Northern Alliance forces near completion of desert airstrip

Runway is long enough for use by U.S. troops

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 20, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SHIRKAT, Afghanistan - Opposition forces have almost finished building a runway in the desert north of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, that military experts say will open an air bridge for foreign weapons and could set the stage for an all-out ground offensive against the Taliban regime.

U.S. forces are operating in Afghanistan without a staging area, but the strip is long enough to handle U.S. military transports if the Pentagon decided to land troops there, said Ian Kemp, news editor for Jane's Defence Weekly.

Hours before Washington put Army Rangers on the ground in the country, Afghan construction workers were laying gravel on an airstrip about a half-mile long next to a former Soviet military base.

Once complete, the runway will make it much easier for Russia to fly in large amounts of weapons and ammunition, Kemp said.

Russia has been supplying the Northern Alliance with arms and weaponry since 1996. When President Vladimir V. Putin announced last month that Russia would assist the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan, he also pledged that Russia would boost arms deliveries to the Northern Alliance.

The plan to provide a steady arms supply to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance is "being done with the full cooperation and knowledge of the U.S. government," Kemp said.

The alliance has made no secret that it expects large amounts of Russian military aid to begin arriving soon, but it is reluctant to talk about details of how the new runway would be used.

The decision to build the runway now, when the Taliban's front lines north of Kabul are heavily fortified, suggests that the alliance may plan to launch an offensive to push Taliban forces south.

If the war escalates and Pentagon planners decide they need the runway, missions in the former Yugoslav federation have shown that U.S. troops can quickly rebuild runways and set up air-traffic control and infrastructure at airports that have none, Kemp added.

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