By Bruce Pannier and Yakub Turan
Prague, 19 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The battle for the last large city in Afghanistan not held by the Taliban movement, Mazar-i-Sharif, spread northward September 17. The Taliban briefly held parts of Mazar-i-Sharif last week, but were forced back from the city by week's end.
Adopting a new strategy, the Taliban forces continue to attack Mazar-i-Sharif, but have are also now attempting to cut the supply line to that city by seizing the river town of Khairaton, on the opposite side of the Amu-Darya from the Uzbek city of Termez.
The Taliban began their advance on Mazar-i-Sharif September 9, and quickly took control of the airport outside the city and then moved into Mazar-i-Sharif itself. The military commander of Mazar-i-Sharif, Abdul Malik, was forced to flee, but victory was denied the Taliban when General Abdul Rashid Dostum unexpectedly returned from Turkey. Dostum was forced out by Malik in a mutiny in late May, which also brought the Taliban into the city briefly. Invited to come to Mazar-i-Sharif by Abdul Malik, the tables were soon turned, and Malik's forces attacked the Taliban, killing hundreds and capturing as many as 3,000 Taliban fighters and diplomats.
The September attack on Mazar-i-Sharif by Taliban forces appeared to be failing, after Dostum's return, with reports saying the Taliban were gradually falling back from the city. September 18, reports from Russia's ITAR-TASS claimed the Afghan town of Khairaton, 60 kilometers north of Mazar-i-Sharif, had fallen to Taliban forces. Radio Liberty sources in Uzbekistan reported that Dostum and the man who forced him from Afghanistan four months ago, Abdul Malik, reached a quick reconciliation and combined to drive the Taliban from Khairaton. However, the Taliban were not entirely driven from the town and are still in possession of parts of it.
Khairaton is situated on the road to Mazar-i-Sharif. Cutting off anti-Taliban forces in Mazar-i-Sharif from Khairaton effectively limits efforts to combat Taliban forces further south. Also, Khairaton has a weapons depot for the anti-Taliban coalition, and it is unclear who controls that part of Khairaton.
In the course of fighting in the border city, ten rockets have landed in Uzbekistan in the city of Termez. Reports say several people were wounded. Uzbekistan, though strengthening its border positions has not responded militarily to the provocation.
Fighting continues in Mazar-i-Sharif to such an extent that the United Nations cannot currently send planes from Pakistan to evacuate its personnel in northern Afghanistan. Though Dostum and Malik's locations are not known they appear to have enlisted the aid of another member of the anti-Taliban coalition, Ahmed Shah Masoud. Masoud's intervention may keep the north from falling into Taliban hands soon, but his redirection of forces will give Taliban forces in Kabul a respite from the siege Masoud's forces were laying on the capital.