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Afghanistan: The Battle For Mazar-i-Sharif Seen As Turning Point

Afghanistan's Northern Alliance is on the offensive and the United States seems to have responded to the group's call for bombing Taliban front lines to clear the way for an advance. U.S. planes hit the Taliban front line north of Kabul yesterday and, further to the northwest, the forces of General Abdulrashid Dostum seem ready to take Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports that the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif could change the strategic balance in Afghanistan.

Prague, 18 October 2001 (RFE/RL) --Afghanistan's Northern Alliance troops yesterday finally got what they had been requesting: the bombing of Taliban front lines outside Kabul by United States military forces.

Such attacks should clear the way for an advance on the Afghan capital, but fighting north of Kabul is not the major offensive in Afghanistan at the moment. To the northwest of Kabul, the battle for control of the largest city in northern Afghanistan -- Mazar-i-Sharif -- is the area of the fiercest fighting and key to the resupply of the Northern Alliance.

There have been reports of fighting as close as three kilometers from the city. The airport outside Mazar-i-Sharif may have already changed hands several times and it is unclear who controls it at the moment. U.S. planes have bombed the area but must exercise caution so as not to hit Northern Alliance forces which, in some cases, are separated by only meters from Taliban forces.

Presently, there are at least three Northern Alliance commanders attacking Taliban positions in and around Mazar-i-Sharif: General Abdulrashid Dostum, the former master of Mazar-i-Sharif; Ustad Makhakek and Ustad Attah. Today's reports show Attah is trying to get the other two commanders to coordinate action for a final push on the city. Estimates by commanders cited in the "Los Angeles Times" today put the total number of fighters available to the alliance at 2,000 to 5,000, with thousands more reportedly trying to make their way to the front.

Reports indicate they are not well-armed and are, in fact, outgunned by Taliban forces, which have several tanks and other armored vehicles. The Taliban forces in the area are estimated to number 4,000-5,000. "The Washington Post" reported today that the militia, sensing the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif represents a pivotal moment in the battle for Afghanistan, has rushed 1,000 more soldiers from Kunduz in the east to the battle scene.

Taliban forces launched a counteroffensive last night to push back Northern Alliance troops but it seems to have failed. Reports by Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency, citing officials in the Northern Alliance, indicate there has been no significant shift in either side's positions since yesterday.

Mazar-i-Sharif, home to more than a million people, is located on a plain with the Hindu Kush mountains to the south. The road across the plain to the north leads to Uzbekistan, some 50 kilometers away, and has the only bridge crossing the river that divides Afghanistan from CIS Central Asia. Uzbekistan is aiding the U.S. in its campaign against terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Taliban military targets. If Mazar-i-Sharif falls to the Northern Alliance and the road to Uzbekistan is cleared it would provide an easy, quick route to supply Taliban opponents and speed the demise of the ruling militia.

The road running out of Mazar-i-Sharif to the southeast leads through the mountains to Kabul, some 450 kilometers away, and more importantly, to where the Northern Alliance forces under the command of Mohammad Fahim are waiting for the chance to take Kabul.