Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 24, 2001
Foe of Taliban tells of U.S. military visit

At War With Terror

Younus Qanooni

DALAN SANG, Afghanistan - A secret American military delegation met with anti-Taliban leaders along the front lines here just before U.S. warplanes began bombing Taliban troop positions, a top opposition official said yesterday.

The team of 12 American military advisers flew into the heart of Afghanistan and promised greater support to leaders of the guerrillas fighting the country's hard-line Islamic rulers, the official said.

Yonus Qanooni, the acting interior minister for Afghanistan's government-in-exile and a member of its 11-man central committee, said the U.S. military delegation met with opposition Northern Alliance leaders in the Panjshir Valley last week and surveyed the region by helicopter.

The Americans also visited Khoja Bahauddin, a guerrilla military base near the border of Tajikistan.

"They came to learn about the situation in Afghanistan," said Qanooni, who described the visitors as nonuniformed representatives of the American military who flew in from Tajikistan and were in Afghanistan for less than three days. "They made a promise to support us, but they weren't specific."

He did not identify the Americans or their specific military affiliations.

Qanooni also acknowledged that alliance forces assaulting the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif had underestimated the Taliban forces there and had been forced back.

On Sunday, American jets began bombing frontline Taliban positions, seemingly in response to complaints from guerrilla leaders that most American bombs since the military campaign started Oct. 7 had failed to inflict serious damage on the Taliban because they were aimed at fixed military installations rather than concentrations of troops.

Qanooni said he had no doubt that the shift in U.S. strategy - along with public statements by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in recent days that more explicitly support the Northern Alliance - came as a result of the meetings.

The meetings and the change in strategy signal a closer cooperation between the Americans and the Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic and political groups opposed to the Taliban. U.S. officials had been reluctant to fully embrace the opposition in deference to Pakistan, which regards the alliance as dominated by northern ethnic minorities hostile to its interests.

"The U.S. attacks are more efficient than before," Qanooni said. "Most of the important Taliban people are on the front lines."

While encouraged by the new strategy of striking the Taliban's front, Qanooni said the strikes were "not enough."

The aerial assaults of frontline positions continued for a third day yesterday as U.S. jets roared overhead, dropping their payloads a few miles behind the line that extends for 20 miles across the broad Shamali Plain, a farming region about 25 miles north of the capital, Kabul.

Taliban and guerrilla forces exchanged sporadic rocket, mortar and rifle fire along the front. At least one rocket, apparently fired by the Taliban, slammed into the bazaar in the town of Charikar, five miles behind the front lines, killing two people and injuring 18.

Qanooni said the Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front, had made its first military priority the capture of Mazar-e Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan. The city occupies a key position on supply routes from Uzbekistan, where American troops are stationed. Its capture would allow the alliance to also recapture much of the area of its strongest support, which fell into Taliban hands in the last three years.

"We are not in a hurry to go to Kabul or attack Kabul," Qanooni said. He said the alliance wanted to solidify arrangements for a post-Taliban government before entering the capital, including incorporating more ethnic Pashtuns into its leadership. Pashtuns are the country's largest ethnic group and make up much of the leadership of the Taliban.

But Qanooni said the alliance did not rule out an attack if the fortified Taliban front line north of Kabul collapsed.

The opposition leader, who was interior minister for four years before the Taliban ousted the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani from power, acknowledged that overconfident anti-Taliban rebels had failed to coordinate their forces around Mazar-e Sharif last week and had lost the initiative.

Four separate rebel forces had encircled Mazar-e Sharif last week, and opposition leaders announced its imminent capture. But only one of the armed groups under the direction of Ato Mohammed attacked while the three other forces held back and assumed the Taliban forces, weakened by U.S. bombing, would collapse without much of a fight.

But the Taliban forces counteracted vigorously and forced the guerrillas to retreat.

"Our forces weren't serious about capturing Mazar," said Qanooni, a close lieutenant to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary mujaheddin military leader who was assassinated Sept. 9. "They didn't think the Taliban would counterattack."

The frank admission raises questions about the ability of opposition forces to coordinate an attack. The alliance forces, organized under various local and regional military leaders, have spent as much of their history fighting among themselves as they have fighting a common enemy. home page   
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