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Road to Konduz bears witness to years of war

The roadside in Konduz strewn with military ordnance.
The roadside in Konduz strewn with military ordnance.  

By Ryan Chilcote

TAKHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The road to Konduz, the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan, is littered with the ruins of years of war.

The roadside is strewn with destroyed tanks, armored personnel carriers and buses. The wreckage almost always bears the letters "HT" -- for Halo Trust, an international de-mining organization. Homes and buildings alongside the road also bear those letters, which indicate the structure has been checked for mines and cleared. An "X" means it is mined.

By Afghanistan standards, the road to the front is in good shape -- paved and wide enough to hold two lanes of traffic. Russian military vehicles ferry soldiers to and from the front at the breakneck speed of 80 km/h (50 mph), screeching to a halt only when they come to the holes left in the road by exploding mines. Flatbed trucks, too, move troops and civilians along the road, always packed well beyond their capacity.

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With a good suspension system, one can get to the front in 30 minutes from the city of Takhar, the capital of the Taloqan province. But cars here are a luxury, and many soldiers commute to and from the front by foot, carrying an assault rifle, or grenade launcher.

War here does little to distract the local population from their jobs harvesting the rice crop, with farmers drying their rice on the roadside. After all, there have been two decades of war in this region, and this road has switched hands three times in the last year alone.

The past few days have been good for the Northern Alliance. Just four days ago, they took a hill overlooking Khanabad back from the Taliban, who had controlled it for more than a year. Every day since then, they have watched the skies as high-flying American B-52s and fighter jets bombed their enemies on Khanabad's outskirts.

The Northern Alliance's front line sits on a hill just a couple of hundred meters west of the Bangi Bridge. Although not visible to the Taliban soldiers a kilometer away on the other side of the hill, the bridge is within the firing range of Taliban tanks. Those tanks lobbed shells over the hill and onto the road Wednesday.

Only commanders and action-seeking journalists use the bridge, and are careful to park in a small turnoff on its left side. The right side is mined.

A Northern Alliance fighter prays following the start of the holy month of Ramadan.
A Northern Alliance fighter prays following the start of the holy month of Ramadan.  

The Northern Alliance fighters have the advantage of air support from American jets. Five waves of U.S. airstrikes pounded the region Friday, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, local commanders said.

Friday also marked the first day of prayer since Northern Alliance forces took control of Takhar last week. In the city's mosque, a new mullah condemned the Taliban and praised the Northern Alliance. Many of the worshippers carried their assault rifles and sported freshly shaven faces, having removed the beards the Taliban required them to wear.

Overhead, they could hear the sound of high-flying U.S. warplanes -- something many said they welcomed even during Ramadan.

Once across the Bangi Bridge, the only way to actually see the Taliban positions is to climb the adjacent hills. Northern Alliance soldiers have outposts on both hills, and the paths to their positions are carefully marked. Just a few feet off the path, rocks painted red mark land mines. Soldiers skip gingerly up the path, while more leery journalists follow them. It is better to be a follower than a leader when walking in Afghan wilderness.

Arrayed against the opposition troops are between a few thousand and 10,000 Taliban soldiers trapped in the Kunduz region to the west.

Opposition fighters in Konduz
Opposition fighters in Konduz  

Northern Alliance officers said it is possible they could reach some kind of agreement with the Taliban's Afghan fighters to surrender or defect. The Northern Alliance commander here, Nazeer Mohammed, said a Taliban tank that shelled the road Wednesday was destroyed in Friday's air strikes, and the Taliban's frontline commander -- alone and unarmed -- came by foot from across the valley to discuss a possible surrender. Unfortunately, the Northern Alliance commander said, he wasn't there to receive him.

But many of those troops are thought to be international volunteers, more dedicated to the Taliban cause than many native Afghans. Mohammed said that even if the Afghans were to give up, his men might still have to fight the Pakistani, Arab and Chechen fighters who have joined the fundamentalist Islamic militia.

At nightfall, a group of Northern Alliance fighters gathers around a common plate for an after-dark dinner. During Ramadan, Muslims must fast between dawn and dusk. The soldiers say they're resting up. For now, they say, let American air power take care of the Taliban troops who wait over the hills.

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