Easy Targets

On road that winds through Afghan war, fighting fazes few

April 15, 2002


KHOJA KOTKAI, Afghanistan (AP) _ They would have made an easy target: a steady stream of buses and trucks, minivans and taxis, spewing up a trail of dust as they trundled down the valley road.

Explosions and bursts of anti-aircraft fire rang through nearby hills, and two tanks fired shells toward a mountainside.

In most places, factional fighting on the road ahead would have been enough to make a driver pull over. But in war-ravaged Afghanistan, few seemed to mind.

Not the dozens of passing vehicles. Not the children herding goats. Not the bored-looking soldiers watching the battle between two rival commanders from the top of a red shipping container partially buried in the dirt.

"I don't think anything about it. I don't care," said 23-year-old Sherali, who was busy changing a flat tire. "This is Afghanistan. We're used to it."

Sherali spoke just minutes before a tank rumbled past his car, turned onto the valley floor, and began pounding an enemy position in the distance. Like many Afghans, he only uses one name.

It's unclear what sparked the weekend clashes between Gen. Zafar Uddin and Ghulam Rohani Nangialai in the valley around Khoja Kotkai, about 30 miles west of Kabul.

Government officials called it an isolated turf battle between two longtime rivals and said it posed no threat to interim leader Hamid Karzai's fragile administration.
Karzai's government, which came to power in December soon after the fall of the Taliban, is faced with trying to secure peace in a country battered by 23 years of war.

But government authority is uncertain in hills like these just outside the capital. Much of the countryside remains under the control of local warlords, who sometimes take up arms against each other for patches of territory.

On Saturday in Khoja Kotkai, soldiers totting rocket-launchers at a crumbling roadside mud hut peaked around a corner to watch a duel between two trucks mounted with heavy guns _ one from each faction.

One of the trucks fired from the top of a hill toward Uddin's men, then quickly disappeared from view. An artillery shell ripped into the dirt about 150 feet from one of Uddin's trucks, prompting a blast of return fire.

Asked why authorities let civilian traffic drive through a battle-zone, Haji Aqa Gul, who is loyal to Uddin, shrugged.

"This is not serious fighting," he said. "If it really gets heavy, we'll close the road."
Much of the highway from Kabul to Kandahar is unpaved and racing through gunfire is not an option, particularly for large trucks so laden with cargo they sway from side to side as they roll over the ruts.

Abdul Gani, a 28-year-old hauling a load of tea, made the trip through Khoja Kotkai with a young nephew aboard and said his truck's top speed was only three miles an hour. The green Mercedes Benz truck was intricately painted with yellow and blue flowers, and had a string of iron chimes hanging off the back.

Gani said the fighting "wasn't too bad," but said he had to pull over for about two hours some three miles from Khoja Kotkai.

"I heard bullets whipping past and saw some people running across the plain. So I stopped until the fighting died down."

Gani dismissed the brief delay, saying he was once obliged to stop on the same road for 20 days during a particularly heavy round of factional fighting in 1994.

At Khoja Kotkai, many of the vehicles drove through as if no skirmish was taking place. Some were probably unaware.

None of Uddin's soldiers, deployed at several checkpoints along the road, had bothered to mention the fighting as they waved him through, Gani said.

Perhaps it was hard to tell.

About two dozen yards off of one stretch of road, two soldiers lay in a dirt trench, huddling with Kalashnikovs.

Farther down the highway, inside another hut bombed out years ago during fighting with the former Soviet Union, one soldier slept on a weathered carpet aside stacks of bread and empty tea glasses.

Outside, a dozen troops stood idle and joked as occasional automatic weapons-fire peeled from a hilltop across the road.

As the two sides fought sporadically, two American helicopter gunships cruised over the hills on a separate mission.

Later, four double-rotor Chinook choppers made the same run low through the valley. Several foreign soldiers aboard _ it was unclear where they were from _ waved as they flew over the front line.

Gani said he didn't have any other option.

"Of course we are afraid to drive on these roads when there's fighting, but we have to make a living. There's no other way."

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.