U.S. attack opens door for Alliance

Strikes' focus shifts to Taliban front lines

War On Terrorism

The World

October 23, 2001|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The United States has begun to concentrate its air attacks on front-line Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan, an effort that could allow the opposition Northern Alliance to gain further ground, perhaps toward the capital city of Kabul, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

"Our efforts in the air clearly are to assist those forces on the ground in being able to occupy more ground," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added, "We're starting to work on some Taliban targets that are arrayed out in the field against folks that we are trying to help."

Their comments signaled that the U.S. bombing is now tilted toward helping the Northern Alliance rout the Taliban regime. Previously, the United States had focused its raids on al-Qaida terrorist camps and Taliban weapons and command-and-control sites and had mostly avoided Taliban troop positions near Kabul and the key northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Rumsfeld said the success of the U.S. air assault, into its 16th day, has begun to hinge on the ability to work in tandem with forces on the ground.

"To the extent we have excellent ground-to-air coordination, the success improves," he said.

Delicate considerations

For weeks, Northern Alliance commanders on the front lines and their political representatives in the United States have been pressing to have the airstrikes focused on Taliban forces and had become increasingly frustrated when that did not happen.

A representative of the Northern Alliance in New York, M. Erfani, said the American reluctance to bomb front-line Taliban positions until the past few days had prevented Northern Alliance advances against Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and other cities.

U.S. officials have explained that other targets - from Taliban air defense to command-and-control facilities - had to take priority in the initial bombing runs.

In addition, delicate political considerations have been a factor for the United States. Pakistan, which has emerged as America's most crucial ally in the region, opposes the Northern Alliance troops and fears they will gain too much control in a post-Taliban government, especially if they occupy Kabul.

But the intense U.S. air attacks on training camps and military positions in the cities, Erfani said, had pushed many Taliban and radical Arab and other troops allied with the Taliban to seek sanctuary on the front lines, virtually doubling the Taliban's front-line forces. This made it harder for the Northern Alliance to advance against Mazar-e Sharif and other cities controlled by the Taliban, he said.

A possible new era

Rumsfeld seemed to indicate yesterday that a new era has begun.

"We have been ready and are ready to have the [general] alliance forces move, both north and south," he said. "The sooner the al-Qaida and Taliban forces are dealt with, the sooner the threat will begin to moderate."

On Sunday, Myers said, strike aircraft from carriers, together with land-based bombers, struck eight planned target areas, including airfields and command-and-control facilities as well as Taliban forces.

The airstrikes have been slamming Taliban troops around Kabul as well as Mazar-e Sharif, where the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces have been locked in a fierce struggle. Last week, Pentagon officials said the rebels were on the verge of taking the city. But yesterday, Myers acknowledged that the Taliban forces continue to outnumber the opposition forces.

"We may see some progress in that area here in the not-too-distant future," Myers said.

Myers also noted that Taliban forces are trying to reinforce their troops in the north. Now that the U.S. airstrikes have destroyed their cargo planes and most of their helicopter fleet, he said, the Taliban are turning to trucks to try to bring fresh troops to the front and retrieve their wounded.

"We think they're trying to reinforce," the general said. "They're trying to do that with vehicles."

Erfani, the Northern Alliance representative, said, "I hope Mazar-e Sharif will collapse in a matter of days, giving the opposition forces control of an airfield and delivering a huge psychological impact on the Taliban." But, Erfani noted, Mazar-e Sharif is heavily defended with a Taliban force bolstered by radical Uzbek elements, who he said are prepared to fight to the death.

`There's no timetable'

Rumsfeld was asked to comment on statements over the weekend by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who said that it would be preferable that military operations end before the brutal winter, which comes early to the mountains of northern Afghanistan.

"There's been a lot of talk of the weather," he said. "It makes things somewhat difficult in the northern part of the country. But there's no timetable on this."

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