The strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif was under major attack yesterday, Afghanistan's Northern Alliance opposition claimed as American jets bombed Taliban positions on front lines around the country.
But despite plenty of talk of opposition offensives on Mazar and north of the capital, Kabul, no hard evidence has emerged. Reports over the weekend that the Northern Alliance had advanced to within a few miles of Mazar were countered by others saying the Taliban had recaptured all the opposition's gains.
Northern Alliance forces attacking Mazar are surrounded by Taliban forces, and can only be supplied by air. None of the reports of fighting around the city can be confirmed.
American and British ground forces were also reported to be preparing to attack Mazar. The US is eager to get its hands on the main city of the north because it is a potential airbase and has a good paved road – a precious rarity in Afghanistan – north to Uzbekistan.
The official line is that the road would provide a corridor for bringing in humanitarian aid. But with savage weather conditions hamperingAmerican helicopter operations in Afghanistan, the US could do with a land route for military purposes too.
Poor weather was blamed by officials in Washington for the crash of a special forces helicopter and the loss of an unmanned spy plane involved in the rescue of a sick special forces soldier on Friday night. US forces plucked the soldier to safety in a second attempt on Saturday, they said. Four crew members were injured in the helicopter crash and also had to be rescued while F14 Tomcats from an aircraft carrier had to be sent to destroy the damaged helicopter because it contained sensitive material.
Distrust is simmering within the Northern Alliance. One alliance commander asked why General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord, hadn't taken Mazar already. "He is up to something," the commander warned; General Dostum has changed sides in the past, and is only loosely allied to the Northern Alliance.
Ashraf Nadeem, a Northern Alliance spokesman, said three groups of opposition forces, led by General Dostum, Atta Mohammed and Mohammed Muhaqik, had begun a joint offensive on Mazar after American bombing raids softened Taliban forces defending the city. Earlier attempts to advance on Mazar apparently went wrong because General Dostum and the other two warlords were barely on speaking terms until they met to plan the new offensive last weekend.
Northern Alliance leaders said a big offensive north of Kabul would begin within days. Opposition tanks and infantry conducted exercises along the Kabul front ahead of a possible offensive.
The Northern Alliance said jets struck the front line 50km (30 miles) north of Kabul, and the northeast town of Taloqan, which the opposition lost to the Taliban last year.
But its commanders complain that while the bombing has significantly weakened their enemy's military installations, the Taliban remain heavily manned – which, presumably, is why America has switched to carpet bombing, which hits people and installations indiscriminately.
Alliance commanders say that the Taliban simply move back a few miles from front lines bombed by the Americans, and set up new lines.Reuse content