Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 6, 2001
Afghan rebels hint at coming offensive

At War With Terror

JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan - Anti-Taliban forces yesterday strutted their armed forces amid growing signs of a military offensive and indications that American forces had improved coordination with the guerrillas.

While the top command of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance looked on, its soldiers staged a mock attack on a dusty hillside here to demonstrate they are poised to move on the Afghan capital, 25 miles south of the front line.

"This is military preparation that shows our highest level of readiness," said Gen. Mohammed Fahim, the defense minister for the United Front, a coalition of ethnic and opposition groups also known as the Northern Alliance.

As if to underscore the growing presence of American advisers here who are helping airplanes find their targets, U.S. jets dropped three bombs on a distant Taliban encampment while the guerrilla forces were conducting their exercise.

Alliance commanders hinted that the military exercise, along with the increased activity of newly uniformed troops and refurbished armor, could presage an attack on the front lines that stretch across the Shamali Plain, an undulating farming region surrounded by snowcapped peaks north of Kabul.

But alliance commanders were vague about when an offensive would begin or whether the brunt of the force would be directed at the capital or one of the other cities held by the Taliban, the fundamentalist movement that controls most of Afghanistan. The Taliban front line outside Kabul is said to be the most fiercely defended in the country.

"Some places will be the main targets and we will attack others just to keep them busy," said Gen. Sayed Hussein Anwari, a representative of the minority Hazaras and a member of the Northern Alliance central command. "In a few days, you will see."

The commanders, who are prone to exaggeration, have made previous claims of offensives that failed to materialize - last month they said they were on the verge of capturing the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif before the Taliban surprised the uncoordinated offensive with a vigorous counterattack.

If the outnumbered guerrillas attack, the outcome will provide an indication how much the Taliban forces have been weakened after 30 days of American bombing, which began Oct. 7 to punish the rogue regime for sheltering terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden. In the last two weeks, the air strikes have been concentrated at Taliban frontline positions.

Northern Alliance officials acknowledge that an increasing number of American advisers have arrived in this area near Kabul to provide advice to the guerrillas and to help direct bombing raids in the Shamali Plain.

"There is better coordination with our defense ministry," Anwari said. "It has made the bombing more effective. We're starting to work out better arrangements with the Americans."

Five men who arrived Sunday on a twin-engine prop plane that landed on a new runway in the northeast corner of the Shamali Plain were also American advisers, alliance officials said.

Defense Department officials have said they are trying to insert more American troops into Afghanistan before the onset of winter. The additional troops are part of a widening U.S. military campaign to undermine the Taliban.

Thus far the guerrillas have shown little urgency to take advantage of the Taliban's weakened condition. Their front lines are still lightly defended by poorly trained local militias. Northern Alliance commanders have been spare in their praise for the U.S. bombing and more than willing to criticize the limited U.S. air strikes as insufficient to dislodge the Taliban's crack troops, made up mostly of non-Afghan Muslim extremists loyal to bin Laden.

But in the last week the alliance has called up thousands of what it calls elite attack troops - the Zarbati or "rapid" troops are more like regular soldiers than the militias.

Yesterday about 2,000 Zarbati wearing new Iranian uniforms stood in ranks before a reviewing stand assembled on a flatbed truck. The soldiers, many of whom were not armed, squinted as a stiff wind blew grit into their faces and whipped the outstretched Afghan flags of green, white and black bars.

Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani - ousted by the Taliban from Kabul in 1996 but still recognized by most of the world as Afghanistan's leader - told the troops that the rest of the world was only now recognizing their struggle against the Taliban and terrorism.

"They didn't listen to our voices," Rabbani said. "Now the world has recognized that we were right."

Rabbani told the troops they were on their own in a noble battle against the Taliban.

"If you cannot destroy terrorism, no power on earth can defeat it," he said. "You, and just you, can do it."

Amid shouts of "God is great," several dented Soviet-era tanks and armored personnel carriers belched black clouds of diesel exhaust and clattered toward a nearby hill to demonstrate a mock defense of the Shamali Plain from a Taliban attack.

The troops fired cannon and rockets at two positions marked with white painted rocks stacked in a pyramid to represent an enemy location. After 15 minutes of loud cannon fire and the crackle of rifle fire, most of the rocks were dislodged. home page   
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