Fighting raged around Mazar-i-Sharif when the Afghan opposition advanced on the strategic northern city for the first time, aided by American bombers pounding Taliban frontline positions.
If the city falls, then the Taliban position to the north of the country, where they have never been popular, might begin to unravel.
In the past two days, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord notorious for his frequent changes of side, has advanced to within striking distance of Mazar-i-Sharif. He said fighting was still going on yesterday after his forces launched an attack on Monday. "Fighting has been fierce," he said.
The Northern Alliance, the opposition umbrella organisation to which General Dostum belongs, insisted it was inflicting heavy losses. According to General Dostum: "They [the Taliban] left many bodies on the battlefield."
The most important change over the past week in the battle for Mazar is that for the first time the US Air Force is giving the Northern Alliance close support. There are eight American officers with General Dostum gathering information on targets. This is a new policy. A week ago the bombers seemed to be avoiding hitting the Taliban front line, particularly in the area 30 miles north of Kabul, in deference to Pakistan's demand that the Northern Alliance not be allowed to capture the capital. Now Washington seems to have concluded that only the Northern Alliance, if supported by American bombers, has the ground troops capable of inflicting severe defeat on the Taliban.
One of the first results of the change in tactics is that the war has got nastier. The front line north of Kabul is full of people living in mud-brick villages and farming some of the most fertile land in the country. Yesterday two rockets, fired from a Taliban-held mountain called Ghorband, slammed into the crowded bazaar in Charikar, a dishevelled market town, still showing signs of damage from the last time the Taliban took it and were driven out. The shrapnel from the explosions killed two people, one an elderly vegetable seller, who was tossed into the air by the blast.
The struggle for northern Afghanistan is now under way. It is a critical test for the Northern Alliance, which has seen an extraordinary reversal in fortunes in the past six weeks. Until 11 September, it seemed to be an expiring organisation. The only common denominator linking its members – some, such as General Dostum, with deeply unsavoury reputations – was that they had been beaten by the Taliban. Each year the Northern Alliance had lost ground and was increasingly penned into its strongholds in the north.
Then, within the space of two days, the Northern Alliance suffered an appalling disaster, closely followed by its greatest opportunity. Its chief military leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, the most skilled and experienced of Afghan generals, was assassinated on 9 September. This might have been its death knell. But two days later, after the attacks in America, the Northern Alliance suddenly found itself potentially allied to the greatest powers on earth.
It has had difficulty rising to the occasion. Simply concentrating Northern Alliance military forces is a nightmare. The bone-jarring quality of Afghanistan's dirt roads has to be seen and felt to be believed. That makes moving soldiers very difficult. Most of the 4,000 troops in and around the town of Jabal Saraj are village militia, but recently 1,000 uniformed and well-trained special assault soldiers arrived.
The supply problems facing the Northern Alliance commanders are horrific. General Dostum is attacking Mazar from his mountain stronghold to the south of the city, which is isolated from the rest of the opposition territory. It can be reached only by helicopter. But – and this is a big change from a month ago – the position of the Taliban is now almost as bad. They are nearly isolated north of the soaring Hindu Kush mountains, which rise to 15,000 feet and, in effect, cut Afghanistan in two.
The only good metalled road from Kabul to Mazar passes through Jabal Saraj and then goes along the beautiful Salang valley where the late autumn weather has turned the trees a golden yellow. The road climbs the mountains and then abruptly ends in a tangle of smashed concrete where Ahmad Shah Masood blew up the tunnel through the Hindu Kush three years ago. It has now filled with water and would take months to reopen.
The Taliban had two other poor-quality roads to the north. But one of these has been closed since the soldiers commanding it defected to the Northern Alliance. Only one route, far to the west, remains to them. Most importantly, they are unable any longer to move their troops by air because of the American-led offensive.
Nevertheless the Taliban must fight hard for Mazar because their political position in north Afghanistan has always been weak. The Taliban come overwhelmingly from the Pashtun, who make up 38 per cent of the Afghan population. But in the north of the country it is the minorities who are in the majority. All have been persecuted by the Taliban and may now seek revenge.
Among the Taliban's enemies are the Hazara, a Shia Muslim minority of Mongolian origin. In the mountains of the north-east are the Tajiks, always hostile to the Taliban, and in the west the Uzbeks, strong in Mazar and the majority in the country near by.
With the cards so stacked against the Taliban, the opposition should win in the north. Indeed if they do not win now, when they are supported by American air power, observers cannot see how they would ever do so. Yet being entirely confident is difficult, because changes in the fortunes of war in Afghanistan have in the past been the result of betrayals rather than victory on the battlefield.
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