The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 11, 2001
foes say U.S. action falls short
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.
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?
are very disappointed with American actions so far," said Zahir, 36.
"We want the terrorists and the Taliban to be smoked out from
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.
are ready to launch an attack," he said. "We're just waiting for
orders from the government."
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
has destroyed some Taliban military bases but has not destroyed all the
important ones," said Gen. Baba Jan, Zahir's superior. "We're
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
tried to hit the tower, but they're not very good shots," said Zahir,
suggesting his guests seek a less conspicuous place to chat.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
that does not mean the troops stationed at Bagram air base will not see
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.
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.