Afghan rebels report advances

Anti-Taliban forces say they have taken area near vital city

Key aid from U.S. advisers

Battlefield reports can't be verified, Rumsfeld cautions


KHWAJA BAHAOUDDIN, Afghanistan - Northern Alliance officials said yesterday that they had captured three districts near the strategic city of Mazar-e Sharif, after what they said was the extensive involvement of U.S. military advisers in the assaults.

If reports are accurate, those advances would be the Northern Alliance's biggest breakthrough since the United States began its bombing campaign nearly a month ago.

Northern Alliance forces captured the districts of Zari, Aq Kupak and Keshendeh during an overnight battle, Qudratullah Hurmat, an aide to Gen. Ostad Atta Muhammad, said yesterday in an interview by satellite telephone.

In Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld sounded a cautionary note, saying the Pentagon could not independently verify the gains by the anti-Taliban forces.

"There are so many reports about this village or that village," Rumsfeld said. "I like to let the dust settle and see where it is at the end of some period of time after there's been a pause."

The districts reported captured lie to the south of Mazar-e Sharif, a Taliban-held city regarded as critical to the fight to control northern Afghanistan. The city sits in the middle of a string of cities running from Herat in the west to Taloqan in the east. The Northern Alliance wants to unite these cities under its control.

Mazar-e Sharif is also important because it sits just south of the border with Uzbekistan, where the U.S. military has set up extensive operations. If the Northern Alliance took the city, the Americans could set up a military base there.

As preparations for an offensive seem to lag in northeastern Afghanistan, alliance leaders are hoping to claim a significant victory somewhere before winter weather freezes the battlefields.

Aggressive involvement

Hurmat, Muhammad's aide, said the districts were captured after what he described as the aggressive involvement of American advisers. Hurmat said there were about 15 Americans and they helped plan the attacks against the Taliban, organized troops and gave orders to commanders in the field.

"Around the clock they are going to the frontlines," Hurmat said. "They are organizing the troops and telling our commanders what to do."

The increasing involvement of U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Afghanistan comes as the U.S. military has started supplying small arms, including AK-47 automatic rifles, as well as rocket-propelled grenades that are effective against armor, to the Northern Alliance for the first time.

In recent weeks, U.S. transport planes have dropped supplies of ammunition, food, water, blankets and even food for the horses that many Northern Alliance soldiers ride. But supplying weapons to the anti-Taliban militia marks an escalation in the Pentagon's campaign to support its proxy ground force in Afghanistan.

Success on the ground

"Certainly, one would hope that by providing assistance and creating an environment where it is possible to succeed and have success on the ground, by doing a good deal of damage to the forces opposing them, that we will see a greater degree of cohesion on their part, and that we'll see more success," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld said the campaign in Afghanistan would take "months rather than years," but he acknowledged that could mean as many as 23 months.

Hurmat said the attack on the Taliban followed a sustained bombardment by U.S. jets, also directed by the Americans on the ground. Prior to the bombardment, Hurmat said, the Americans took photographs of Taliban positions and spoke on satellite telephones to Americans in Uzbekistan.

Hurmat said three U.S. helicopters brought ammunition to a Northern Alliance base in Dara-i-suf, a remote mountain village 60 miles south of Mazar-e Sharif in Samangan province.

"We are very grateful to the Americans," Hurmat said.

He said the American advisers were not wearing uniforms, and he described them as "government officials" who were not part of the regular military. He said they had set up a base at Dara-i-Suf, where he said they were living in tents, traveling by helicopter and dividing their time among three alliance commanders.

Hurmat's descriptions are the most detailed account yet given by an independent party of the role of American advisers in Afghanistan. So far, U.S. officials have declined to discuss in detail publicly the actions of the advisers. They have kept a low profile inside the country and have refused to identify themselves.

Seesaw situation

The fighting for Mazar-e Sharif has seesawed over the past several weeks despite repeated U.S. air attacks on Taliban positions there. Three weeks ago, Northern Alliance officials said they were on the outskirts of the city; yesterday, they said they were 12 miles away.

Part of the problem, alliance officials said, is that their troops there are cut off from their main stronghold in northeastern Afghanistan. Alliance officials said they have been unable to drop food and ammunition to their troops.

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