Fall of strategic city would alter course of conflict

War on Terrorism: Mazar-i-Sharif
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The Independent Online

If the Northern Alliance can take complete control of Mazar-i-Sharif and keep it – and refrain from massacring its opponents – the US-led coalition will have scored its most visible success by far in more than a month of military action.

The fall of the biggest city in northern Afghanistan would deliver a crucial propaganda victory to the coalition. The Muslim world has been inflamed by weeks of bombing that has left Washington and London struggling to counter Taliban claims that this is a war against Islam that is hurting only civilians. The lack of clear military benefits, with a couple of well-publicised mishaps during special forces raids, has led to increasing uneasiness at home as well.

Now, at last, the coalition may show a result. Until now, the Taliban has been able to give a convincing impression of unity and unbroken morale, but the loss of Mazar cannot be presented as anything but a disaster. Once the first crack appears in the regime's facade, things could change very fast.

Capturing Mazar, with its modern air base and extensive military facilities, will transform the situation in northern Afghanistan. It is possible all Taliban forces north of the Hindu Kush range, which divides the country in two, will be rolled up within days, and vast quantities of aid can be rushed in to prevent millions starving to death during the winter, at least in the northern half of Afghanistan.

Aid agencies seeking to avoid a humanitarian disaster have found it virtually impossible to take in supplies through Taliban-held territory while the bombs are falling, and the coalition rejected pleas for a pause. Air-dropping aid has proved hugely expensive and largely ineffective but, with Mazar in friendly hands, it will be possible to open a land route across the Soviet-built Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan, where the former Soviet air base at Termez can be used.

It is clear any breakthrough at Mazar could not have been achieved without days of carpet bombing of the Taliban's front lines by American B-52s and other aircraft. Among the torrent of explosives poured on the enemy's heads has been the 15,000lb "Daisy Cutter" bomb, – the giant shockwave is deemed to have a demoralising effect on troops.

A great deal can still go wrong, however. The commanders of the three Northern Alliance factions converging on Mazar do not trust one another – the most powerful, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has switched sides many times before. His secular, whisky-drinking habits do not appeal to the other two forces, themselves divided between the Sunni and Shia strains of Islam. In 1992, many of the same elements were involved in the capture of Kabul, where they immediately began in-fighting.

Even if that danger is avoided, there is another risk: that of a slaughter of the city's defenders. Mazar changed hands twice during the Taliban's campaign to take control of the whole country in the late 1990s, and, each time, there were massacres. Ethnic divisions were the main cause –- the Northern Alliance is composed of Tajiks and Uzbeks, traditional rivals of the southern Pashtuns, where the Taliban have their roots.

American special forces working with the Alliance, and others based just across the border in Uzbekistan, are sure to rush forward to help secure Mazar and try to prevent mass killing. Yesterday, there were reports that, while Taliban prisoners were being treated normally, scores of Arabs among the defenders had been driven away in trucks to an uncertain fate.

Any atrocities against the Taliban will simply consolidate its Pashtun support in the south, which is where the principal aims of the coalition lie. More than four weeks of bombing has failed to achieve an early split, either within the Taliban or between the regime and Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organisation, despite the loathing felt by most Afghans towards "the Arabs".

In the view of critics, the spectacle of hospitals and aid warehouses being hit has actually hardened Pashtun attitudes and increased Arab influence over the Taliban. Abdul Haq, a Pashtun leader who crossed into Afghanistan to try to stir up a rebellion in the south, was captured and executed; last week, Hamid Karzai, another Pashtun tribal chief on the same mission, narrowly escaped with his life.

The fall of Mazar will throw up fresh problems as well as opportunities. The goals of the Northern Alliance and the US-led coalition are different, and the local forces will want to know what they will get in return for allowing the Americans to use the city's military facilities. If a deal can be reached, however, it will give American aircraft and special forces a base on Afghan soil for the first time and enable them to step up military pressure.

The Hindu Kush is a formidable barrier, even to high-flying aircraft, but shorter flight times to the combat zone will simplify planning and allow the coalition forces to launch more missions. The most important effect, however, is likely to be psychological.