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Fake Vietnam War Veteran Embezzled Money Meant for Agent Orange and UXO Victims

By Drew Brown

Fake Vietnam War Veteran Chuck Palazzo Chuck Palazzo during an interview in Da Nang, Vietnam, Feb. 12, 2013 / Drew Brown 

For years, Chuck Palazzo has told the world that he served in combat as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam from 1970-1971.

As a former journalist, I’ve interviewed a lot of veterans. Palazzo’s claims about his exploits during the war were some of the most riveting I’d ever heard.

Palazzo maintains that he joined the Marines at age 17, shipped out to Vietnam at 18, and served with the 1st and 3rd Reconnaissance Companies near Da Nang airport and at the U.S. airbase in Chu Lai.

He now stands accused of embezzling more than $100,000 in donations from Chapter 160 of Veterans for Peace, an organization of former U.S. service members dedicated to helping Vietnamese who have been harmed by Agent Orange and unexploded bombs left over from the war. Palazzo served as a founding member and the group’s secretary treasurer, until he was removed from the post last May when evidence of the financial wrongdoing surfaced.

According to a May 23 statement to VFP 160 members and donors, the group’s remaining leaders said that Palazzo had admitted to the misuse of donor funds, and that an independent review of the chapter’s financial records and transactions had been launched. Vietnamese police were also asked to look into the matter. However, the results of neither investigation have yet been announced, and it is unclear if Vietnamese authorities will pursue criminal charges.

This story is an edited version of a letter I sent July 4 to VFP 160 and U.S. veterans living in Da Nang, Vietnam, where Palazzo has also resided for several years, detailing the results of what I discovered when I looked into his military record. My letter was circulated widely among U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War and others associated with the legacy issues of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance. Journalist Calvin Godfrey, of Vietnam Express International, who published the first media account of the case in October, referenced my findings extensively. http://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/american-advocate-of-vietnam-s-agent-orange-victims-accused-of-fraud-embezzlement-3477426.html

The first time I interviewed him for a McClatchy Newspapers story on Agent Orange, Palazzo told me that his recon team had been sent routinely into North Vietnam to locate and “take out” surface to air missile sites.

He also told me that he had been exposed to Agent Orange when a U.S. helicopter sprayed defoliant nearby while his team was on a mission in the hills near Da Nang.

Palazzo later claimed in a February 2013 interview, for which I shot the pictures, that he had parachuted into combat on several occasions.

“I’ll go so far as to say that I was a Reconnaissance Marine, and that we had various duties,” he said then. “We did long-range reconnaissance. We jumped out of planes. We jumped out of helicopters. We engaged the enemy, blew things up, that kind of thing. In ’71, we were actually on one of the last formal missions of the Marines that were here.”

Palazzo repeated the assertion about parachuting into combat to journalist Seymour Hersh for a story published in The New Yorker magazine on March 30, 2015. He also told Hersh that his team searched out and destroyed enemy missile sites, although he did not specify the location.

“I was involved in a lot of intense combat with many North Vietnamese regulars as well as Viet Cong, and I lost a lot of friends,” he was quoted as saying.

Palazzo even claimed in both interviews that when he left Vietnam at the end of his 13-month tour, he flew back to America as an escort in a C-141 cargo jet filled with the coffins of U.S. troops killed in action.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Every single one of Chuck Palazzo’s tales about serving as a Marine in Vietnam is a complete fabrication, part of an elaborate series of lies that he built up over the years, presumably to bolster his standing among other veterans and to enhance his credibility as an activist working on behalf of the country’s Agent Orange victims.

According to information released from his DD-214, which I obtained from the National Personnel Records Center last February through a Freedom of Information Act Request, Palazzo did, in fact, serve as a Marine, but he never stepped foot in Vietnam nor did he ever serve in a reconnaissance unit in any capacity.

I looked into Palazzo’s claims about his military service for several months. In the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that I was prompted to do so after losing $20,000 in a business venture with him that left me questioning his truthfulness and integrity. I also became a member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 after McClatchy Newspapers published my Agent Orange stories in July 2013.

As I began to look into some of his key claims, I soon confirmed what I’d already come to suspect — that most of Chuck Palazzo’s story was complete bullshit.

After his embezzlement from Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 came to light, I wrote an open letter to the group detailing what I’d learned about Palazzo’s military record, so that there would be absolutely no question that his so-called combat experiences had anything to do with his actions.

According to the record, Charles K. Palazzo enlisted in the Marine Corps in New York City on Jan. 13, 1971 — a year later than he claims to have signed up — and he was discharged Jan. 10, 1975 at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, Calif.

Palazzo served as a general warehouseman at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and was discharged as a legal clerk with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro, according to his DD-214.

The closest he ever came to Vietnam was Okinawa, where he served as a legal clerk assigned to 3rd Force Support Regiment, Fleet Marine Force Pacific, from Sept. 1972 to Sept. 1973.

I spoke briefly with Matthew Yardley, the National Personnel Records Center archivist who handled my FOIA request. Yardley told me that his research turned up only one person with the name Charles Palazzo who served in the U.S. military during the late Vietnam War era.

