Taliban's main rivals await time to attack

Northern Alliance has hope of win with U.S.

Terrorism Strikes America

October 07, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAROKH, Afghanistan - Gen. Abdul Dilan's tank crews noticed something odd not along ago about the Taliban forces they occasionally fire at across the broad Kokcha River valley. Five of the Taliban's nine tanks, dug into a small range of hills, were pulling out of position.

The Taliban were poised last year to use those tanks to move east, along the nearby Panj River valley. That would have cut off Dilan's Northern Alliance from a ferry that serves as a critical supply line to Tajikistan. If they had deprived the alliance of a route to the ferry, the Taliban might have finally won its seven-year war. Dilan's chances of stopping the Taliban from taking the ferry seemed slim at best.

But then the Taliban withdrew some of the tanks.

Maybe it was to protect them from the danger of potential American airstrikes. But Dilan has his own theory. "Maybe they need them to defend Kabul," the general said standing with one foot on the barrel of a Soviet T-62 tank and looking over the territory he hopes soon to recapture.

The Northern Alliance - a loose coalition of ethnic-based groups who have ferociously fought each other over control of this starkly impoverished country - is, since the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, the United States' newest enthusiastic ally.

For years, rivalries and a lack of coordination within the alliance helped the Taliban regime gain control of about 90 percent of Afghanistan. The fractious alliance controlled isolated terrain in the north. By this summer, the alliance's leaders seemed to have given up trying to win the war and were fighting with the hope of merely winning a settlement on favorable terms.

Its fortunes changed after the United States blamed the terrorist attacks on the Taliban's friend, ally and guest, Osama bin Laden.

There is little actual fighting here now. The Taliban fire a few artillery rounds in the late afternoon when the setting sun hits the eyes of the Northern Alliance forces. Night brings the occasional crackle of gunfire and the thud of exploding shells.

But the country seems to be preparing for a larger war. Rutted dirt roads are choked with military vehicles. Howitzers, wire-guided anti-tank weapons and rocket launchers are parked along the shoulders. Gangs of men in traditional dress are building by hand short bridges over the drainage ditches that cross the main road, apparently to prepare the route for heavy supply trucks. Troops are suddenly wearing brand-new uniforms and boots.

Yesterday afternoon, a Russian MI-24 helicopter gunship buzzed the town of Haji-Bahauddin, frightening residents. Airport workers said the helicopter arrived at a Northern Alliance airfield here about 10 days ago.

Six helicopters are resupplying the alliance from an airbase in southern Tajikistan, a military source said, and there are also the well-publicized humanitarian supply flights from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

The ferry on the Panj River at Dasht-e-Qala - the key alliance link to the outside - sometimes carries convoys of tanker trucks, either to retrieve fuel or to deliver it.

The defensive line of the alliance, also known as the United Front, is strung between a series of mud-walled villages sitting on the edge of a vast desert plateau, covered with about an inch of mocha-colored dust the consistency of talcum powder. A dreamy, hellish landscape of dust, desert and rock sweeps west for miles from the Badakhshan Mountains to edge of the river.

The villages, lacking electricity and plumbing, looked as they must have looked 2,000 years ago. Most of the traffic consists of men riding donkeys, or boys herding goats.

There is no doubt where the loyalty of this region lies: Villages fly black flags of mourning for Ahmad Shah Masoud, the Northern Alliance leader killed Sept. 9 by two suicide assassins.

Alliance commanders say they are eager to help the United States retaliate against the Taliban; they call the Taliban "the terrorists." And they appear to be patient, in waiting for what they expect will be U.S. airstrikes.

Dilan said he was ready. If the airstrikes take place, he said, he will back his tanks out of their swimming pool-sized pits, where they are positioned to defend the plateau, and launch an attack across the river.

"If the Americans start to fight," he said, "then we are ready to advance."

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