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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

The Northern Alliance strategy 7/11/01

Beyond these hills lie some of the darkest stories of Taliban rule. We are looking west towards the Bamiyan valley where the Taliban destroyed the largest Buddhas of the ancient world this year. They had already carried out several massacres here - the latest the killing of 300 civilians, as recently as January. Bamiyan is the capital city of the Hazara people, one of the most persecuted of Afghanistan's patchwork of tribes. There's been a lot of American bombing on Taliban positions opposite here. The local Northern Alliance commander, Mohamed Sadeek, gets a report on where the bombs hit last night. He's hoping the Taliban will give up when the time comes. This is a very domestic war.

They were all my soldiers once in the Mujahideen against the Russians. They are my friends, and I talk with them often that is, the local Taliban.

But they aren't facing only the local Taliban. The Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens who now run the Taliban may fight for every inch along the Hindu Kush before giving up the valley. The Americans in the air and the Islamists on the ground are not the first to try to run things here. Afghanistan's unique geography has made it vulnerable to foreign invaders, traders and adventurers. Since the days of the silk route, through the intrigues of the "great game" in the 19th century, until this became a cockpit of the Cold War after the Soviet invasion. The Hazaras are defined by that history of intervention more than any other group. They are the descendants of invaders. The man ploughing the last field before the Taliban front line in the Bamiyan valley, owes his distinctive Asiatic features to the soldiers of Genghis Khan. The Mongol hordes left their imprint on Afghanistan. Here is an extraordinary statistic. Only 3% of the land of Afghanistan can be cultivated, and most of it is like this - stepped field systems built next to rivers. Hazaras farming land on the plain north of Kabul have not been so lucky. According to this farmer, the Taliban destroyed the irrigation system deliberately. He showed me where the water used to flow. It is now just a dry ditch. Three years drought haven't helped. He says even if they dig wells, there is no water. Most of the people from this village near the Kabul front line have left because of the fighting. But we met one expert in Hazara culture who has just come over from Bamiyan.

The Taliban are Sunni Wahabi Muslims but the Hazaras are Shias. That is why the Taliban can't compromise with the Hazaras. They discriminate against us and shoot us whenever they see us.

The Shia faith practised by the Hazaras here is like that of Iran. They demonstrate their devotion by beating their breasts at certain times of the year. It is loyalty to a faith which has cost them dearly. There've been attempts to wipe out these people before but they've never faced persecution as bad as that at the hands of the Taliban. But when the breast-beating is finished, this war-like tribe do other things which annoy the Taliban, too, like knowing how to have a good time when they are not fighting. In contrast to many places on the Kabul frontline, there is more urgency here. The men run between positions where they know they are exposed. The Hazara defenders believe they face more random firing because they are Hazaras. The Taliban are only 100 metres away in places, and they walk - shadowy figures on the other side of the farmland. But they are unconcerned for now, not knowing we are watching them. Afghanistan's ethnic mix has been shaken up by war. The Hazaras form perhaps 20%, the Pashtuns double that, and they dominate the south. These prisoners of war are being held by the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley. Any settlement which ignores Pashtuns will not work. US attempts to find acceptable Pashtun leaders to replace the Taliban have come to nothing. While the Northern Alliance build up their forces north of Kabul, they seem to be in no hurry to attack the capital. Everywhere now in the villages and towns behind the front line, the streets are filled with the tumult of men of war. Irregular soldiers have swapped their traditional salwar khameez for Russian-made military uniforms. Among them, a well-known local eccentric swallows bullets but none, neither the madman, nor the soldier, knows the answer to the big question, when is the assault on Kabul? Although the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is now only ten days away, the Northern Alliance appear to be calculating that if they wait they may win a bigger role. They now say they need to take the main northern city Mazar-e-Sharif first before taking on Kabul. They are testing their weapons, but they may delay using them for real, taking on the Taliban on the ground here until American political initiatives run into the sand in the Pashtun south. If they seize Kabul in their own time, this Tajik-dominated army could determine the political future of the country themselves. The post-war shape of Afghanistan could be very messy despite the best efforts of the UN and others to find a political settlement. When he came to review the major military show of force this week, the former president had a Hazara leader sitting on his right side, but the Northern Alliance is an alliance of convenience against the Taliban. Speaking in front of a huge portrait of Ahmed Shah Massood, the military leader whose loss they mourn so much, Mr Rebani said they want to liberate the whole of the country from terrorism, a far more grandiose aim than the Americans have for these forces. The former President's comment was either justifiable bravura by a man in front of his army, or it was a glimpse of the true ambitions of the Northern Alliance forces who now have the backing of the Russians, while each of the parties in the alliance has a different foreign backer. It is the old Afghan story. Foreign intervention, short-term alliances, armies preparing for war with ill-defined ends. Even if it comes, the defeat of the Taliban may not bring quick peace for groups like the Hazaras whose graveyards are already too full of war dead.

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