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The Battle of Mazar-i-Sharif

The military forces of Afghanistan’s opposition Northern Alliance have advanced close to the key strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an opposition official said yesterday.

An offensive led by General Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who once ruled the city, had pushed back the Taliban to within four miles of Mazar-i-Sharif, said Khoji Kahar, an official of the Northern Alliance foreign ministry, yesterday.

General Dostum, notorious for his frequent changes of side during the Afghan civil war, is attacking from the south. He is reported to be close to the airport though this is already out of commission because America has control of the air. It is impossible to verify the Northern Alliance claims since General Dostum is operating from an isolated mountain bastion to the south of Mazar-i-Sharif accessible only by helicopter. Mazar-i-Sharif is the the largest city in the north of Afghanistan.

The Taliban in northern Afghanistan are largely cut off from the areas of their main support south of the Hindu Kush mountains, with only one road, in poor condition, open to their forces. Although there are communities of Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, living in the north, it is dominated by minorities of Tajiks, Hazara (Shiah Muslims) and Uzbeks.

There was a further twist yesterday in the continuing controversy over a possible Northern Alliance offensive from its positions 50 miles north of Kabul towards the capital. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance foreign minister, denied he had promised his forces would not enter the capital until a political agreement with other opposition groups had been reached. He said such an agreement “was ideal, but not a prerequisite”. In practice, a direct assault on Kabul is probably beyond the Northern Alliance’s strength at this stage. It might succeed if backed by US tactical air support. The Taliban have heavily reinforced their front line.

A report on the BBC Pashtu service said 40 Taliban commanders with 2,000 men had defected in Qunduz. This important city, mainly Pashtun, is east of Mazar-i-Sharif. Dr Abdullah has spoken frequently of Taliban defections, but very few real ones have been seen

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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