FROM ZAHID HUSSAIN IN JALALABAD SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTANIN THEIR flowing kameez shalwar robes, they stood out instantly. The Taleban’s new army of Pakistani volunteers, loitering in the city’s squares by day and retreating to its mosques to sleep by night.
Thousands of Pakistanis, answering Osama bin Laden’s call to arms, have poured into Jalalabad against a tide of refugees.
The youngest and most fervent — up to 8,000 of them according to Taleban officials — have already been sent to the front lines north of Kabul and around Mazar-i-Sharif. The older men who have lived their lives by the gun in Pakistan’s lawless frontier provinces, sit waiting for their marching orders.
Four weeks of bombing and the arrival of the Pakistanis have changed the face of this strategic city 60 miles into Taleban-held Aghanistan. The reinforcements throng Jalalabad’s mud-walled streets, and the mood is one of palpable defiance. “It’s not war yet,” said one Taleban supporter who gave his name as Zabihullah. “Let the American troops come down to the ground and then there will be a real battle.”
The only reporter in the city, I saw a people united rather than divided by the American bombardment. The airstrikes have brought civilian casualties, but there is little sense of panic. “The Russians were much more tough and brutal, but the American soldiers are much softer and will not be a good match for us,” Zabihullah declared with thinly veiled contempt.
Many agree with him. Far from turning ordinary Afghans against the Taleban, the bombing has revived their support just as it was waning. “No one will accept foreign forces coming here,” one bus driver told me.
Some airstrikes have hit their targets to obvious effect. Farmada, a fortified farm on the outskirts of Jalalabad that is believed to be one of Osama bin Laden’s key bases, has been badly damaged. Sources say Tora Bora, another al-Qaeda stronghold 60 miles away, has also been hit.
But many believe that bin Laden is hiding in the local mountain caves. “There are still some Arabs seen in the area,“ one local resident said. Where precisely, no one will say — even if they know — but the Darunta base in the mountains between Jalalabad and Kabul has long been used by al-Qaeda to provide guerrilla training for an international cadre of Islamic militants.
The evidence of civilian casualties is as unmistakable as is its galvanising effect on the survivors. In one Jalalabad hospital 16-year-old Lal Mohammed is fighting for his life, wounded when a cluster bomb hit a wedding party in a house in Bauli neighbourhood outside the city. “We have little hope of saving him,” his doctor said.
Zarmina Gul, a two-year-old girl, lay swathed in bandages in the hospital’s children ward. Her parents and two brothers have also been admitted, hit, they say, by a rogue bomb that exploded close to a tractor trailer on which they were travelling.
The hospital is desperately short of medicines and surgical equipment and such injuries have visibly fuelled anti-American sentiments. Many of the young men who have stayed behind have been conscripted and despatched to the war. Others are being rearmed by the Taleban to defend the city.