“He’s the only one I found who served during the 1970s,” Yardley told me.

I also submitted Palazzo’s name to two different companies that conduct background checks on people based on public records. Charles Kim Palazzo, born Nov. 20, 1953, was the only possible match based on what he has posted on social media about himself and from what he has repeated in a number of media interviews.

Palazzo lists Nov. 20 as his birthday on his Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Details on LinkedIn of his education and work history generally match what turned up in the background checks.

On his LinkedIn page, Palazzo states that he served in the Marines from 1970-1975, and that he achieved the rank of Sgt. E-5. He also lists 1st, 2nd and 3rd Marine Divisions, 1st and 3rd Reconnaissance Battalions, Force Recon, Southeast Asia and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, El Toro, presumably as the units and places in which he served.

According to his DD-214, however, Palazzo was actually discharged as a Cpl. E-4. His stateside assignments included Camp Lejeune and El Toro. He was assigned to 3rd Force Support Regiment on Okinawa from Sept. 1972 to Sept. 1973, the most likely period he could have deployed to Vietnam. However, the odds of being sent to Vietnam by that time were very low for most U.S. service members.

According to “U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The War That Would Not End, 1971-1973,” part of the nine-volume official Marine Corps operational history of the war, there were only about 25,000 U.S. troops left in Vietnam, including 1,200 Marines, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed in Jan. 1973.

All U.S. military personnel, with the exception of those assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, left Vietnam by the end of March 1973, according to the history.

Nowhere does the information from Palazzo’s DD-214 indicate that he ever served in Vietnam.

I became friends with Palazzo after I interviewed him for my Agent Orange project in 2012. He was an outgoing and charismatic guy who had what seemed like a genuine passion for drawing attention to the plight of Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims. He introduced me to several key local contacts who became central to my story. He was the first person who suggested that I should settle in Da Nang, where I lived from 2012-2015. It was impossible for me not to like him.

Looking back, however, I should have questioned his alleged war record from the beginning. I am a veteran myself. I served as an airborne infantryman with Company A, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, from 1989-1993. We actually did parachute into combat once, just after 0100 hours on Dec. 20, 1989, at the start of Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama. I’m also a student of military history, and as a journalist, I specialized in military affairs. I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for several years. Some of Palazzo’s claims were so incredible they should have automatically warranted further scrutiny.

Yet, even while I may have been skeptical at the time of some of the things Palazzo told me, I had no real reason to believe that he might be lying about his military record. Perhaps, I thought briefly, if I thought about it all, there were some operations that took place during the war that were still classified, and maybe he had been a part of those. I frankly did not consider the possibility that he would lie to another veteran about such a fundamental issue. He was such a prominent and passionate voice on the issue of Agent Orange — appearing in many U.S. and Vietnamese media reports on the subject — the possibility that he might actually be a fraud did not cross my mind until it was entirely too late.

In retrospect, of course, the evidence was in plain sight from the beginning.

Palazzo often claimed to have been so traumatized by his combat experiences that he refused to talk about them in great detail. That was the primary reason, he once told me, why he always walked away when other veterans started talking about the war. “My PTSD is too bad,” he told me. He said that he still had vivid combat dreams on a regular basis.

However, Palazzo also maintained that the Department of Veterans Affairs had rejected his disability claim for the disorder. “They told me that since I was in Recon, I should’ve known what I was getting into,” he told me.

I recently asked two VA counselors — one currently active, the other retired — what they thought of Palazzo’s assertion. Both have extensive experience working with veterans who have PTSD.

“Bullshit,” snorted the counselor who is currently active.

“Sounds fake to me,” said the retired one, himself a Vietnam veteran. “[I’ve] run into a lot of posers.”

A second major warning occurred when another war veteran made the observation to me that there was no way Palazzo could have served with 3rd Marine Reconnaissance Battalion since that unit left Vietnam at the end of 1969.

Later, when I asked Palazzo about the discrepancy, he insisted that he had served in Vietnam from 1970-1971 “with stints in 1st and 3rd Recon Battalions.”

It’s hard to explain why I ignored what were clearly two huge red flags about the veracity of Palazzo’s story. The latter, especially, was a fact that I could have easily verified. Looking back, I have no explanation to offer except that, somewhere along the way, I evidently got trapped into thinking that his activist work meant that his story must be legitimate. After all, Palazzo was a prominent figure who was doing good work. If he was a fraud, then how could he have gotten along for so many years without being exposed as one?

I debated with myself for months over whether I should denounce Palazzo to members of VFP 160 and other Da Nang veterans. I am annoyed with myself that I trusted and believed in him, but I also sincerely did not want to cause strife within Chapter 160 and among the local veterans community, all of whom were my friends. Had I come forward a year ago, when I realized that my business venture with Palazzo had been little more than a vehicle to fund his living expenses for a year, then perhaps his theft of Chapter 160’s money might have come to light sooner. I sincerely regret not doing so.

