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Opposition forces in Afghanistan criticised the US air strikes for not bombing the Taliban frontline where most of the ruling movement’s soldiers are now dug in after leaving the cities.
The complaint came amid reports that opposition fighters have suffered a big setback in their attempt to capture the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban.
“I can understand the frustration among our senior commanders about the strikes,” said Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister of the opposition Northern Alliance. “They think they are too limited. Since the Taliban are concentrated in the frontline it would be better to bomb them there. It’s obvious.”
US planes have been making episodic attacks on the front north of Kabul but not the massive raids ? opening the road to the Afghan capital ? the Northern Alliance had hoped for. The Alliance has, therefore, not launched any ground attacks or even brought up reinforcements.
The only Northern Alliance offensive under way is towards Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan. But this attack appears to have faltered after a Taliban counter-attack. “Militarily our Mojahideen made mistakes,” said an Afghan opposition source. “They didn’t co-ordinate their attacks.” One column of anti-Taliban soldiers advancing on the city outdistanced other columns coming from different directions and was then forced to retreat by the Taliban counter-offensive.
Dr Abdullah claimed yesterday that the Northern Alliance had never thought it would take Mazar-i-Sharif immediately and it had made significant gains south of the city. He added that the Taliban had an army of between 50,000 to 60,000 men and controlled 70 per cent of Afghanistan ? the real figure is believed to be closer to 85 per cent ? and they were difficult to displace.
Asked about the comment of a US military spokesman who said he was surprised by the toughness of the Taliban soldiers in resisting American bombing, Dr Abdullah was caustic. He pointed out that the Northern Alliance had itself been bombarded by 2,000 rockets over a short period when it was besieged in Kabul, the Afghan capital, five years ago, but said this had not shaken its grip on power.
“I am not at all surprised that the Taliban continues to resist,” said Dr Abdullah at a press conference in Jabal Saraj, 50 miles north of Kabul. “The level of pressure on the Taliban is not enough to make them lay down their arms and run away.”
Despite Dr Abdullah’s suave assurances that the Northern Alliance had never expected a rapid advance on Kabul, his tone now is very much at odds with what he was saying only three weeks ago. He said then that it was possible that Northern Alliance forces would be in the capital in a week. He foresaw a Northern Alliance offensive “within days” of the start of the American bombing.
This heady optimism has now changed. The Northern Alliance forces have not moved anywhere. On the Kabul front they have received no reinforcements or ammunition supplies. Artillery pieces and rocket launchers are still in the same positions they were a month ago.
Such shelling and US bombing which has occurred has been heavily covered by the large number of foreign journalists concentrated in Jabal Saraj. The fall of every bomb is minutely described, sometimes giving the impression of full-scale war, but in reality military activity has been very limited.
So far, at least, the US bombing has clearly had an impact on the Taliban, but it has not transformed the military balance in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance is still outnumbered and unwilling to commit its small forces until the US has softened up its enemy. The air offensive has yet to produce the large-scale defections the opposition were hoping for.
Dr Abdullah said that the bombing could be much more effective if it was better “co-ordinated” with the US. He refused to expand on what form this co-ordination should take, but he almost certainly means close air support with air controllers on the ground directing the attacks on Taliban targets of US.