American soldiers are at a base inside Afghanistan co-ordinating attacks with the Northern Alliance. And while the United States unleashed its most savage bombardment yet of Taliban positions in the north, Northern Alliance leaders said an offensive to capture the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif would begin within days.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said last night in the clearest acknowledgement so far of the presence of troops inside Afghanistan that a "modest number" of troops were there. Mohammed Ashraf Nadeem, a Northern Alliance spokesman, said 15 to 20 uniformed American soldiers had been co-ordinating attacks at a base in the Alliance- controlled village of Dar-e Suf, near Mazar-i-Sharif, since the air attacks began.
Northern Alliance fighters watched on horseback as planes swept over the front line yesterday, pounding the Taliban positions with bombs. They flew over the fortress of Ay Khanoum, built by Alexander the Great, while Northern Alliance fighters struggled to carry ammunition through the rapids of the Kokcha river.
The strikes were visible to the cheering Northern Alliance fighters, who watched the bombs fall on the hills and send up flames and towers of black smoke when they hit.
The Northern Alliance complained that the Americans were not bombing the Taliban enough to allow its fighters to attack on the ground. There were no complaints yesterday. Within 45 minutes, the planes made 13 strikes.
An Alliance commander said that under the flames and smoke were Taliban guard posts and garrisons full of men, tanks and artillery. Many must have died in the onslaught.
Attacks like this were launched across northern Afghanistan for the third consecutive day. The Northern Alliance said there were bombing raids near Mazar.
Suddenly, the focus of the US campaign has shifted sharply to the north, where the prize of Mazar would give the Americans an air base in the wild mountains of Afghanistan and a paved road in via Uzbekistan. To get their hands on Mazar, the Americans seem to be relying on the help of the Northern Alliance, which has loosely allied groups fighting across the north, including around Mazar.
Both America and the Alliance said yesterday that co-operation between them was improving. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a Northern Alliance spokesman, said a major offensive to capture Mazar would begin in the next few days. That could include a three-pronged attack on the front lines here to link up with the forces further west attacking Mazar, who are surrounded by Taliban.
While the Americans fear that helping the Alliance to capture the capital, Kabul, could split the country ethnically, Mazar and the north are the Alliance's homelands. Speculation is also growing that American ground forces could be involved in an offensive on Mazar. About 1,000 troops from the American army's 10th mountain division are in Uzbekistan, and Mazar is not far from the Uzbek border.
The Northern Alliance is not a simple homogeneous unit, but a loose alliance of different groups whose allegiance is to their respective warlords, and America is clearly nervous over whom it chooses to make alliances with in Afghanistan, a country where wars are won and lost by the changing loyalties of local warlords.
The key to capturing Mazar is its local warlord, General Rashid Dostum, who has changed sides more than anyone else in Afghanistan.Reuse content