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Hearts and minds: The forces of the Afghan National Army may lack technological sophistication but they understand the insurgent networks and local power and patronage systems better than the foreign troops

It was a haunted autumn, filled with the ghosts of past fighting, dead men and uneasy memories. The snow arrived early in the mountains above Kabul, and the night's chill shrivelled the last leaves in the valleys, casting a drab brown cape across the lowlands and pulling dusk in toward the afternoon's end. In the south the signs were fainter, but even in Helmand the mounting banks of dark clouds on the horizon and the draw down in the night's temperature heralded a change that would not be long in coming. The shortest season in the Afghan year, autumn is a walk-on, walk-off hustler for the dark, the rain, the snow and cold. It reminds strangers, too, how uneven can be the ticking of the clock.

I took a drive one November morning on the approach road north of Kabul with an old friend, Gul Haider, a one-legged war captain, veteran of many fights against many foes. We had travelled the same road a decade earlier over a two-day period ending on November 13, 2001, when he had led the Northern Alliance assault through the Taliban defence lines, driving them from the city and ending their four-year tenure of power there. Stopping here and there along the old advance line, we remembered pockets of resistance and the fate of various fighters. The images sparked up again like the stoked embers in an abandoned fire and suddenly the empty skies were buzzing with US F-18s and B-52s, their strikes sending the Talibs reeling back toward the capital in disarray as their rearguard died in groups along their retreat.

Amid the smoke and hammering gunfire, the crash of airstrikes and thump of artillery, Gul Haider had commanded the battle with his mujahideen staff clustered around him on the high walls of a frontline compound, where he perched with his prosthetic leg stuck out accusingly before him towards the enemy, a pair of binoculars to his eyes and a Makarov pistol in his belt. Scrutinising the battle's progress, bawling occasionally at his subordinates, in the early afternoon he had swivelled round to face his commanders, eyes ablaze. "Go, go, go!" he yelled. With that, the mujahideen screamed their war cries, rifles held aloft, and raced forward in the tracks of their advancing tanks through breaches in the minefields to set upon their retreating enemy.

What a moment. More than victory, it smelled like the end of the war. There were caveats. Dressed in clean blue shalwar kameez, his body otherwise unmarked, I came across one Taliban fighter sprawled in the road who had been castrated. He stared sightlessly up at the November sky, an unnerving sentinel to the dawn of their defeat, the blood running from his groin northwards down the tarmac. From the midst of another group of five dead Talibs, a corpse had suddenly come to life and sat up, blood sputtering from his mouth as he tried to speak, before falling back upon one elbow and lying down to die once more.

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