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Afghanistan: New Anti-Taliban Airstrip Near Kabul Expands U.S. Options

Afghanistan's anti-Taliban opposition has opened a new airstrip north of Kabul that could help supply a future ground assault. The opening of the Sherkat airstrip comes as the U.S. adds more special forces ground troops and increases the intensity of air strikes on Taliban frontline positions. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines the importance of the latest strategic developments.

Prague, 5 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The opening of the newly built Sherkat airstrip by Northern Alliance forces about 80 kilometers north of Kabul is expected to enhance the ability of the United States and its allies to get supplies -- and possibly troops -- into Afghanistan.

But Western military experts say the small size of the airstrip means it is not likely to become a major staging area without further improvements.

The Sherkat runway is a 500-meter-long stretch of compressed earth and stones some 25 kilometers from the Taliban's current frontlines north of Kabul. Situated near the town of Gulbohar at the mouth of the Panjshir Valley, it is the only usable airstrip south of the Hindu Kush mountains in an area under control of anti-Taliban forces.

U.S. military specialists have been to the airstrip and reportedly provided some technical advice in building it.

Charles Heyman, editor of the London-based military journal "Jane's World Armies," told RFE/RL today that the length of the Sherkat runway indicates that it could be used by U.S. cargo planes in the near future: "[In terms of supplies and logistical support for ground operations inside of Afghanistan,] the most important aircraft is the C-130 [Hercules cargo transport]. The 500-meter airstrip [at Sherkat] means that a C-130 can get in and can get out at light loads. It depends on weather and wind and all sorts of other factors. I think the U.S. [military experts] have been on the ground having a look at the runway and checking that they can get in and out. Maybe, in the next few days, if the weather stays fine, we would expect to see some C-130s coming in and out of there."

Heyman says the new airstrip is a key development in the battle against the Taliban. But he says the small size of the runway means it will take a long time for any significant build-up of supplies and equipment: "It gives the [international] coalition some options, and they haven't had many options up to now. It means they can start to supply in the area just to the south of that airstrip -- directly opposite of Kabul. And it means they can start getting their own troops in, if necessary, as well. But it's going to be a long, slow job. This is a small airstrip. You're not going to be able to pack that airstrip with dozens and dozens of aircraft. There are probably going to be a few aircraft [going in and out] now and then."

Rather than supporting an immediate attack on Kabul, Heyman says the new airstrip is more likely to be used to help capture Taliban-controlled strategic high ground around the nearby Bagram airbase.

The Soviet-era Bagram airstrip is occupied by Northern Alliance forces, but it lies directly on their front lines and is well within the range of Taliban artillery.

"At the moment, Bagram is still [being targeted by Taliban] artillery fire, and that's one of the reasons [the United States and its allies] can't go for Bagram. They have to clear the heights around Bagram before it will be safe for allied forces. But that small [Sherkat] airstrip could act as a base for taking the larger Bagram airstrip. It would mean that they could get troops and supplies in and then they could push them forward [to] secure all the heights around [Bagram]."

Heyman says his experience with the Northern Alliance during the last five years shows that it is not a credible military force and is unlikely to try to capture Kabul before winter sets in. He said the Northern Alliance instead wants U.S. air strikes to completely destroy all the Taliban frontline positions before launching a major assault.

Ultimately, Heyman said the hesitancy of the Northern Alliance means that a significant number of ground troops from the United States and its allies are likely to be sent into Afghanistan. Heyman predicts a long build-up of allied forces in Afghanistan during the winter with a probable assault being launched on the capital during the spring of 2002: "There doesn't look to be any [other] option now [except for] a large campaign starting in the spring. It's almost certainly too late, weatherwise now, to get something like that on the way."

Anti-Taliban forces on 3 November launched an attack near Mazar-i-Sharif -- a strategic city in northern Afghanistan that is held by the Taliban and controls the main road linking Uzbekistan to Kabul. The capture of Mazar-i-Sharif by the Northern Alliance would allow the city and its airport to be used as a logistics and supply base in support of future attacks further south. But despite some initial advances by the Northern Alliance, the attack faltered under a Taliban counter-attack. That failure after just a few hours raised concerns about the ability of the opposition to exploit U.S. air strikes without the assistance of U.S. ground troops.

U.S. military planners are concerned that anti-Taliban forces will remain bogged down in a stalemate near Mazar-i-Sharif until the onset of winter.

The United States in recent days launched heavy concentrated bombing raids on the defenses of Mazar-i-Sharif. Taliban diplomats in Islamabad also reported air strikes today on Taliban defenses around Mazar-i-Sharif in the northern provinces of Samangan and Balkh.

The ongoing air strikes include the use of B-52 bombers that are dropping hundreds of bombs each day on the Taliban positions.

As he watched dozens of bombs from a B-52 landing on the Taliban frontlines near of Kabul today, Northern Alliance commander Mustafa told reporters that the U.S. attacks are becoming increasingly accurate: "This morning at 10 minutes to 11, a plane attacked an area called Khoshab -- which was very effective because this was a very big Taliban base and they inflicted lots of damage on them."

In Washington, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, announced yesterday that the number of U.S. special forces inside of Afghanistan has been increased significantly during the past week. The total number is still thought to be quite small. Before the latest deployment, fewer than 100 soldiers were thought to be on the ground in Afghanistan.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld today confirmed that a key task of those U.S. soldiers is to help U.S. pilots more accurately target Taliban positions: "There is no question but that the effectiveness of bombing is vastly improved as you have people on the ground, in communication with the aircraft overhead, and each day that we have been engaged in this since 7 October, we have been able to improve the effectiveness of it."

U.S. heavy bombers today also were attacking Taliban hilltop positions outside the northern town of Taloqan.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reports that U.S. helicopter gunships attacked Taliban military positions near Kabul today. But that report could not be immediately confirmed. The United States has not acknowledged using helicopter gunships so far in the campaign.