US Planes Pound Taliban Troops
Taliban troop concentrations in northern Afghanistan became a target of American air strikes for the first time yesterday in what appeared to signal a shift in strategy towards the Northern Alliance.
Washington and London continued to insist the Alliance would not be allowed to capture Kabul and form the next Afghan government, but the air attacks paved the way for the opposition fighters to launch a fierce assault on the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Last night Alliance forces appeared to be closing in on the town. Diplomatic and intelligence sources say America and Britain are preparing to let the Alliance take it and the surrounding area with the proviso that its military airport will be turned over to the Allies for a secure base if requested.
Taliban forces defending Mazar-i-Sharif face infantry assaults from the east and the west. The attacks are being led by Commander Ato Mukham- med and General Rashid Dostum. If the city does fall the Taliban’s position in Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush mountains could rapidly unravel.
Abdul Vadud, the Afghan military attach? in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, said yesterday the Alliance forces were three miles from Mazar-i-Sharif and were shelling its outskirts. He said Ato Mukham-med had seized the military airport. Earlier reports said the Alliance had taken the civil airport but had been driven back. Mohajeddin Mehdi, an Afghan diplomat in Dushanbe, claimed the Taliban had concentrated tens of thousands of fighters in the Mazar-i-Sharif area.
The advance is the first serious military move by the Northern Alliance since the start of the crisis. It is also a critical test of the Taliban ability to resist in a region where they have never been popular.
A senior defence source in London said yesterday: “It does not follow that the United Front [Northern Alliance] taking Mazar-i-Sharif means they will go on to take Kabul. That is something we are totally against and they have assured us they that is something they will not do. We do not believe they have the military capability and co-ordination necessary, at present, to capture the capital without significant outside help.”
The allies believe Northern Alliance forces are unfit to govern because of their record, and because of vehement Pakistani objections. Mazar-i-Sharif appears to be the compromise. Access to a secure base inside Afghanistan would give strategists in Washington and London a lot more options. The alternative would be to operate almost entirely from former Russian bases in Uzbekistan and ones in Pakistan.
Allied strategists also believe a secure base inside Afghanistan would help them to avert the impending humanitarian catastrophe. With many roads becoming impassable with the coming winter, airlift appears to be the only way to bring in aid. Food, medicine and clothing can then be distributed by helicopter.
Ideally, the Allies would have preferred to operate from another former Soviet airbase, Bagram. The all-weather airfield could be used by a variety of allied aircraft with comparatively little building work. But Bagram’s natural hill defences make it difficult to wrest from the Taliban, and its capture is thought to be beyond the present capacity of opposition forces.
On the Kabul front, the Alliance was making greater use of its artillery and rocket launchers. But there is no sign yet of it making a full-scale military assault.
Local commanders say they have been ready to attack for a week but have no orders. Many of the fighters near the front are, in effect, militia from the villages, varying in age from teenagers to old men. If fighting does not start in the next few weeks on the Kabul front many of these men will probably start to drift back to their homes.
The low military casualties reported by the opposition are in keeping with the history of warfare in Afghanistan over the past decade. Civilian casualties from mines and shellfire have been heavy, but the small armies on both sides have seldom fought serious battles. Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996 without a fight after Jalalabad was betrayed, opening the capital to assault from the west.
In 1997, after the Taliban first held Mazar-i-Sharif, an uprising in the city left 3,000 of their men dead killed and 3,600 taken prisoner. Many prisoners were later packed into containers and left to suffocate or were thrown into deep wells.
In 1998, the Taliban took Mazar-i-Sharif again and went on a rampage against the Hazara minority, shooting people in the streets and packing others in containers to die. The atrocities and counter-atrocities manifest the bitterness of the animosity between Pashtun and non-Pashtun minorities.
US Planes Pound Taliban Troops
The son of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, has been killed by an American air strike.
An Afghan doctor said yesterday that he had struggled in vain to save the life of the boy, aged 10, after the child was injured during the first night of strikes on the southern city of Kandahar.
Dr Abdul Bari said he had treated the boy for abdominal injuries and a broken femur in a hospital in Kandahar and that Mullah Omar had stood by, pleading with the doctor to save his son’s life.
Dr Bari was interviewed by the BBC at a border crossing near Quetta in Pakistan. He did not give the boy’s name, but said his injuries were too severe to survive. The child died the same night he was admitted to the hospital.
