US steps up the bombing to clear way for Northern Alliance assault

War on Terrorism: Campaign
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The Independent Online

America has launched a second day of carpet bombing in Afghanistan as it paves the way for the opposition Northern Alliance to take the strategic town of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The saturation attacks by B-52 bombers dropping 500lb ammunition on Taliban positions north of Kabul marked a new phase in a campaign that has faltered because of a lack of intelligence on the ground.

After weeks of declaring that the Northern Alliance was unfit to form a new government in Afghanistan because of its past record of abusing human rights, America and Britain are now giving it full backing.

The change in policy has resulted from the failure of the Allies to organise an anti-Taliban opposition alternative to the Alliance among the country's majority Pashtun population. Senior defence and diplomatic officials blamed this on a lack of intelligence and a failure to foresee that the daily bombing would cause the Pashtuns to rally around the Taliban rather than turn against them.

In another sign of the desire to step up the bombing, the White House last night said that there would be no pause in the bombings during the month of Ramadan, despite speculation such a break might happen.

As part of the new support for the Northern Alliance, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, revealed the number of American special forces would be quadrupled to help the opposition fighters. "We have a number of teams cocked and ready to go," he said.

According to Pentagon sources, advisers will not only help to plan operations against Taliban forces but accompany the Northern Alliance on its advance. Its commanders have been complaining at the Allies' failure to launch air strikes against Taliban positions. But both American and Northern Alliance officials said yesterday they were working much more closely. General Tommy Franks, commander of Operation Enduring Freedom, met the Alliance commander Mohammed Fahim to co-ordinate land and air operations.

Further support for the Northern Alliance came with the news that Turkey, the first Muslim country to join the American-led coalition, will send 90 special forces advisers to train its forces. Turkey has been a traditional supporter of the Northern Alliance.

The developments show that the war has not gone according to plan for the Allies. Washington and London had maintained for weeks that a combination of air strikes and special forces raids on the ground would whip up anti-Taliban insurrections among the majority Pashtuns in the south, destabilising the government and even forcing it to hand over Osama bin Laden. None of that has happened and the scale of air attacks has had to be drastically raised. On Wednesday, for example, 100 aircraft took part in raids, compared with 40 on the first day of the campaign.

Senior military experts have pointed out that Allied policy was not working. The eminent military historian Professor Sir Michael Howard said the continued bombardment had put Mr bin Laden and the Taliban in a "win, win" situation. It was, he said, like "trying to eradicate cancer cells with a blow torch".

Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, Britain's chief of defence staff, and other senior military officers on both sides of the Atlantic have acknowledged the paucity of intelligence and how it is hampering operations.