As American B-52 bombers carpet-bombed the front line north of Kabul for the first time, details began to emerge yesterday of small élite teams of American soldiers who are on the ground in Afghanistan, liaising with their country's new allies from the Northern Alliance opposition.
American jets pounded positions where the Northern Alliance says it is about to launch offensives, around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and Bagram airport just north of Kabul.
The brother of Ahmed Shah Masood, the late Northern Alliance leader, claimed a major offensive north of Kabul would begin within days.
America admitted only this week that its forces were in Afghanistan advising the Northern Alliance; Rear- Admiral John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday they had been there for "days, not weeks".
But, as the boom of Northern Alliance tanks firing on the Taliban's positions and occasional bursts of rifle fire echoed in the background, Commander Mamoor Hassan told how American forces had been operating in Afghanistan for weeks and had arranged ammunition drops for the Afghan fighters who were attacking Mazar-i-Sharif.
Sitting in his garden, as a fighter stood behind him reciting the call to prayer in the twilight, Commander Hassan said General Rashid Dostum, the warlord attacking Mazar-i-Sharif, had told him of his secret advisers more than two weeks ago.
"Eighteen days ago I was speaking to General Dostum on the satellite phone," said Commander Hassan, "and he told me, 'Right now, I am meeting with those people.' I understand from Dostum's people that they help with policy as well as military affairs, that for everything he needs they are at his service."
Between 15 and 20 American soldiers are based at Dar-e-Suf, a village just outside Mazar-i-Sharif, in territory captured by General Dostum when the air strikes began.
Three days ago, says Commander Hassan, they arranged for an American plane to fly in ammunition from Uzbekistan for General Dostum's men.
In an island of territory surrounded by the Taliban forces, General Dostum's men can only be supplied from the air. Usually the Northern Alliance would fly ammunition over the Taliban lines in one of its Russian military helicopters, but the Americans have asked the Alliance to ground all its flights while air strikes on the Mazar-i-Sharif area are taking place.
Details also emerged yesterday of a second group of special American advisers operating inside Afghanistan. Saeed Hussein Arvani, a leader of the Shia Muslim faction within the Northern Alliance, said that seven or eight American soldiers in civilian dress were in Parlan. "They are special forces, with very special experience," he said.
Meanwhile, cracks are beginning to appear in the Northern Alliance, and resentment of American policy is surfacing. The Northern Alliance is a loose coalition of warlords, united only by their opposition to the Taliban – just for the time being, in some cases.
Many of them are disturbed by signs that the Americans are growing ever closer to General Dostum, who has changed sides more frequently than anyone else in Afghanistan, a country of constantly shifting allegiances.
Some warlords are openly critical of America's backing for General Dostum.
"They're just making another fiasco, like Abdul Haq, in the north," one Northern Alliance source, who was close to Ahmed Shah Massood, said yesterday. Abdul Haq was the Pashtun warlord captured and executed by the Taliban while on a mission to raise an opposition in Kabul.
"There will be no offensive here, because they just haven't bombed the Taliban enough. If they would help us, we are ready to attack the Taliban tomorrow. But they are only interested in Mazar? Why not the rest of the north?
"Dostum is like clay, they can shape him however they wish," the source said.
The Americans are eager to get their hands on Mazar-i-Sharif because it would give them an air base and a paved route in from Uzbekistan. The Northern Alliance wants a more concerted attack across the north.
Further south, Ahmed Zia Masood, the brother of the late Northern Alliance leader, said that an offensive would begin north of Kabul in the next four or five days.
"Every day the Americans are bombing the front line, we should do something," he said.
Mr Masood said any offensive would stop short of the capital itself. The Northern Alliance is not popular there, and there are fears that if the minority-led Alliance took Kabul, Afghanistan could dissolve in a new civil war.
In his garden, Commander Hassan sighed. "You know, last year, in just one year, 750 of our men died fighting the Taliban here alone," he said. "Do you know how many men we have who have lost their legs?"
After 22 years of war in Afghanistan, the carnage continues.Reuse content