Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 23, 2001
Taliban hit in limited U.S. front-line attacks
A Northern Alliance commander was pleased with the apparent shift in focus but said that more would be needed. 

At War With Terror

BAGRAM, Afghanistan - American bombers yesterday struck positions along a front 25 miles north of Kabul, but the limited attacks did not appear to embolden rebel forces to begin a long-expected assault on the Afghan capital.

U.S. warplanes dropped six bombs on positions held by the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic movement that controls most of Afghanistan and that has become the target of U.S. military actions since Oct. 7 for hosting accused terrorist Osama bin Laden. No damage assessments were available.

Gen. Baba Jan, the commander of Northern Alliance opposition forces at an abandoned military airport here, said he was encouraged that the air strikes represented a shift of U.S. strategy to hit the heavily fortified Taliban positions protecting the capital. But he said more would be needed to weaken the Taliban front line.

"There would have to be several attacks," he told reporters at the airport. "A single raid is not going to have much impact."

Yesterday afternoon's attacks came a day after high-flying jets dropped five bombs on a village that Baba Jan said was occupied by reserve Arab forces loyal to bin Laden. The village, Yuzbashi, is about three miles southeast of the front line, which runs through the air base built during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He said rebels were awaiting intelligence reports to make a damage assessment.

Although a low-flying U.S. jet was seen Wednesday dropping two bombs on a suspected Taliban position about four miles south of the front line, the strikes over the last two days appeared to signify a growing American willingness to hit the Taliban front line north of Kabul. The attacks coincided with predictions from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that the opposition Northern Alliance forces would "start moving on Kabul more aggressively."

Although alliance soldiers around the airport yesterday fired sporadic artillery and rocket rounds into Taliban positions, sending up clouds of smoke and dust, there was no evidence of the sort of troop movements associated with a major offensive. Baba Jan said the Northern Alliance, or United Front, troops had held their position for six years and would act on their own schedule, not one hastily imposed by the United States.

"When the U.S. and allied forces attack, that's their decision," said the general, who said he had received no advanced warning about the air strikes.

Until the bombs fell, the front line was considered so safe from attack that the Taliban was sending its Kabul troops at night to positions near the trenches apparently because it was safer than the capital.

Baba Jan has expressed disappointment that the United States apparently heeded calls from its ally Pakistan that it avoid hitting the Kabul front line - and thus forestall any attempt by anti-Pakistani ethnic minorities to take over the capital. The Tajik and Uzbek minorities who make up the bulk of the Northern Alliance forces blame Pakistan for sponsoring the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

Baba Jan said yesterday that the rebel forces would hit Kabul when they were ready, and dismissed assertions that the capital would have to fall before the onset of winter and the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which begins Nov. 17.

"It's not going to make any difference if the attacks are scheduled before, during or after Ramadan," Baba Jan said.

He said no new forces had been called up to help the outnumbered alliance troops launch an attack across the Shamali Plain, a broad expanse of fertile farmland that is bisected by the front line. The Taliban fighters have been unable to dislodge the alliance forces from the Panjshir Valley stronghold since the religious fundamentalists marched into Kabul in 1996 and imposed their rigid form of Islam on the capital.

Bagram Airport is considered a key prize of the campaign to control the Shamali Plain because it would allow whoever controlled it to fly in large cargo planes required to resupply this isolated valley. But the Shamali Plain is surrounded by a ring of high, jagged granite mountains and any occupation force also would have to control the highlands in order to allow secure landings and takeoffs from the plains below.

The air strikes Sunday afternoon represented the first time that jets screamed in from the north of Kabul over alliance-held territory, stopping people dead in their tracks in the bazaar of Jabal Saraj as they craned their necks to spot a few planes streaking through the clouds across the sky.

Sunday night, a succession of jets again flew over the front lines from the north, but the aircraft appeared to circle at a high altitude and then return north without dropping any bombs, Baba Jan said.

Late yesterday afternoon, witnesses at Bagram Airport said, two U.S. jets dropped six bombs, sending up towers of black smoke. Five fell on Taliban front-line positions north of Kabul, while another fell on the Northern Alliance side. There was no word on casualties.

Alliance soldiers, who complain their struggle has been ignored for years until the United States suffered the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said they were unimpressed with the air assaults.

"It will take more than five bombs to get the Taliban out of here," said Mashuq, a soldier who stood in the airport's control tower, where he walked around in full view of the Taliban, fortified by faith that God would protect him. "This is one of the most well-fortified Taliban front lines in Afghanistan, and it won't fall easily."

He said the U.S. bombing raids did improve the spirits of the soldiers. "It makes us feel better," he said. "But we'd feel better still if they bombed more and more." home page   
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