Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 17, 2001
Taliban set to lose key city, opposition forces contend
At War With Terror

DALON SANG, Afghanistan - Forces opposed to the Taliban said yesterday that they were on the verge of capturing the key northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e Sharif in what could be the first significant power shift attributed to 10 days of relentless American bombing.

Yonus Qanooni, a high-ranking official in the Northern Alliance, said troops had encircled Mazar-e Sharif and yesterday captured its military airport.

"The American bombing has weakened the Taliban front lines, wiping out Taliban ammunition stores and undermining their morale," said Qanooni, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic States of Afghanistan, the exiled government that was ousted from Kabul in 1996 by the Taliban.

"Mazar-e Sharif will be taken in the next day or two, if it hasn't fallen already," said Gen. Mohammed Shari Tawasali, a Northern Alliance commander based in the town of Golbahar.

The claims could not be confirmed, and the Northern Alliance has a reputation for exaggeration.

If the alliance were to recapture Mazar-e Sharif, it would be a significant reversal of fortunes for the coalition of ethnic groups and political parties opposed to the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic movement accused of harboring terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden.

Before the United States began its bombing campaign to punish the Taliban and bin Laden for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, opposition forces had been steadily losing ground in recent years against Taliban forces bolstered by foreign troops, including Arabs under bin Laden's direction.

Mazar-e Sharif is the largest city in northern Afghanistan, the hub for supply routes across the north and a link to neighboring Uzbekistan, where U.S. troops are stationed during the military campaign against the Taliban.

The city was captured in 1998 by the Taliban, which murdered thousands of opposition figures and reportedly kidnapped 400 women as concubines for the foreign warriors who are the Taliban's shock troops. The Taliban's murder of 11 Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-e Sharif nearly led to war between Iran, an opponent of the Taliban, and Pakistan, the chief supporter, which had guaranteed the safety of the diplomats.

The Northern Alliance's recapture of the city, once a center for textile manufacturing and known as one of Afghanistan's most liberal cities because of the presence of Balkh University, would cut off land supply routes to the nearby cities of Taloqan, Kundoz and Baglan, all now under Taliban control.

"It's a strategic city," Qanooni said from his office in this village in the opposition-held Panjshir River valley about 50 miles north of the capital, Kabul. "It is connected to trade routes throughout the north. Its fall would undermine Taliban positions in other nearby provinces," said Qanooni, who is a close aide to the alliance's defense chief, Gen. Mohammed Fahim.

Although much of the world's attention and television cameras have been focused on Northern Alliance forces entrenched in a front line only 25 miles from Kabul, opposition leaders said they had been aiming forces on cities in the north. Those cities are considered more vulnerable to capture since the Taliban removed its crack defenders last week to shore up lines around their southern strongholds of Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul.

While U.S. air raids have avoided attacking frontline Taliban positions around Kabul, the American bombers have shown less restraint attacking Taliban positions around Mazar-e Sharif, Qanooni said.

Northern Alliance troops under commander Ato Mukhammad were a few miles northeast of Mazar-e Sharif and troops headed by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum were approaching from the northwest.

While troops reportedly fought around Mazar-e Sharif yesterday, the front lines around Kabul remained quiet despite the continued U.S. air campaign.

Refugees fleeing Kabul for areas under Northern Alliance control said that residents were becoming unnerved since American bombers began around-the-clock raids.

"Bombs are hitting the airport and airplanes," said Azor Gul, 32, a Kabul shopkeeper who walked over mountains with his family yesterday and boarded a battered green panel truck that was bristling with 17 passengers. "All the time, bombing. At night, in the morning, 24 hours. The children are crying all the time, so we're getting out."

Northern Alliance officials in the Panjshir Valley yesterday contradicted an Associated Press report from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, that the Northern Alliance planned to pull out of a plan devised by Afghanistan's former king to determine how to govern the country once the Taliban is ousted.

Qanooni, who negotiated the agreement with former monarch Mohammad Zahir Shah at his home in Rome, said the Northern Alliance was going ahead with naming its 60-member contingent to the 120-person "loya jirga" - a traditional council to choose a leader.

Qanooni said the alliance would not accept moderate former members of the Taliban on the council, which puts the opposition movement at odds with Pakistan, which announced yesterday that it would accept the traditional council as long as former Taliban members were included.

"The Taliban has not changed," Qanooni said. "We thought maybe they would, and people with democratic views would emerge, but there are none. There are no intellectuals in the Taliban." home page   
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