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.