Foes say they'll attack Taliban stronghold

Northern Alliance gives no date for assault on Mazar-e Sharif

War On Terrorism

The World

October 31, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan - Leaders of the opposition Northern Alliance, bolstered by stepped-up U.S. bombing, said yesterday that they are preparing a renewed assault on the northern Taliban stronghold of Mazar-e Sharif.

Some U.S. military personnel are now on the ground with the Northern Alliance, helping to target the airstrikes. That assistance, said Abdullah Abdullah, the Alliance's foreign minister, will have "a serious impact in the days to come."

The Northern Alliance, which has been complaining that its battle against the Taliban has been hampered by poor coordination and insufficient help from the United States, plans a major attack in the next few days aimed at eventually taking Mazar-e Sharif.

"A large area south of Mazar-e Sharif will be liberated before we start moving on Mazar itself," Abdullah said.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have repulsed Northern Alliance forces attacking the city, which has a strategic location, commanding supply routes in the region. With the city in Taliban hands, the opposition has had enormous difficulty receiving food and military hardware.

Officials in Washington, however, say it is difficult to assess when an offensive might happen and when Mazar-e Sharif might fall to the Northern Alliance.

"Well, we know that they're having successes," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said at a Pentagon briefing. "We know it's a difficult and tough fight."

The admiral said it was impossible to give a precise description of the progress made by the Northern Alliance, which is a loose coalition of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minority groups in Afghanistan.

"We know that there are multiple opposition groups that are aligned against multiple Taliban groups," Admiral Stufflebeem said. "The one thing that's for sure is that it's heated.

"We are very happy now with - well, not happy now. We are pleased with the coordination that we're being able to provide, that we weren't able to do before."

The admiral was unwilling to say that the bombs from above and assault from the ground would mean a quick capture of the city.

"I think that the outcome is uncertain," he said, "and I think that the time for when that will occur is uncertain if you look at it from the perspective of the ground forces. If you look at it from a higher perspective of the objective, I think that it's certain that we will defeat the Taliban."

The Alliance has two fronts here -- one to the north near Mazar-e Sharif and another to the south, north of Kabul. In this slice of the country, it has trouble resupplying its lines with men, arms and ammunition. It is accessible only by helicopter through the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush or by vehicle along a single dirt track that crosses a 2 1/2 -mile-high pass, which will probably soon be closed by snow.

Alliance soldiers along the front line facing Kabul are outnumbered by Taliban two or three to one. Opposition commanders say that, while America's air attacks have hurt the Taliban on that front, only ever-intensified bombing will cripple them.

"It would be effective if they used huge planes and used 50 or 60 planes at the same time," said Abdul Rahman, commander of the Afghan opposition's 2nd Division. "These six or eight planes dropping a few bombs won't be effective."

Rahman commands a broad swath of the front-line forces, including elite assault troops called zarbati, which means "rapid." Ten days ago, he said, when the front-line bombing began, the military canceled all leaves and mobilized all available troops, including 800 soldiers in zarbati units, just re- turned from duty in Mazar-e Sharif.

Previously the Alliance military leaders have called general mobilizations when they expected Taliban attacks, he said. But the ragtag army, equipped with antique weapons, has typically been on the defensive in its six-year war with the Taliban, who today control more than 90 percent of the country.

While commanders here are clearly eager to march, they say no date has been set yet. "We've been given the order to begin preparation for an attack," Rahman said. "It's not clear to us when we will attack."

As for the soldiers, they are itching for a fight. "We are ready for action, waiting for our orders," said one of the zarbati, Anwad Zai, 25.

Talk of closer cooperation between the United States and the Afghan opposition came as an enormous blast shook the Shomali Plain along the Kabul battlefront at 11:30 a.m. yesterday.

Witnesses near the front said that a single plane dropped a bomb near the Bagram Air Base, resulting in what they described as the largest single explosion on this front since the attack on Taliban lines here began Oct. 21. Windows rattled as far away as 10 miles north.

Many Afghans remember Soviet bombing campaigns during their decade-long occupation of the country, from 1979 to 1989. Some are skeptical that bombings alone will do much to hurt the Taliban.

"This is Afghanistan," said Abdul Hamed, 32, a farmer and reserve soldier who lives in a village on the Old Kabul Road, a few miles from the fighting.

"We have seen a lot of these bombings and explosions. It's not going to make any difference. The only way to kill a Taliban is to strangle him."

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