Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 31, 2001
Anti-Taliban guerrillas bring in elite units
Anti-Taliban elite troops ready for fight 

At War With Terror

JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan - Anti-Taliban forces yesterday began moving elite attack units closer to frontline positions north of Kabul, setting the stage for a possible assault on the capital's heavily fortified defenses.

"We are now working on the mobilization of troops, but the exact timing of an attack is not clear," said Gen. Abdul Rahman, commander of several frontline units on the Shamali Plain 25 miles north of Kabul.

At least 500 attack troops, dressed in new camouflaged winter uniforms from Iran, were put on public display at military bases to the rear of the Kabul front line. Rahman said the troops would be held in reserve until the opposition United Front defense ministry ordered an attack.

Yesterday at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States now was regularly devoting half of its bombing effort to helping the United Front gear up for advances on the Taliban.

Rumsfeld also acknowledged yesterday that U.S. ground troops were in Afghanistan, "for liaison purposes."

Rahman said the defense ministry ordered the United Front's heightened preparedness 10 days ago. "We have been given an order to be ready to attack," he said. "That's why we called up these troops."

But there was little air of urgency that might suggest an attack is coming soon. Many of the elite troops called Zarbati, who were driven to the Shamali Plain from bases near the Tajikistan border, were focusing more on organizing winter accommodations at rear military bases than preparing their gear for an infantry assault.

Nor were new artillery or tanks being moved into position behind the front line, the type of deployment necessary to provide heavy bombardments that would presage an infantry attack.

But the presence of the Zarbati, better equipped and more disciplined than the ragtag local militiamen who defend the front line day to day, sends a signal that the United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance, is moving closer to taking the offensive four weeks after the U.S. military began its air assaults against the Taliban.

"These are well-trained troops, ready to fight," said Capt. Habib, who uses only one name. He is the leader of several hundred soldiers who were lined up in irregular ranks at a base outside Jabal Saraj that looked more like a junkyard of broken and rusted armor than a military installation. The troops carried assault rifles, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Since the American military assault began Oct. 7, Northern Alliance military commanders have taken no action on the Kabul front line other than occasional exchanges of cannon fire with the enemy that are more like Afghan greeting cards than fighting. Guerrilla officials say there has been more activity at fronts around cities such as Mazar-e Sharif and Taloqan, where Taliban defenses are less formidable.

Northern Alliance commanders have complained that the American aerial assaults have failed to inflict much damage on the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement that controls most of Afghanistan. Its forces are buttressed by Muslim militants from several countries in the region. The Taliban is shielding Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in last month's terrorist attacks in America.

"The American bombing was not effective at the front lines until two days ago," Rahman said. He said a barrage of bombing Saturday virtually wiped out an encampment of more than 100 "Arabs" loyal to bin Laden and damaged two tanks and two pickup trucks. His claims could not be verified.

Rahman, 30, echoed the sentiment of other commanders and urged the Americans to step up the bombing and to coordinate the attacks more closely with the Northern Alliance ground troops. "It will be more effective if they used huge planes, dropping 60, 70 bombs at a time," he said.

Not long after he expressed his desires, a thunderous series of explosions similar to a multiple bomb drop from a single B-52 sent up a towering gray cloud that appeared like a half-mile-high exclamation point on the Taliban side of the front. Other than that impressive display, there was no sustained bombing of positions north of Kabul by the occasional jets that roared overhead.

The Northern Alliance previously has made exaggerated claims about its conquests and imminent victories. Two weeks ago, a day after anti-Taliban commanders announced they were on the verge of capturing the key northern city Mazar-e Sharif, Taliban fighters easily repulsed their attacks when rival alliance commanders failed to coordinate their attacks.

Despite the brave assertions that their fighting force is well-motivated and equipped to take Kabul, opposition commanders acknowledge that overrunning the Taliban front lines would be a daunting task.

"People keep asking us, 'Why hasn't the Northern Alliance gone to Kabul?' " said Hoji Qadir, an ethnic Pashtun leader whose forces are scattered in eastern Afghanistan. "Capturing Kabul is not so easy."

The Taliban forces are believed to outnumber the Northern Alliance troops along the Kabul front line. They are thought to be burrowed into deep entrenchments and hidden among the thousands of mud-brick buildings and 10-foot walls that would turn the undulating fields and villages of the Shamali Plain into a labyrinth of deadly sniper positions.

Since the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 and President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government retreated into the ethnic Tajik stronghold of the Panjshir River valley, the battlefront has moved back and forth across the Shamali Plain like incoming and outgoing tides. The current position has been maintained for more than two years.

Both sides have buried thousands of mines around their entrenchments, and they have positioned dozens of Russian-built mobile rocket launchers, mortars and howitzers several miles behind the front. Both would inhibit any advance of troops.

During the daytime, the frontline guerrilla trenches are lightly defended by local militiamen, who wear an assortment of mismatched uniforms and civilian clothes. Working in 10-day shifts on the front, the soldiers are often armed with their own AK-47 assault rifles and have undergone little formal military training.

Though the equipment and earthworks resemble a World War I battlefield, the front lines rarely shift in fierce set-piece battles in which infantry and armor face off in a horrendous fusillade.

Instead, rival commanders sometimes capture opposing posts in rapid hit-and-run raids designed mostly to take weapons and ammunition, followed by quick retreats to avoid being overextended.

"It's kind of like an exercise for us," said Muhammed Gul, the commander of a unit of about 100 Zarbati troops.

In previous engagements dating back six years, anti-Taliban forces have often chosen to retreat and give up ground rather than engage the enemy in a debilitating battle. Clashes often turn on mass defections of entire units, with few shots fired.

Northern Alliance commanders say Taliban troops, motivated by the zeal of their religious leaders, are more likely to stand their ground until they die.

The current talk among opposition political leaders is not to capture Kabul straightaway, but to advance only to the Khair Khana in suburban Kabul, to put pressure on the combatants for a political solution.

Rahman said the Northern Alliance had been planning to attack the Taliban when their famed military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was assassinated on Sept. 9, two days before the terrorist attacks in the United States. Those events put plans to attack on hold.

"The plans were frustrated," said Rahman. "Now we're anxious to attack." home page   
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