In the front line at Bagram airport north of Kabul, General Babajan, a veteran opposition commander, is laying plans for the capture of the Taliban positions overlooking the runway as soon as they have been softened up by US bombers.
General Babajan, a confident, jovial man, pointed to the menacing ridgeline of Tota Khan, 10 miles to the south, from whose summit Taliban gunners can ensure no plane lands or takes off at Bagram. He said the main Taliban headquarters was just behind the ridge in an old brick factory.
The question of close air support by the US is critical for the military future of the opposition Northern Alliance. Outnumbered and outgunned, its commanders can only hope to launch a successful offensive, as they have promised to do, if they get tactical air support from the US and its allies.
So far there is no sign they are going to. The Northern Alliance would love to push the Taliban back far enough to prevent them hitting Bagram airport with rockets. This would enable its soldiers to use the large Soviet-built airport to fly in supplies. But as long as the Taliban hold the four-mile long Tota Khan ridge, as well as a large hill called Kohi Safi, “the airport is useless to us” said an officer called Zahir, who is deputy commander at Bagram.
General Babajan said the Alliance leadership was waiting to see what the US would do. So far, he added, they had hit some important Taliban bases, but not others. “Probably the Americans will start attacking the front line in the next few days. We won’t attack until they do.”
General Babajan may be over-optimistic for the moment. The US has until now kept its distance from the predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance, out of fear of offending Pakistan and the Pashtun, the largest single community in Afghanistan’s ethnic mosaic, with 38 per cent of the population.
But the US air offensive may inevitably hit targets such as the strong points at Tota Khan and Kohi Safi simply because that is where the Taliban have concentrated their resources.
Rumours of impending air attacks on the front line have swirled in opposition-held districts over the past two days. “At first we were told that it was to be on Tuesday and now it may be tonight,” a Northern Alliance security chief told us. People living within a kilometre of the front have been told to leave their houses.
It is difficult to know what is happening on the other side of the line. Zahir, the deputy commander at Bagram, said his forces had spies who told them Taliban morale is crumbling. On the other hand, he admitted his forces had not received any defectors. On the whole of the Kabul front, only two or three Taliban have changed sides. CP