Mullah Omar’s uncle was injured in the same attack, Dr Bari said, and was still being treated in hospital in Kandahar. Dr Bari said the hospital had only five days’ supply of drugs left to dispense.
Other reports said many of the city’s 500,000 inhabitants had fled, leaving only the very poor behind. Kandahar has always been considered the main power base of the Taliban.
Little is known about the 41-year-old Taliban leader and even less about the number of wives and children he has. He is reported to have married Osama bin Laden’s eldest daughter, while Mr bin Laden is reported to have taken one of Mullah Omar’s daughters as his fourth wife, although the Taliban have denied this.
Some reports have said Mullah Omar has only one son, so it is conceivable that the boy killed in Kandahar was a grandchild of Mr bin Laden.
American officials have admitted they are attacking places where the Taliban leader is known to live, under the supposition that they are military command centres.
The boy’s death is just one indication of the mounting civilian death toll from the strikes.
As the third week of attacks began yesterday, Taliban officials said 18 people had been killed in the morning raids over the capital, including eight members of a single family at breakfast time. The Taliban say up to 900 have been killed in attacks since the campaign began on October 7.
There has been no verification of the Taliban claim. Reporters in northern Kabul yesterday saw the bodies of three women and four children killed by bombs.
“There were no military bases here, only innocent people,” said Bacha Gul, the brother of one of those who died. “We don’t care about military targets. If they want to hit military targets let them, but these were not terrorists.”
Taliban execute five of their own soldiers accused of being spies
The Taliban have executed five of their own men as American spies, two of them local military commanders, in a sign of their determination to keep control of the key northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, they said yesterday.
The executions may be a sign of a growing panic in the ranks of the Taliban about defections from their army and the possibility of the strategic city falling to the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance.
If the Taliban lose Mazar-i-Sharif, their whole position in the north, where their rule is already unpopular, might crumble, opening the way for an opposition offensive against the capital, Kabul.
The battle for the city is also a test of the military strength of the Afghan opposition, which claims that it can defeat the Taliban on the ground if it receives wholehearted American air support.
A Taliban official confirmed the executions of the alleged spies. “Two commanders by the names of Saboor and Yusuf and three of their men were executed for acts of sabotage, provoking people and spying for the Americans,” he said.
The Taliban recently rushed an extra 1,000 men into the city, which they only captured in 1998, to quell an uprising against the government.
Meanwhile, America stepped up air activity yesterday afternoon around the north of Kabul. The sound of jets passing overhead reverberated around the mountains near Jabal Saraj. They were reported to have dropped several bombs near the former Soviet military airport at Bagram.
But this was not the massive air assault on the front line which opposition commanders wanted.
There are signs, however, that America may be increasing its military aid to Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of three opposition generals trying to surround Mazar-i-Sharif.
An official working for Ustad Attah, another anti-Taliban general, said: “There are over 15 Americans here and they are collecting information about Taliban targets in order to hit them during air attacks.” He claimed 500 men, including 10 commanders, had recently switched from the Taliban to the Northern Alliance.
Few details of the fighting in Mazar-i-Sharif can be independently checked and the Taliban education minister, Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, indignantly insisted yesterday that they were holding their own. “We have pushed back the opposition attacks,” he said. “We will never bow before America.”
In areas held by the opposition, north of Kabul, the fighters voiced scepticism about the effectiveness of raids by the US special forces along the lines of the weekend raids around Kandahar. A commander named Mohammed Arif, said yesterday: “It is impossible for it to be effective. Afghanistan is too mountainous. Local forces know the terrain work better.”
The Northern Alliance have their own reasons for downplaying the use of American or British special forces. But they are right in suggesting that the Taliban forces will be difficult to uproot without the help of local troops. “The Taliban can easily fight in people’s houses and villages. They will be very difficult to find,” Mohammed Arif said.
The Northern Alliance forces consist of about 12,000 to 15,000 well-trained assault troops and a much more numerous village militia. They have been bitterly disappointed by America’s reluctance to support them openly, in case this offends neighbouring Pakistan.
The Alliance represents mostly ethnic minority interests in the north and its leaders ran a chaotic and violent administration when they ruled Kabul five years ago. The US airforce has only given them effective aid around Mazar-i-Sharif. CP