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Afghanistan: Northern Alliance Reporting Advances

Afghan Northern Alliance fighters are again on the move today, expanding on a series of military successes that began with Friday's (9 November) capture of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Prague, 12 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Northern Alliance opposition leaders, bolstered by the 9 November capture of key Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif, claimed today to have taken the western city of Herat and entered the northeast town of Kunduz.

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, however, denied part of the claims, saying Herat has not fallen to the opposition. But the Taliban have not refuted other Northern Alliance claims, which include yesterday's capture of Taloqan, the main town of the northern Takhar province.

There are also new reports of opposition troop movements north of the Afghan capital Kabul. But it's not clear whether the opposition plans yet to move on Kabul.

In a news conference yesterday, Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah asserted that the alliance had seized six northern provinces since 9 November. After being bottled up in the northeastern province of Badakhshan for most of the last three years, he said the alliance now also controls Takhar, Bamian, Samangan, Jowzjan, Badghis, and Balkh provinces.

Many of the Northern Alliance's claims could not be verified independently, and there have been conflicting estimates of casualties in the battles. But if the reported advances -- which represent almost half of Afghanistan -- are true, they mark a tremendous gain for the Northern Alliance and, as Abdullah says, a "big defeat" for the ruling Taliban.

"The importance of this big defeat for the Taliban, dramatic defeat for the Taliban, is not only that they have lost large areas, but they have lost their main fighting force."

The setbacks for the Taliban over three days appeared to strengthen the hand of the United States in pursuing its goal of dismantling the ruling Islamic militia, which is harboring reputed terrorist Osama bin Laden. But William Hopkinson, a fellow with the Royal Institute for International Studies in London, says it is too early to call the opposition gains a major turning point in the war against the Taliban.

"It is genuinely too early to say. Cities and towns in Afghanistan have changed hands over the last eight or nine years. And this may or may not be of immense significance. To the extent that these have changed now and opened up a northern corridor into the country for both aid and more military supplies, it could mark a considerable point of departure for the next stage of the campaign. But equally one has to warn that the thing could unravel and the Taliban could push back."

Hopkinson said the rapid advances by opposition forces were made possible by the intensified air strikes by U.S. forces on front-line Taliban positions.

"With allied special forces there able to mark for bombing and so on, clearly the Northern Alliance -- who are not very well joined up, not terribly competent, militarily -- have had an enormous advantage in taking on Taliban armor and indeed getting very heavy firepower on Taliban infantry positions."

Hopkinson says that the Taliban also may have voluntarily withdrawn from northern cities like Mazar-i-Sharif to shore up their defenses further south.

"They might well withdraw from areas where the local population is not ethnically Pashtun and is therefore rather unsympathetic to them. But it's a classic military thing that if you feel overextended, you draw back -- you shorten your lines of communication. And again, with the [winter] weather coming on, they may feel that they'd rather pull back and leave the Northern Alliance extending itself as it comes towards them."

Some Northern Alliance commanders have expressed eagerness to retake Kabul. But military and political planners in Washington and other foreign capitals have urged them to stay out of Kabul until a broad-based government can be formed to replace the Taliban.

U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking to the United Nations in New York on 10 November, said the U.S. would urge Northern Alliance forces to delay a full-scale assault on Kabul.

"Any power arrangement must be shared with the different tribes within Afghanistan, and a key signal of that will be how the city of Kabul is treated. We will encourage our [Northern Alliance] friends to head south across the Shomali Plains, but not into the city of Kabul itself. We believe we can accomplish our military missions by that strategy."

But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking yesterday to journalists in Washington, said that although the U.S. was acting as a kind of military adviser to the Northern Alliance, the opposition group was likely to make its own decision regarding a possible storming of Kabul.

"I think that the way to think of it is this: It isn't a matter of whether or not you want the Northern Alliance to take Kabul. The Northern Alliance is going to do that which it wishes to do. We have a number of forces on the ground, but the preponderance of the forces, obviously, are Northern Alliance and we are simply advisers."

A Northern Alliance move on Kabul does not necessarily seem imminent. Foreign Minister Abdullah says his forces understand the political necessities of holding back on a military advance on the Afghan capital.

"We have not announced that we will move into Kabul. That's one issue. The other issue is that we do understand the political considerations in regards to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. That's understandable." But if no political situation is reached, Abdullah said, "then it is a different situation."

Nonetheless, it is unlikely the Northern Alliance could take Kabul without military backing from the United States. Hopkinson says Taliban troops outnumber opposition forces in the capital city.

"There are very formidable Taliban positions to the north of the city. If the U.S. is not going to aid the Northern Alliance to crack those [positions], the Northern Alliance probably won't have the military force to do so on their own, at least not in the immediate future. The Taliban are likely to attach enormous psychological and presentational importance to holding Kabul, too. So given that their forces are so much greater in number than the Northern Alliance, they could reinforce [the city]. So if the U.S. is not prepared to give the Northern Alliance a great push, it's unlikely that they'll make speedy progress."

Still, the recent advances have dramatically changed the military landscape of Afghanistan. Hopkinson says that the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif has advanced the conflict to a new phase that will allow opposition control of land and air corridors vital to moving military and humanitarian supplies.

"It will be easier to move stuff into the country to help [the Northern Alliance]. Secondly, it's conceivable that the U.S. will be able to have a forward operating base there to carry out helicopter operations and other ground forces missions."

In another way, the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif has brought an entirely different advance in Afghanistan. Almost immediately after Northern Alliance forces moved into the city, reports emerged that citizens celebrated the Alliance victory by flouting the harsh social and religious restrictions that had been imposed by the Taliban's widely resented Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Men lined up at barber shops to shave off their beards, which had been mandatory under the Taliban's interpretation of Islam; music, previously banned by the Taliban, blared from homes and shops; and women threw off their head-to-toe veils known as burqas.