Afghan opposition forces are unlikely to capture the country's second city, Mazar-I-Sharif, without American help, according to a senior opposition battle commander.
General Basir Khan Salangy, whose forces control part of the road linking Mazar-I-Sharif and Kabul, the Afghan capital, said yesterday: "Without the Americans it is impossible for us to take even Mazar-I-Sharif airport.'' He explained that the opposition forces were still demoralised by the death of Ahmed Shah Masood, their charismatic military leader, assassinated by two suicide bombers on 9 September.
The leaders of the opposition Northern Alliance would dearly like to win a military victory which would improve their credibility inside and outside Afghanistan.
Their best chance was an offensive launched more than a week ago by General Abdul Rashid Dostum from opposition strongholds in the mountains to the south of Mazar-I-Sharif, which the Taliban captured after bloody fighting in 1997.
General Salangy, in an interview with The Independent at his headquarters in Salang village, at first expressed confidence in the chances of General Dostum, with whom he is in radio contact, advancing against the Taliban. He drew a careful map on a sheet of paper with arrows showing General Dostum's line of attack against Mazar-I-Sharif, but finally shook his head and said he was doubtful if the general could take the city without US intervention. Although he did not specify the form of intervention, General Salangy probably meant tactical air support. "If America attacks it will be easy to occupy," he said.
Troops commanded by General Salangy control the beautiful Salang Valley, the leaves of its trees turning yellow in the cool autumn air. The road from Kabul climbs up the valley, which is more like a canyon, until it reaches the tunnels through the Hindu Kush mountains whose peaks soar on either side of the road to about 5,000 metres (16,000ft).
On the other side of the mountains the Taliban are in control and the tunnels have been blown up. The road ends where explosives tore it apart three years ago, on the orders of General Masood, to trap advancing Taliban troops. Twisted steel reinforcement bars stick out of chunks of mangled concrete. Inside the mountain the tunnel has largely filled with water.
This was once one of the most vital roads in Afghanistan because it linked Kabul with the cities of the north. Soviet forces used it as a supply route. There are reminders of past battles in the shape of wrecked tanks beside the road, or half-submerged in the river below.
It is still a dangerous route. There are frequent avalanches. All the bigger bridges have been blown up. There are primitive bypasses using ancient Russian military bridging equipment. Parts of the road have fallen into the river.
At one point we saw a distinctive white-painted vehicle belonging to the Italian medical charity Emergency lying crumpled at the bottom of a cliff.
We stopped and asked a villager what had happened. The night before, he said, a driver had swerved to avoid a rock that had fallen on to the road and had gone over the cliff, but had miraculously survived with only minor injuries.
The closure of the road has brought economic ruin to the people of the valley. In Salang village, a nurse called Mohammed Farid, working at a first-aid post set up by Emergency (the crashed vehicle had just come from there) confirmed the acute poverty of the people in the valley. Though picturesque its fields are small. Its people used to depend on providing for travellers. Since the tunnels were blown up almost all are unemployed.
"In every family one member has gone abroad to find work," usually in Iran,'' said Mr Farid. "Now all the people here are hopeful because if the Americans attack and peace comes they believe they will find jobs."
Understandably, people in the Salang valley believe almost any change in their lives will be for the better. Mohammed Yassin, a shopkeeper ruined by the closure of the road, said with a smile: "I believe there will be a 100 per cent change in Afghanistan because of the [attacks] in America."
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