Mazar-e Sharif key to dividing Taliban

Capture of city would open supply lines, provide lift to morale

War On Terrorism

The World


WASHINGTON - The capture of Mazar-e Sharif would deliver the first tangible victory for the American-led campaign in Afghanistan after more than a month of war.

If the Northern Alliance maintains control of the strategically important city, it will cut off forces of the ruling Taliban to the east. It will open a land corridor for humanitarian aid to millions of hungry Afghans. And it will provide the U.S. military with a potential staging ground for military operations inside the country.

It will also provide a badly needed public relations boost for a military operation that has been long on airstrikes - more than 8,000 bombs have been dropped - but devoid of gains on the ground.

"I don't think there is any doubt at all that the military momentum is now moving against the Taliban," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday, eager to exploit the first bit of good news.

Still, for all of the applause in Washington and London and the substantial setback the loss of the city represents for the Taliban, its conquest is not a knockout blow.

Located on the northern Afghanistan steppe, Mazar-e Sharif is far from Kandahar, the Taliban's political base in the south. So to prevail in the conflict, the U.S. military will have to find allies among the Pashtun tribes in the south, help equip and arm them and provide them with air cover so that they also can take on the Taliban.

And the U.S. military will have to find a way to get its Special Operations forces, which have not carried out a raid since Oct. 19, back into the fight. In the end, the United States might have to dispatch a significant number of ground troops, an option that the Pentagon has not ruled out but which the Bush administration is hoping to avoid.

The successful attack on Mazar-e Sharif was a direct result of the Bush administration's decision to aid the Northern Alliance. The city, in fact, was a target from the opening days of the U.S. military campaign, when a garrison of Arab and other foreign fighters recruited by Osama bin Laden was bombed. But in recent days the U.S. military has made a concerted effort to bomb the Taliban forces that were defending the city.

The capture of Mazar-e Sharif could lead to the rout of Taliban forces from the northern tier of the country. Taliban forces in Qonduz and Taloqan will find themselves cut off from supplies. Taliban forces in the neighboring provinces of Samangan, Sar-e Pol and Faryab will also be vulnerable.

After consolidating a victory in Mazar-e Sharif, the Northern Alliance plans to advance toward Herat in the west and the capital, Kabul, to the south under cover of U.S. air attacks, said Haron Amin, special envoy in Washington for the Northern Alliance.

The seizure of the city is also expected to improve the flow of international aid. Aid can be trucked south from Uzbekistan to Mazar-e Sharif, which could become a hub for distributing food and relief supplies.

Pentagon officials said they prefer to have the Northern Alliance or non-American members like the Turks guard the "land corridor" from Uzbekistan. But they did not exclude that Marines might be brought from ships in the Arabian Sea to provide security.

Kenneth Bacon, the president of Refugees International and a former Pentagon spokesman, said that 75 percent of the Afghan people afflicted by famine live in the northern half of the country. "From a humanitarian standpoint this is a huge development," Bacon said.

Mazar-e Sharif also has a large airfield, which, along with other airfields the Northern Alliance might take in the forthcoming weeks, could become a staging area for U.S. forces inside Afghanistan. "Having access to an airfield inside the country allows for new freedom of movement," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said yesterday.

The broader hope is that the seizure of the city will persuade Afghans to conclude that the days of the Taliban are numbered and encourage them to turn against the regime.

But the capture of Mazar-e Sharif could turn into a liability if Northern Alliance fighters carry out a wave of revenge killings. That could lead Pashtuns in the south to rally around the Taliban.

Northern Alliance representatives said they are taking steps to discourage such killings. And the Northern Alliance and U.S. officials are considering a plan to try to make the case that the capture of Mazar-e Sharif is part of a campaign against the Taliban regime but not the Pashtuns themselves.

The idea is to convene a broad coalition of anti-Taliban leaders from the Northern Alliance and the Pashtuns to discuss how to govern Afghanistan after the Taliban are topped. One possible venue for the meeting is Mazar-e Sharif.

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