Jab, feint, pause, then calm in Kunduz

Northern Alliance awaits attack orders

War On Terrorism

The World

November 24, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BANGI, Afghanistan -- The absolute calm that descended on the front here yesterday, with soldiers stretched out asleep at their posts and barely a shot fired in earnest, showed how this war has become a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't sort of affair.

A day before, all was furious activity here.

"The operation has begun," commanders had called out as troops and tanks moved forward, artillery fired and American warplanes kept up a steady bombardment of Taliban emplacements in Kunduz province. After nine days of sitting still, it looked as though the Northern Alliance was taking the fight to the last Taliban stronghold in the north.

But it wasn't an advance. It was a jab and a pause. Shohijahan Nasrullah, deputy to the chief commander, said yesterday that the whole thing was a feint designed to cover the prearranged desertion of several hundred Taliban fighters.

Northern Alliance troops moved forward a little more than a mile to the village of Amirabad, and then got pushed back again, with three men killed. The defectors came across. And that was all that happened.

If his forces really meant to attack, Nasrullah said, they would have moved in from three sides simultaneously. This was just a diversion. The genuine attack could come soon, though, he said, maybe in a day or two, as soon as it's clear how the continuing negotiations are turning out.

When most of northern Afghanistan, including Kabul, fell to the Northern Alliance the week before last, very limited fighting occurred. Bargains were struck, and defections were engineered. The tactics are no different in Kunduz, where a reported 15,000 to 20,000 Taliban fighters have been boxed in. But the bargaining is taking a while to bear fruit.

In fact, Nasrullah said, no high-level talks were held yesterday, but individual commanders were negotiating with their counterparts on the Taliban side.

The problem in Kunduz, as it has been from the start, is the presence of large numbers of foreign Taliban and especially zealous Taliban from the southern city of Kandahar. Neither group is inclined to bargain with the Northern Alliance, or to get much out of it if they tried.

Nasrullah said yesterday that the idea of an escape corridor for the foreign Taliban -- into Pakistan, perhaps -- had been completely ruled out.

But he also said that front-line positions had been taken up by foreigners and Kandahar Taliban -- replacing Thursday's defectors, for instance -- and that they were blocking off any more defections by local Taliban units.

Yesterday was so quiet on the front that about the only things stirring were the ubiquitous sand flies.

Soldiers lay sound asleep on the ground. Tanks neither came nor went. Somewhere far off in the hills someone was firing a Kalashnikov, probably for the sheer joy of it, the sound strangely distorted by the confusion of echoes.

Commanders along the line said they were expecting that something might start happening sometime.

Thursday's covering action was not one to inspire tremendous confidence in the coherence of the Northern Alliance forces. Hundreds of Taliban fighters did defect, but they drove in about a dozen cars and trucks into the Northern Alliance line, still heavily armed, spreading tremendous confusion. No one seems to have given thought as to how to direct them, or disarm them.

Fights between irregular mujahedeen fighters on the Northern Alliance side broke out over who could appropriate two of the defectors' Toyotas; one of those fights was resolved only when one of the mujahedeen was shot and wounded by a regular army commander.

This sent another wave of panic through troops on the line, who dashed toward the rear. Vehicles collided with each other, and one pickup truck did a nose dive into a deep ditch.

Last night, the city of Taloqan was unusually free of armed men, which suggested they had all been called up to the front. That could mean just about anything -- perhaps even that the beginning of the advance is at hand.

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