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Afghanistan: Both Sides Well-Prepared For Taliban Summer Offensive

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia has launched its much-anticipated summer offensive aimed at defeating the opposition northern alliance and extending its rule over the entire country. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, this summer's fighting is likely to be fierce, yet far from conclusive.

Prague, 29 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Taliban yesterday launched a summer offensive in Afghanistan likely to bring the country some of the heaviest fighting in years thanks to the unprecedented level of preparation by both the Islamic militia and opposition forces.

The annual campaign began with the Taliban opening assaults on four fronts on the southern flank of the Panjsher Valley area held by the opposition Northern Alliance. The fighting, which is already reported to be fierce, is key to the Taliban's dream of extending their control over the remaining 10 percent of northeastern Afghanistan that has so far eluded them.

Tony Davis is a correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly of London who regularly covers the Afghan conflict from Bangkok. In a telephone interview today, he told RFE/RL that both sides are well prepared for the annual resumption of fighting. Davis said that means their struggle is going to be fierce, but not likely to be decisive.

Davis notes that Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood has some 12,000 to 15,000 fighters both north and south of the Hindu Kush, a mountainous barrier which separates his stronghold Panjsher Valley from Kabul. He says the Taliban is able to field some 50,000 to 60,000 men nationwide, but can only commit a part of those forces against Masood because it must use the rest to maintain control elsewhere in Afghanistan.

That, Davis argues, means that the Taliban cannot rely on overwhelming numbers for victory and that any outcome will depend on logistical preparations. He says both sides have recognized this by stocking unprecedented levels of ammunition as well as refurbishing their heavy weapons. Davis adds:

"The key element on both sides this summer is the level of preparation that both sides have put into what is now taking place and what will take place over the coming weeks...What I found quite striking, I was in Masood's areas three weeks ago, is a lot of weaponry has been upgraded, he was clearly expecting this offensive and has had a long time to prepare for it and...of course the same thing has been happening on the Taliban side, more particularly given that they are the ones on the offensive."

Davis also says that both sides have refurbished tanks and heavy vehicles, including those which earlier were not operational, and have obtained large amounts of artillery and tank ammunition from sympathetic neighboring countries. He believes that Masood no longer has any combat airplanes but does have a force of heavily armed helicopters. The Taliban has boosted its air force by repairing previously non-operational fighter jets and can now field up to some 25 fighters and bombers, including converted jet training aircraft. That is twice the number the Taliban put in the air during last year's offensive.

The level of ammunition being obtained by both sides recently prompted the United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, to condemn what he called the "pouring" of arms into the conflict by neighboring countries. Analysts say that most of the Taliban's support has come from Pakistan. Iran has actively backed the opposition led by Afghanistan's former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was toppled by the Taliban in 1996. Russia is reported to be aiding Masood by coaxing authorities in Dushanbe to give logistical support to the opposition, whose territory borders Tajikistan.

Davis says that the Taliban hopes during the current campaign to push Masood's forces at least far enough back from Kabul to keep them from rocketing the capital. Depending on that progress, the Taliban may also seek to move into areas around the Tajikistan border to cut off his supply routes. Davis explains:

"I think their objective, certainly in the coming few weeks, would be...clearing the Shomali plain which lies in-between Kabul and Masood's stronghold in the Panjsher Valley, on the one hand, and possibly, depending on how they succeed in that first objective, possibly moving into areas along the Tajikistan border in the far north, which Masood also controls. If they can do that...which would be no mean feat...than [Masood] would effectively be pushed back into the high mountains of the Hindu Kush."

The offensive comes on the heels of two major Taliban strategic successes against opposition forces in northern Afghanistan last year. In August, the militia captured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the stronghold of ethnic Uzbek opposition leaders. A month later, it captured Bamian, the north-central stronghold of the Afghan Shiite Hazaras. The militia continues to hold Bamian despite briefly losing it in a counteroffensive this spring.

But Davis says that those considerable Taliban victories have not completely freed the militia now to deal with Masood's forces. He says that guerrilla fighting continues in north-central and even into northwestern Afghanistan in Taliban-captured areas and on occasion swells to the level of major combat:

"Broadly speaking, across north and north-central Afghanistan, the opposition is broadly in guerrilla mode, not conventional, it's not as if Masood is entirely on his own. But what one can say is that where he stands now, in the northeast, is effectively the last remaining bastion of opposition power into which the Taliban have been unable to make inroads. It's not a guerrilla operation that Masood is mounting against them there, it's very much fixed lines, conventional warfare."

Davis says the fact that both sides were clearly preparing for this summer's test of strength in the run up to the talks they held ten days ago in Tashkent shows that no progress is likely to be made for the foreseeable future. He says that even as both sides make periodic goodwill gestures, such as releasing prisoners, both are now determined to see the results of their summer campaign before any serious talks can resume.

The two sides met in Tashkent under the auspices of the so-called Six-plus-Two group comprising the countries bordering Afghanistan (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) plus the U.S. and Russia.

The Taliban are Sunni Moslem, mostly Pashtun -- the majority ethnic group of Afghanistan -- and follow a harsh version of Islam. The opposition comprises various religious and ethnic minorities.