Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 2, 2001
Afghan rebels see few signs of help
U.S. aid now can turn the tide, one leader says. Foes of Taliban see no sign yet of U.S. support .

At War With Terror

NEAR TALOQAN, Afghanistan - A few lazy shells looped over the front line yesterday, landing in a cloud of dust on a distant hill where Taliban warriors were posted.

"Would you like us to shoot some more for you?" asked Col. Nazir Mohammed, eager to show off his anti-Taliban forces dug in along this critical front line in northern Afghanistan.

In a few days, Mohammed hopes to launch an attack on Taliban territory in concert with an expected American retaliation against the religious militants who have controlled much of Afghanistan for five years and are harboring terrorist Osama bin Laden.

But Mohammed has heard nothing from his superiors or the Americans, who he thinks should send immediate military aid to the Northern Alliance forces to help fight their mutual enemy, the Taliban.

"The Americans can help us with the Taliban's air force and attack their air bases," said Mohammed, 35, who has been a soldier for 18 years and knows Afghanistan's terrain intimately. "It's not important that they send in ground troops."

The U.S. government has offered unspecified support to the coalition of ethnic and political groups that is led partly by elements of Afghanistan's former government.

In Washington, the Bush administration said yesterday that it is making a concerted new effort to strengthen forces opposed to the Taliban rulers.

"There are any number of people in Afghanistan, tribes in the south, the Northern Alliance in the north, that oppose the Taliban," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. "And clearly we need to recognize the value they bring to this antiterrorist, anti-Taliban effort - and where appropriate, find ways to assist them."

So far, though, nothing has materialized here.

"The movement, while it has made contact with American diplomats, has received no specific promises of support," Burnahuddin Rabbani, the alliance president, said in a news conference Sunday at the movement's capital in Feyzabad.

Northern Alliance officials are puzzled about why the United States and the rest of the world have failed to support the anti-Taliban movement. "We've been telling them for years the Taliban is sponsoring terrorism," Mohammed said.

Analysts say the West has shied from sending supplies because the Northern Alliance has seemed like such a long shot to regain power: The alliance is so disorganized that squabbles between several ethnic leaders allowed the Taliban to take control of most of the country. The Northern Alliance commanders also have been accused of allowing exports of opium from Afghanistan.

Though President Rabbani is still recognized by the United Nations as Afghanistan's head of state - only Pakistan still recognizes the Taliban - Rabbani controls only a small sliver of northern Afghanistan. His government and military are run on a shoestring.

One look at the forces arrayed in unfortified trenches on the barren high desert outside the regional capital of Taloqan demonstrates why the Northern Alliance does not appear poised to assume power should the Taliban falter.

Weakly armed with a few aging Russian weapons and tanks left behind when Soviet forces left in 1989, the ranks of the Northern Alliance are filled with proud soldiers who once helped bring a superpower to its knees. But they are housed in mud-brick barracks and lack transportation - the soldiers are forced to hitch rides from the few vehicles that venture down the dusty dirt roads.

The region hardly appears to be on high alert, though the alliance repelled several expeditionary attacks in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Cattle graze lazily a few miles behind the lines, and children play in the irrigation channels that supply rice fields.

Mohammed has two tanks, three howitzers and two mobile rocket launchers at his command, but hardly any air support. The Northern Alliance is said to have only eight helicopters.

"We have maybe 40,000 fighters in the province, but the resources only to put a few thousand on the front line because we can't support them," Mohammed said. Neutral observers estimate the number of fighters in the region at only 15,000.

Mohammed's personal history mirrors the misfortunes of the Northern Alliance.

In 1996, his left arm was permanently disabled by gunfire when Taliban forces took Kabul, the capital. The arm now hangs useless at his side. Last year, Mohammed was shot in the right arm the day before his troops were forced to retreat at the end of a two-month Taliban assault on Taloqan. The bone was set badly, and now his right forearm is bent at an odd angle.

Mohammed is upset that the Taliban forces receive military and logistical support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya while the Northern Alliance receives little support from its allies, Russia, India and Iran.

"I heard on the radio that they promised new equipment, but I haven't seen any of it," said Mohammed, a reserved man with two wives and 15 children.

Mohammed acknowledges the alliance had its internal fights in the past, but he says all the commanders are now unified.

"Now all of us are together and we hope we can fight stronger against the Taliban," Mohammed said as he squatted in the lightly manned trenches.

Mohammed believes the alliance troops would fare better if the United States forced other countries to halt clandestine support. "If they don't support us, at least they should force Pakistan to stop assisting the Taliban."

Better yet, he said, the Americans should let fly with the bombs. Afterwards, he said, Afghans could reach peace talking among themselves, unpressured by neighboring countries seeking to exert their influence in a land that has known only war for 23 years. home page   
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