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Afghan odyssey: Few roads, many guns

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At dawn, four days ago, the soaring, serrated mountain ramparts of northern Afghanistan looked picturesque and alluring.

Given the choice between driving or being stuck in Feyzabad, waiting in a queue of nearly 300 other journalists trying to get on one of the Northern Alliance's rickety helicopters, I opted for the overland journey.

"Nothing could be easier," an Afghan diplomat in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, had assured us. I loaded my gear aboard a five-car convoy of journalists for what was supposed to be a 15-hour trip to the Panjshir Valley, to the front line of the anti-Taliban forces.

The first sign that our little road trip would turn into an arduous 47-hour lesson in the brutality of Afghan topography came later that first morning. The crankshaft broke in one of the decrepit Soviet-made jeeps. In fact, our odyssey quickly became a metaphor for how the gap between naive expectations and harsh reality has defeated every foreign invader to enter this Central Asian plateau in the past few centuries.

I couldn't help thinking that despite a decade of deployments from the Gulf War to Kosovo, American forces have seen nothing like this. Two decades of war in this unforgiving terrain have bred a warrior's swagger, and a contempt for fear and death.

On our shortwave radios, we heard Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the radical Islamic Taliban militia, throwing down the gauntlet on Monday during an interview on Taliban-run Radio Kabul: "Americans don't have the courage to come here," he said. The reclusive Taliban chief, whose troops control 90 percent of the country and consider Osama bin Laden one of their "guests," urged Americans to "think again and again" about attacking Afghanistan.

Just before our first breakdown, I saw yet another reminder of the lesson of past failures. A powerful anti-tank rocket had been fired at a pale slab of limestone by the road. The only impact it left behind was a small starburst of cracks, a few inches long. Nothing else.

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