Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 11, 2001
Taliban's foes say U.S. action falls short
At War With Terror

BAGRAM, Afghanistan - Col. Mohammed Zahir commands the defenses around a battered military air base on the front line against Afghanistan's Taliban, just 35 miles from the capital, Kabul. In a conventional war, the air base would be a crucial asset. But in America's unconventional war on terrorism, Zahir is nowhere.

On recent nights, Zahir watched with interest and envy as allied air strikes on Kabul lit the sky beyond the ragged ridge-line to the south. That's nice, Zahir thought. But when will the American bombers hit the hordes of Taliban troops positioned less than a mile from Bagram air base?

"We are very disappointed with American actions so far," said Zahir, 36. "We want the terrorists and the Taliban to be smoked out from Afghanistan."

Like many officers in the opposition Northern Alliance, Zahir anticipated a tremendous lift from the American air campaign against the militant Islamic Taliban government that harbors terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden. Zahir thought the attacks would weaken the Taliban to the point of collapse, allowing opposition forces to waltz into the capital.

"We are ready to launch an attack," he said. "We're just waiting for orders from the government."

But from this outpost that once was less than an hour's drive from the capital, the American attacks have been cautiously selective, aimed at some Taliban installations and sites linked to bin Laden, but not in direct support of the Northern Alliance troops entrenched around Kabul's northern perimeter.

"America has destroyed some Taliban military bases but has not destroyed all the important ones," said Gen. Baba Jan, Zahir's superior. "We're still waiting."

Rather than fleeing in panic, the Taliban appears to have reinforced its lines guarding the Shamali plains north of Kabul. The regime, which controls most of the country but has received little international recognition since taking power in 1996, still holds the high ground overlooking Bagram air base. With the front line running literally down the middle of the two-mile-long runway, no planes have landed here in more than two years.

"The Taliban won't release these places easily," Jan said. And the Northern Alliance does not appear to be in a hurry to force the issue, judging from the absence of troop movements toward the front.

The front line through Bagram air base has remained stationary for more than a year, but it had moved across the plains here in the past like an incoming and outgoing tide, leveling buildings and destroying vehicles and armor, which lie twisted and destroyed along the roads.

The route to the base's main entrance passes too close for comfort to Taliban territory, so the facility now is reached by back roads and narrow lanes lined by autumnal, yellow-leaved trees. The anxiety level does not appear to be heightened even a few miles from the front, where farmers haul great bundles of wheat heaped on donkeys, while carriages pulled by horses decorated with brightly colored pom-poms serve as taxis.

The air base is not so cheerful. An elaborate facility built by the Soviets during the 1980s communist era in Afghanistan, Bagram now lies in utter ruin. Hangars are covered with warped latticework devoid of roofing material. The administration building has been pocked by machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenade rounds. The water tower has a shrub growing out of it.

In the ruins of the control tower, the glass is gone and a mounted antiaircraft gun points toward the Taliban lines. As Zahir pointed out the Taliban positions, mortar rounds thumped in the distance and two incoming rounds landed several hundred yards from the tower.

"They tried to hit the tower, but they're not very good shots," said Zahir, suggesting his guests seek a less conspicuous place to chat.

The air base has changed hands several times since the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 and forced the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani to flee north, though it kept its grip on the Panjshir River Valley, the stronghold of the ethnic Tajik military commanders. The air base sits where the Panjshir Valley broadens out into the plains above Kabul, so its control is crucial to control of the valley. Zahir said the U.S. air campaign alone was insufficient to knock out the Taliban.

"Just bombing and shooting missiles is not enough," he said. He and other commanders in the fractious Northern Alliance suggest American support should be more overt.

"We would like the United States to lend logistical and air support," he said. "They should support the Northern Alliance, and the Northern Alliance will attack the places the Americans want attacked."

The absence of American attacks here contrasts with reports that U.S. bombs and missiles have been directed at Mazar-e Sharif, a critical city near the Uzbekistan frontier. Northern Alliance forces are said to be advancing on the city, which they lost three years ago to a relentless Taliban advance. There are reports here that the Northern Alliance has severed a key supply route to the northern outposts of the Taliban.

In recent weeks, Northern Alliance officials have boasted about marching immediately on Kabul, but they are now sounding more cautious about such a plan. It makes more sense to liberate the northern cities first and establish clear supply lines from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which sympathize with the opposition because they fear fundamentalist Islamic movements in their own countries.

As it is now, the Northern Alliance must ship nearly all its goods into the Panjshir Valley by a perilous dirt road that requires five days to traverse the Hindu Kush mountains at 15,000 feet and is impassable during much of the winter. Improved supply lines would allow the alliance to move more materiel directly into the Panjshir Valley year around.

Still, that does not mean the troops stationed at Bagram air base will not see any action.

On Sunday, the first night of the U.S. air strikes, Northern Alliance commanders fired rockets at Taliban positions they believed were being reinforced. Zahir said 60 Taliban troops were killed, though that could not be verified and Afghan claims are routinely exaggerated.

Zahir said he has 3,000 troops stationed along the Kabul front, while the Taliban has nearly three times that. For now, it does not appear the Northern Alliance fighters are poised to make a run immediately for Kabul. home page   
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