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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

batwing soup

BALA-MURGHAB, West Afghanistan -- I am smitten by this country -- by its dirt, its chaos, its shambolic charm. Government officials buy you hashish and warlords fly you to picnics in military helicopters. I'm in my element.

We're back from the front line, where General Dostum, leader of the Anti-Taliban Alliance, is preparing to deploy a cavalry division in his push south toward Herat. The cavalry were an incredible sight. Around 800 Uzbek horsemen armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns lined up in the foothills around the strategic bridge of Bala-Murghab, ready to parade for the local tribal leader, Gul Mohammed Pahlawan. They charged en masse down the hill, howling a blood-curdling battle cry, the ground thundering under their hooves as they stampeded around our vantage point in a bombed-out hut.

The cavalry unit will soon join others at the front line, not for show or for ethnic nostalgia, but because in this spectacular rolling terrain mounted troops have complete supremacy over armor or helicopter attack, thanks to Stinger surface-to-air missiles. As we discovered after a four-hour ride on top of a Soviet BMP light tank up to the forward positions, getting anything with wheels across this country is nigh impossible. The horsemen cantered around us, whooping in salute to Gul Mohammed, who was driving in front of our little convoy in a carpet-lined armored personnel carrier, while our tank roared and wheezed up impossible inclines, belching black smoke and threatening to roll over.

The forward trenches were damp, clayey dugouts, surrounded with freshly laid Iranian-made anti-personnel mines. In a country with hundreds of thousands of innocent land-mine victims one would have thought they'd learned by now how ineffective and evil those things are, but no. One of our group of six journalists, a jug-eared photographer from Bradford, England, tossed a live mine at me for a joke, shouting "Catch!" Fortunately, I was good at cricket at school. Idiot. He works for Combat and Survival magazine, which explains a lot.

The front was pretty quiet except for the odd bang of a mortar round in the distance -- the most spectacular pyrotechnics were provided by a lightning storm of apocalyptic proportions. Gul Mohammed didn't fancy getting wet, so he scrambled helicopters out to the front line -- at great risk -- to take us to lunch . We had to run up to the chopper, rotors still turning, and hang on tight as he sped out of mortar range fast and low, hugging the hills at 50 feet, doing 250 miles per hour.

Lunch was a surreal affair. The sun had come out, flooding the landscape around Gul Mohammed's clifftop command post with luminous beauty. A feast had been prepared on the hilltop, roast lamb and rice, spread out on carpets and served on antique silver trays. Then back to the helicopter, speeding low -- for fun this time -- to Mazar-i-Sharif, our base town.

We leave soon for the other front at the Shebar Pass, one of the key crossing points of the Hindu Kush range which the Taliban have to take if they are to succeed in taking northern Afghanistan. The pass is held by Shia Moslem Khazars, ethnically the heirs of one of the Central Asian hordes who raided as far as Hungary and South Russia in the 11th century and spiritually the heirs of the Shia Sufi of North Iran known as the old man of the mountain. His followers, the "Hashishim," were feared for their drug-induced murderousness and gave us the term "assassin." Sounds like these boys could put up quite a fight.

Dostum, currently allied with the Khazars, claims that recent air raids on the Taliban killed 13 and that he's sent 20 tanks to reinforce the Shebar. Hopefully we will be in the right place at the right time if he launches an attack.