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Sunday, 21 October, 2001, 01:03 GMT 02:03 UK
Tackling the Taleban
Child rides a donkey in front of a tank
War has become a way of life for many Afghans
Kate Clark

"They're all right, aren't they," one journalist said to me, "the Afghans, they're really nice people - very courteous."

What could I say? Afghans have such a savage reputation, these days, in the West.

The noise is terrible, you cannot sleep and the children still wake up screaming - but we are getting used to it

But apart from odd complaints that they do not speak English or have flushing toilets - this from a member of the British press - most visiting journalists seem to have been pleasantly surprised.

I and two other members of the BBC team sat on the roadside one night, surrounded by luggage - three foreigners in a strange town with a broken-down car.

Every single person who drove or walked by stopped to see if we needed help or wanted a bed for the night.

Unimaginable that a tired group of Afghans might receive the same treatment in Britain.

I am back among familiar faces, in opposition Northern Alliance-held territory, near enough to Kabul to see the light of the explosions from the American bombardment each night.

I have spent days travelling to get here - from Islamabad to Karachi, Dubai, Sharjah, Dushanbe and finally the long drive down from the Tajik border - over dirt roads, wooden bridges with great holes in them and up over the high mountain passes of the Hindu Kush.

Hindu Kush
The spectacular Hindu Kush mountain range runs through northeastern Afghanistan
Sleeping one night in a ditch at 5,000 metres above sea level - we had had to stop because the next bridge was just too narrow and perilous to take in the dark - I looked up at the night sky, frosty and bright with stars, and just felt glad to be here.

I have now set up an office in a town just north of the frontline - there is email, a satellite phone and a mattress on the floor.

Looking out over the glorious Shomali Plains to Kabul, I can talk over the phone to friends in the city.

They are just 40 kilometres (25 miles) away, but separated by frontlines.

Constant air raids

Kabul - along with many other Afghan cities - has now suffered two weeks of air raids by the most powerful nation on earth.

"It is amazing what you can get used to," said one friend - laughing grimly.

AC-130 gunship
Afghanistan has been bombarded round-the-clock
"The noise is terrible, you cannot sleep and the children still wake up screaming - but we are getting used to it."

Kabul's previous experience of air raids had been the blind rocketing of the city by the mujahideen groups in the mid-1990s.

Fifty thousand civilians died in the carnage.

During the first days of the American-led campaign, people said they were relieved that the US did seem to be going for military targets and striking them precisely.

Later, after four bombs went astray and civilians were killed, people have got a lot more frightened.

The daylight raids send people running back to their houses for cover.

Even so, people in Kabul say it is not an end to the bombing they want, but an end to 20 years of war.

Appetite for fighting

"The Taleban," one man said, "are like a dying snake."

The snake is still full of venom, it's writhing around and still very dangerous.

No-one knows quite how to pick it up and get rid of it.

Two weeks into America's bombing campaign, his analysis seems a little over-confident.

I am not sure that the Taleban are dying.

"We are ready to lose Kabul," they say.

Taleban fighter
The Taleban say they are not frightened of fighting US forces
"It does not matter. Our resistance will continue for years against the invaders."

I have attended a lot of Taleban press conferences in the past and one thing you can be sure of, the minister may be droning on, eyes glazed over about something he is really not interested in, but as soon you ask about the fighting, his eyes light up, he becomes animated, excited, confident.

The Taleban love fighting.

What other nation on earth would produce people who seem actively to be looking forward to taking on America's military might on the ground?

It is breath-taking - and deeply depressing for the many Afghans who are fervently praying for a change of government.

I came to this area north of Kabul because it seemed likely the Americans would attack Taleban positions on the frontline and help the Northern Alliance capture the capital - a city they last held six years ago.

Even in Alliance-held areas many people have told me they do not want another government of armed men

Residents in Kabul said they feared the return of the Alliance - the factional fighting and lawlessness of last time.

That now seems less likely. America has not bombed the frontline.

But more importantly, the Alliance themselves are holding back.

They are certainly ready for an offensive.

Driving down from the north, I saw truck after truck bringing men, weapons and ammunition from the north to the frontline.

But the Alliance is showing a degree of political sophistication which has surprised me.

What is now on the agenda is the Alliance coming to the edge of the capital and international peace-keepers and Afghan police taking over security.

Ethnic problem

The problem for the Alliance is not just that they are discredited by their rule in Kabul in the mid 1990s, but that there are few ethnic Pashtuns in their ranks - too few to form a national government.

That means an American-backed Alliance victory in Kabul could actually bolster support for the Taleban among Pashtuns in the south and east of the country.

Taleban security officials
Afghans are tired of being ruled by militias
Even in Alliance-held areas many people have told me they do not want another government of armed men.

The problem, though, is still how to deal with what the man in Kabul called the snake.

Western liberals calling for peace just sound na´ve here.

"Don't they realise," the Afghan director of an aid agency said, "there will be no peace until the Taleban are defeated and the foreign militants are removed from our soil?"

They are not simply going to go away by themselves.

But how to combat them? Air strikes have had little effect on the Taleban military machine - it is too low-tech to be hurt too much by Cruise missiles and precision bombing.

There is a danger that an American invasion force could just cement pro-Taleban resistance.

Foreign role

A more subtle idea is to put in small teams of UN staff to negotiate local security agreements, using the UN as a neutral rallying point for Afghans who want a change of government.

Pro-Taleban rally in Pakistan
There have been large pro-Taleban demonstrations in Pakistan, but not in Afghanistan
"So long as we have international support," a former commander in the jihad against the Soviet Union told me, "we can fully defeat Osama Bin Laden."

In the face of the people - the uprisen people of Afghanistan - the foreign legions will be as nothing.

So far there have been few defections from the Taleban and no popular uprisings - but there has also been no mass pro-Taleban mobilisation - in stark contrast to neighbouring Pakistan.

As yet, most Afghans are waiting to see what will happen.

But, despite the bombardment, there is widespread optimism that a legitimate national government could come out of this crisis.

The national Afghan currency is still riding high against the dollar.

See also:

19 Oct 01 | South Asia
US special forces 'inside Afghanistan'
19 Oct 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Plight of the refugees
18 Oct 01 | Education
A refugee's story
16 Oct 01 | Americas
Profile: AC-130 gunship
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
What next for Afghanistan?
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
Timeline: Afghanistan
01 Oct 01 | Americas
Profile: US special forces
26 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans place hopes in UN
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's Northern Alliance
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Inside Afghanistan
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