Deep inside Afghan territory, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance is secretly building an airbase at breakneck speed, which the US-led coalition will then use to funnel massive amounts of military supplies to the one force that is already taking the war to Osama bin Laden’s protectors.
The new airfield is expected to transform the military balance between the Taliban and its last surviving internal military foe, which has been reduced to holding only 5 per cent of Afghan territory. About 600 workers and engineers have already levelled the stony ground to build a runway on the plain below the mountains outside Golbahar, a small town about 50 miles north of Kabul.
It will allow the 10,000 troops fighting on the front lines against the Kabul government to receive military supplies directly from Russia, Iran and the US. The airport is capable of taking some of the massive air transport planes such as the Galaxy, C-130 or Tupolevs which can carry tanks, artillery and tons of guns and munitions.
Western military strategists hope that once the Northern Alliance has been re-equipped, it will cut off Taliban troops in the north, acting in concert with US air strikes launched from the US aircraft carrier the USS Kitty Hawk in the Indian Ocean.
Moves to bolster the Northern Alliance dovetail with the US military build-up north of Afghanistan in Uzbekistan, where the first US-marked aircraft arrived yesterday, a day after President Islam Karimov granted permission for American warplanes and troops to use Uzbek air bases for military operations. The plane was spotted flying overhead near the airbase at Khanabad, 180 miles south-west of the capital, Tashkent.
The Pentagon has not commented on its troop movements in Central Asia owing to the need to maintain security against Mr bin Laden’s supporters.
The US Army has dispatched 1,000 infantry soldiers skilled at search-and-rescue, humanitarian missions and helicopter assaults to Uzbekistan. Part of the main north-south road in Afghanistan is already held by Northern Alliance troops, which means the Taliban must use poor minor roads to supply its troops in the north. Until now, anti-Taliban forces have been forced to rely on elderly Russian helicopters to deliver arms and ammunition to their men quickly. Heavy equipment is moved by trucks along some of the worst roads in the world.
The Northern Alliance formerly held an old Soviet military airport at Bagram, several miles from Golbahar, but a Taliban offensive has captured the southern end of the airport. Although the 2.5-mile-long runway is intact, the airport buildings have been burned.
As soon as the runway at the airfield at Golbahar is surfaced, the first planes will fly in. This will be crucial in the next few weeks when the winter snows close the high passes in the Hindu Kush mountains, making it impossible to reach the Panjshir valley by road. The valley, protected by soaring peaks on either side, is the opposition’s military stronghold. But because so much of the Northern Alliance’s territory is mountainous it has few landing places for fixed wing aircraft.
The Taliban have enjoyed the strategic advantage of operating over short supply lines. Once the Golbahar airfield is operating and weapons and ammunition can be brought rapidly to the Northern Alliance frontline, the playing field will be more level.
With a support base concentrated among minority Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara (Shia Muslim) tribes, the Northern Alliance has a relatively narrow political base, which appeared to rule it out replacing the Taliban government.
Britain has said it does not want to see the Northern Alliance take power in Kabul because it does not command support among the majority Pashtun population. Instead, Britain and allied western European powers would prefer the exiled King Zahir to decide the future direction of the country.
To pre-empt this, the Northern Alliance is planning to convene a 120-member Council in Afghanistan in the next few weeks to broaden its appeal. Half the members will be chosen by the Northern Alliance and half by the former king, who lives in exile in Rome.