From our correspondent
Ismail Khan, his ears strained, fixed the horizon with his piercing gaze. The sun declining in the sky signals the start of the fighting. The so-called “lion of Herat” stands by the side of the road, on the front line. “The fights are 200 meters away”, he said, stretching his hand out in front of him. The detonations are linked. The former warlord does not blink when the bullets of the Taliban snipers whistle above his head. “Come here, come this side! “, he orders one of his fighters, posted in front of him as if to protect him. “If a bullet hits you, what will you win, tell me?” “
Heavy artillery has been echoing for more than two weeks in the district of Ab Borda, four kilometers from the city center of Herat, the western metropolis. The Taliban are trying every day to penetrate a little more into the historic city founded by Alexander the Great. With disconcerting ease, they have uprooted several districts of the province, bordering Iran and Turkmenistan, and threaten to take the pearl of Khorassan.
Since the Taliban launched their offensive in May across a country in chaos, the former warlord has mobilized troops to stem their advance. A former colonel in the Afghan army, he was also set up against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Become a legend of the Afghan resistance, he has no doubts, at 72, of his ability to challenge the Taliban. he fought fervently in the 1990s. They imprisoned him in their jails in the south of the country in 1997, but he escaped three years later.
Across the province, security forces deserted their posts, offering insurgents on a Herat plateau. “The number of soldiers and police in Herat is insufficient. They fled the districts at once. We were all surprised ”, recognizes Ismail Khan. Kalashnikov on the shoulder, checkered keffiyeh tied around the head, he wears a perahan o tunban, the traditional Afghan outfit, as immaculate white as his long beard. “We will defeat them”, he assures.
Seven hundred men have joined the popular force that he has put in place. They are deployed throughout Herat and support the Afghan security forces. “My job is to teach, but in the current situation I have no choice but to fight ”, explains Qadir Ahmadi. The 30-something left his post as a high school teacher to join Ismail Khan more than a month ago. He says he has not seen his family for more than two weeks.
Forty men of all ages form the people’s battalion on this western front of the war raging in Herat. None are soldiers, but many have fought in the past, like their mentor, against the Soviet invasion and then against the Taliban. “All Afghans know how to fight”, they say.
But the Taliban are formidable. “They use sophisticated weapons and even have night vision goggles.“, blows a forty-something armed with a Kalashnikov. Shots are fed 200 yards away, and the smell of gunpowder fills the air. The man took cover near the barbed wire-topped hescos that surround the police station where Ismail Khan has set up his headquarters. “We are powerful, said the farmer whose village is under the control of the Taliban, by pointing to the dozens of volunteers with the lines drawn around him. But the Taliban have better weapons and a lot of ammunition. “
The government distributed only a few weapons to Ismail Khan’s men. Most brought their own. Sometimes simple hunting rifles to fight an enemy who seems to have grown tough during these twenty years of insurgency against Afghan authorities and foreign forces. “Politicians, instead of encouraging us, break our morale”, let go in anger the man who will join his brothers in arms posted further.
The atmosphere suddenly becomes tense. One humvee(a wheeled transport vehicle of American origin, Editor’s note) surges out of the hot spot on the front line. “Zakhmi, zakhmi! ” (one wounded, one wounded!) start shouting the fighters. They rush towards the military vehicle as soldiers from the national army inside open the rear doors. Blood spills on the stony ground, men support one of theirs, unconscious, injured leg. They carry him in the trunk of a car that heads off towards the regional hospital in Herat. For the past two weeks, the latter has devoted 30% of beds to wounded in combat.
“This is not a face to face war. The bullets come from the roofs, from everywhere ”, Juma Gul said, an injury to his right shoulder. He promises to return to fight once he has recovered. He gives up the equivalent of the few euros per month that he earns on construction sites to fight with the Emir of the West. He does not consider an alternative, even if the fight seems lost in advance.
Back on the front lines, a fighter returns from the hospital where he transported his two injured brothers. The farmer with the imposing build, machine gun in hand, ammunition belt slung over his shoulder, is short of breath. He nervously strokes his thick black beard, then spits out his despair more than his anger. He calls out to the United States, and launches: “There will be no peace between the Taliban and us, because the Taliban are the puppets of the Pakistanis. “ Once calmed down, he sits down with a dozen fighters resting on a mat on the ground, and finally manages to smile, while he is handed a cup of green tea. “I don’t want my men to lose their morale”, he said, as if apologizing to the men under his command.
The second in command of the Afghan army Gulzar Kohestani confirms that his soldiers mobilized on the front line in the west of the city are working in coordination with the popular force led by Ismail Khan. He specifies that with their Kalashnikovs, the volunteer fighters cannot launch an offensive. “They are too vulnerable without our help, he said. We mainly use them to keep the places that we have just cleaned. “
“Ismail Khan is a symbol. It gives hope to the population and its mobilization raises the morale of the troops ”, believes the governor of Herat, Abdul Saboor Qani, who does not enjoy a good reputation with the population. Since taking office just two months ago, Afghan security forces have ceded several districts to the Taliban without offering any resistance. These desertions are not, says the governor. “This is a strategy to strengthen the provincial capital and push back the Taliban ”, he assures. Yet the latter, far from retreating, have never been so close to the walls of the citadel of Alexander.