Taliban resume fight to conquer rest of Afghanistan They head north to plains after months of impasse


SALANG PASS, Afghanistan -- After being stalled for months on the plateau north of Kabul, the forces of the militantly Islamic Taliban movement are again on the march across Afghanistan. Their objective this time is a breakthrough into northern flatlands beyond the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains.

With the white flags that symbolize their brand of Islam fluttering from their tanks, the Taliban have broken the impasse that settled in after they captured Kabul, the capital, in September. Now they are close to a gateway through the mountains that would open the northern plains to their advance.

The challenges ahead are formidable, including a 12,500-foot mountain pass and a precipitous gorge that have been obstacles for armies crossing the Hindu Kush for at least 2,000 years. But the prize is great, too, since a breakthrough to the north would put the Taliban, who already control 21 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces, in a position to fight for the remaining 11.

The situation has put new strains on the coalition known as the Northern Alliance, which was hurriedly formed in October, when the Taliban's last big offensive carried them on a rapid conquest of eastern Afghanistan, culminating in their seizure of Kabul. Three disparate fighting groups opposed to the Taliban met urgently in a small town on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush.

But the pact they signed has been undermined by personal, political and tribal enmities. The three partners -- Ahmad Shah Massoud, leading the Tajiks; Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Communist who leads the Uzbek minority; and Abdul Karim Khalily, leader of the Hazara people -- have not pooled their forces. This has played into the hands of the Taliban, whose units, mainly from the nation's largest ethnic group, the Pathans, have been increasingly effective in battle.

The commanders in northern Afghanistan, reeling from setbacks sustained in a Taliban offensive that began in mid-January, have been trying to steady their troops. Although the Taliban have paused while emissaries try to persuade front-line units of the northern armies to switch sides, many Afghans believe the Taliban could be fighting on the northern side of the mountains in a few weeks.

Some northern commanders have started evacuating their families and packing their belongings. Others have said they will fight. Massoud told his commanders last week that they should prepare for the most difficult period in nearly 20 years of war.

"I told them, 'If you stay with me, consider yourselves to be as good as dead,' " Massoud told visitors to his stronghold in the Panjshir Valley. Massoud added: "The commanders talked it over with their families. Then they all came back."

A new test seems likely soon, since the weakest alliance partner, Khalily, controls the 12,500-foot Shibar Pass, which stands immediately in the Taliban's path. The route they are following, a 150-mile loop through the mountains, was forced on them when one of Massoud's commanders halted their advance in January by blasting a key bridge on the main north-south route.

From front-line positions barely five miles east of the pass, Taliban commanders have opened talks with Khalily, urging him not to fight. If he agrees, the Taliban could sweep forward rapidly.

More freedom in the north

The 5 million Afghans who live in the northern provinces, out of a population of perhaps 16 million, enjoy freedoms that have been extinguished by the Taliban. In contrast to restrictions on women in Kabul and other cities under Taliban control, in the north women can work and dress as they please. Girls' schools remain open, and mosque attendance is voluntary. Alcohol, though officially proscribed, is freely available.

But alliance forces have been weakened by corruption and plunging morale. And there has been little sign of support from Russia and the Muslim countries on Afghanistan's northern border, formerly part of the Soviet Union, which met in October and branded the Taliban a threat to their own security.

What assistance there has been has gone to Dostum, commander of the alliance's most powerful military force. But even this appears to have been minimal.

Dostum has concentrated most of his firepower in the region around Mazar-i-Sharif, the northern city that serves as his headquarters, leaving more vulnerable areas to the south to fend for themselves.

But military strategies are not the only problem. Popular feeling, too, has shifted against the northern leaders. In Mazar-i-Sharif, and in towns and villages all the way to the Hindu Kush, people in bazaars and alleyways lower their voices when asked about the Taliban. Then, many say they would welcome the Islamic militants. "Under the white flag, we will have peace," they say.

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