid-thirties, joined the movement full-time before it had but fifty members. Thus Mullah Mohammed Omar and Norowz Mohammad and their comrades marched off to fight corruption and bring order to the land.
In September 1994, after a brief skirmish at the border town of Spin Boldak, the Taliban captured almost eight hundred truckloads of arms and ammunition stored in the caves there since the collapse of the Soviets. Norowz was there leading a ten man team. Soon thousands had joined including thousands of young students from Pakistani madrasahs. Norowz’s command had grown to a hundred.
The Taliban displaced and hanged rival warlords, removed their toll gathering checkpoints from the roads and generally brought stability and improved commerce in Southern Afghanistan. By year's end Kandahar had fallen; in September 1995 Herat fell; and one year later Kabul itself went down. Subsequent to the fall of Kabul the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency, who had supported the mujahideen against the Soviets, shifted their support from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to the Taliban.
The next five years saw Norowz and the Taliban forces continue their fight against heavy resistance in Northern Afghanistan. By then the Taliban army consisted of some 20,000 soldiers from the Pakistani army, another 8,000 Pakistani militants, 3,000 foreign fighters under al-Qaeda and some 14,000 who, like Norowz, were actually Afghanis. Being Afghan meant little to Norowz. Above all his allegiance went to the Pashtun tribal group that widely straddled the Durand line.
Norowz was short in stature, just over five feet four inches tall and stout, weighing close to 200 lbs. Wherever the fighting was thickest, there he would be in his calf length, rusty-red shalwar kameez with an old Soviet army combat jacket and ammunition chest pouches. A loosely wrapped black turban sat over a wrinkled face bearing the proscribed fist size beard on his chin and eyes that seemed to have a perpetual glimmer of humor to them. He was rarely seen with a rifle in his hand instead it would be slung on his back. "A commander can't think or give orders if he is busy shooting," he had said. Instead he scrambled amongst the rocks with a walkie-talkie, calling each fighter by his name and directing the fight as it happened. His commanders and his occasional Pakistani ISI advisors knew that once he had his orders he needed no supervision or further direction. The fight was always solely his.
By the summer of 1998, Norowz commanded a force that fluctuated between three hundred and four hundred southern Afghans and which was involved in the fighting in the northern region around Mazar-e Sharif. The excesses he saw performed here, often but not always by foreigners, made him have his first doubts but did not shake his faith in the movement. He couldn’t fail but note that many of his troops were leaving the fighting season early to return home. While the Taliban were no strangers to conscription, the traditional Afghan tribal models were centered on a more voluntary and seasonal participation. What would elsewhere be considered desertion was tolerated amongst the Pashtuns as a norm alongside lengthy negotiations prior to and during battle, generous surrender terms, paroling prisoners, and changing sides when appropriate.
In December of that year he took the remainder of his unit back to Kandahar to recruit, refit and retrain. In fact they never went north again and were still in Kandahar in September of 2001. By then the unit averaged around 280 fighters made up of three core groups of 25 full-time fighters each and nine further teams made up of between 10 and 40 part-time fighters each. The unit reported to the regional Taliban commander for the Kandahar, Helmand and Oruzgan provinces. Their weapons were light, mostly old Russian ones: hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles and Rocket Propelled Grenades; two dozen PK 7.62 mm general purpose machine guns; three 82 mm mortars; and three 12.7 mm DShK heavy machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks. Their vehicles too were old, mostly pickup trucks, a pair of buses, a pair of old Soviet Ural 6 x 6 trucks and several jingle trucks conscripted from locals as needed.
When news came of the martyrdom operations in New York, Norowz knew that it was only a matter of time before the Americans would come. Omar would never give up bin Laden and bin Laden would never allow himself to be given up. Over the days there was much rhetoric, some news but mostly rumors: the Americans are here—the Americans will never come—if they do come we will kill them all. All agreed that if foreigners came, most of the people would rise against them as they had against the godless Russians. Ominously the local ISI liaisons became noticeably absent. This did not bother Norowz too much—Pakistan had too much invested here and too many of their own people here to simply abandon them.
Days turned into weeks until in late October rumors started coming that the Americans were setting up bases to the north in Uzbekistan. Radio messages also started coming in playing music that had been banned by the Taliban and asking why the Taliban supported the murderers of innocents in New York. Air drops of food started to come with simple messages to the people to tune in their radios.
Late in November there came confirmation of disaster at Mazar-e Sharif. Thousands of mostly Pakistani Taliban had been captured by General Dostum who had been supported by considerable airpower. The Americans were here and were fighting with the Northerners. Norowz stepped up recruiting and training. He knew he probably wouldn’t be called to the North because of the three forces—the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda—the Afghanis were considered the least reliable because they functioned more as a local home guard. The jihad motivated Pakistanis and foreigners were deemed the core of the army.
As the winter came on, more and more Afghanis were coming home spreading news of defeat after defeat. Norowz would learn much later that in this short period, 10,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda were killed and thousands more captured. There had not been a massive invasion by the Americans. In fact less than 200 Americans had been on the ground supporting the Uzbek and Tajik dominated Northern Alliance while their air support had seemed to be without limit.
The Taliban were on the run. Even in the South and East anti-Taliban militia supported by Americans started to appear. Some of the militia was even made up of Pashtuns. Raids were happening in several places all presumably looking for Mullah Omar.
On the night of November 16th, Norowz received word that a small force under a new commander named Hamid Karzai was in Tarin Kowt, north of Kandahar and that he was to take the town back. Gathering together a force of 180 fighters and a dozen vehicles they set out in the company of several other units totaling over one hundred vehicles.
Shortly after dawn as they closed in on Tarin Kowt they were attacked by aircraft. The first bomb missed but not the next few. Surprisingly most of the force remained intact and the attacks stopped. No ground attack followed the air strikes so the column pressed on only to be hit by another attack a few hours up the road. Again there was no ground attack so they dispersed their forces sending several vehicles to take round about routes to the village. These soon fell back and reported that they had come under attack, not by the Karzai militia but what they took to be villagers from Tarin Kowt itself.
The continuing air strikes were taking their toll and in response the Taliban pulled their troops back to Kandahar, harassed by aircraft the better part of the way. In all over thirty vehicles and their crews had been destroyed.
On the 23rd came word that Taliban and al-Qaeda units were engaging a second Anti-Taliban militia force near Tahk-te-pol cutting off the highway to Pakistan. The militia was reducing to a dribble any al-Qaeda reinforcements moving up to Kandahar from Spin Boldak on the border. For the next week, Norowz’s unit, dug into wadis and canals at the Kandahar airport where they suffered continuous air bombardment and ever mounting casualties. Word had arrived that al-Qaeda reinforcements gathering at Spin Boldak had been engaged and beaten back with heavy casualties.
On December 5th the Taliban leadership surrendered Kandahar but no anti-Taliban forces entered the city for two days. Norowz and the al-Qaeda fighters decided they would make their escape. Norowz had only thirty full-time and seventy part-time fighters remaining. He allowed the part-timers to blend back into the population and took the remaining thirty with him as in ones and twos they, and many of the al-Qaeda troops, exfiltrated Kandahar to make their way to what would ultimately be their sanctuary in the lower Shah-i-Kot valley.