The anti-aircraft guns and radar systems of the Taliban were largely destroyed during the first night of the US and British air assault, according to spies working for the Afghan opposition forces.
Osama bin Laden’s headquarters were completely destroyed in the southern city of Kandahar, and so were the Defence Ministry and ammunition dumps in Kabul, Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister of the opposition Northern Alliance said yesterday.
The destruction of the airports and so many of their helicopters and planes is a serious blow to the Taliban because they used aircraft to supply their troops in northern Afghanistan. It is here that opposition troops will attack. “In the north the Taliban are vulnerable because their supply routes are stretched,” said Dr Abdullah.
Many people in opposition-controlled districts had climbed on to the roofs of their houses to watch the explosions of missiles and bombs around Kabul on Sunday night.
In the dusty, tattered village of Golbahar yesterday, a crowd was listening in complete silence outside an antique shop to a report of the bombing on Iranian radio. The radio said that 25 people had been killed in Kabul and two helicopters destroyed in Badghis province.
Feiz Agha, owner of the shop, said: “I think I will soon be in Kabul. The bombing alone will destroy the Taliban.” It is a view widely held here. Soldiers and civilians alike are optimistic that the end of the Taliban is in sight, even though they still control 90 per cent of Afghanistan. “A thousand Taliban have defected to us in the last 24 hours,” claimed Dr Abdullah jubilantly.
Over a wrecked bridge on a road 10 miles from the front, three Northern Alliance soldiers were making their way towards the battle line. Abdul Rahim, an 18-year-old who had already been fighting for seven years, seemed suspicious of a foreigner asking questions. But he said: “I expect a big war.”
In the battered town of Charikar, which the Taliban have taken and lost a number of times, we met Jan Mohammed, a confident, cheerful officer who commanded a unit of 10 men. He said they were stationed at Bagram, a particularly dangerous part of the front line, because each side controls one end of the big military airport built by the Russians. All the buildings are gutted but the 2.5-mile runway is still intact. The Northern Alliance would dearly like to drive the Taliban back so that they can use the airport to resupply their forces.
Jan Mohammed said there had been heavy shelling overnight with many killed and wounded. But this was probably an exaggeration. We visited a first-aid station for war wounded provided by the Italian charity, Emergency. Dr Mohammed Qasim, 32, the doctor in charge, said he had received only one casualty overnight from Bagram and he was dead on arrival, having been shot in the head.
Dr Abdullah said yesterday that he didn’t rule out an advance on Kabul in a week. But his hopes may be premature. The Taliban have 60,000 regular troops compared with 15,000 for the Northern Alliance. The latter lost its charismatic and highly skilled military leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, to assassins, almost certainly sent by Osama bin Laden, on 9 September. The Taliban’s army is used to victory.
For the moment the Northern Alliance says it will not attack on the Kabul front. Instead it may try to recapture Taleqon, a Tajik town of 100,000 in the north-east, which the Taliban took last year. They will also launch probing attacks to see if the Taliban have been weakened by the air attacks.
Afghanistan is divided by the great Hindu Kush mountains with few passes and roads linking the two sides. The main road south through the Salang tunnel is held by the Northern Alliance. In the past the Taliban used aircraft to supply their troops in the north. Having lost control of the air, they can no longer do so. The opposition may now be able to roll up the Taliban in the north of the country in a single campaign.