I received the information from Palazzo’s DD-214 in February, but could not find the resolve to move forward. It seemed petty of me to expose him publicly over what was essentially a private issue. Eventually, I decided the best thing to do would be to let the matter go, and mark it down as a a lesson learned. After all, I willingly gave Palazzo my money, and the world is full of self-described entrepreneurs who are really nothing more than con artists. Live and let live, I thought. Karma would sort everything out in the end.

I decided to reveal what I knew to VFP 160, after it was disclosed in May that Palazzo had stolen practically all of the group’s charitable funds. After his misdeeds became known, I became alarmed when I saw people expressing sympathy for him under the mistaken impression that he was a severely traumatized war veteran, and that his “combat experiences” may have played a role in his actions.

I sent an earlier draft of this story to members of VFP Chapter 160 in July, after Suel Jones, president of the group, contacted me to ask if I had a copy of Palazzo’s DD-214. I am publishing this story now in full because several journalists have recently contacted me to ask about Palazzo’s military record.

Vietnam Express International reported last month on my findings and that members of VFP 160 had asked Vietnamese police to investigate Palazzo’s misappropriation of “approximately $100,000 charitable donations.”

The New Yorker recently acknowledged on their website, in a clarification to Hersh’s 2015 story, that “doubt has been cast on Palazzo’s account of his military service.”

I spoke last summer with Charlie Kershaw, president of the 1st Recon Battalion Association, to see if there was any shred of truth to Palazzo’s claims about combat parachute jumps and secret missions into North Vietnam. Kershaw served as a lieutenant, company commander, and operations officer in 1st Reconnaissance Battalion from Feb. 1969-May 1970.

Kershaw said he was aware of two parachute operations involving 1st Recon that took place “in the 1967-1968 time frame,” but “there were absolutely none” in 1970-1971.

As for secret missions into North Vietnam by 1st Recon personnel, “it never happened,” he said.

“There were no off the books operations outside the Da Nang AO,” Kershaw said. “This guy must be dreaming. It didn’t happen.”

The area of operations, or “AO,” for 1st Recon stretched from the Hai Van Pass just north of Da Nang to the U.S. air base at Chu Lai, about 60 miles south of the city.

Da Nang lies about 85 miles south of the former demilitarized zone that once separated North and South Vietnam.

A few weeks before I sent my story to VFP 160, I tried to contact Palazzo by phone and by email and offer him an opportunity to come clean about his military service, but he did not respond.

For now, at least, why a former Marine with a perfectly respectable peacetime service record would make up a fake combat history remains a mystery.

“It’s always a big surprise to me why people feel the need to fabricate their record like this,” Kershaw said. “I guess when other people are sitting around having a beer and telling war stories from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever, they must feel inadequate.”

20160223palazzodd-214-pdf

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Weapons are cheap and plentiful in Afghanistan

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Dec. 7) – Almost nothing works in Afghanistan.

Electricity, unless by gasoline generator, is a fantasy in most of the country. Plumbing consists mainly of open ditches, which are sometimes used for washing, sometimes used for sewers, most of the time for both.

Toilets, even in the rare places where they exist, usually don’t flush. The roads are among the worst in the world.

But if there is one thing that works fine in Afghanistan, it’s the weapons. Spend a couple of weeks here, and there’s no telling what you’ll run across in terms of ordnance. The entire country, it seems, is an arms merchant’s dream market.

Driving across the northern part of Afghanistan is like driving through a Soviet version of the 1981 (please check date) movie “The Road Warrior.”

The stark, apocalyptic landscape seems almost biblical at times. Villages made of one-story mud houses dot the landscape like scenes imagined from the Old Testament.  Sometimes, you wonder why Mullah Omar and his Taliban gang went through so much trouble to recreate the time of the Prophet Muhammed. It’s already here.

But outside of nearly every village and major town from here to the Tajik border crossing near Dash-te-Qa’lah, there are generally a few, if not scores of blown-up tanks and armored personnel carriers left over from the Soviet invasion 23 years ago. They are perched on lonely mountaintops like forgotten sentinels or parked among the rocks on some distant desert plain as if their crews just left them there and decided to hitch a ride back to mother Russia. Which is exactly what happened in most cases when the Soviets pulled out in humiliation a little more than a decade ago, if you believe the stories that some of the Russian journalists here and the Northern Alliance soldiers tell.

“When the Russians left Afghanistan, they left all of these weapons here,” said Commander Mubaraz, 35,  a veteran mujahed who claimed to have earned his name, which means “fighter” in Dari, during the anti-Soviet guerilla war. “Some of these we captured ourselves. “Others we got during the war with the Taliban, during jihad.”

The fact that some of the weapons still work is nothing short of amazing. The rifles, tanks, artillery and other weapons used by the Northern Alliance are like a living museum of the past 50 years of Soviet and Russian arms production.

The backbone of the Northern Alliance armored units are T-55 and T-62 Soviet-era tanks, both of which rolled off the production line nearly a half-century ago. BMP and BTR armored personnel carriers look as if they just rolled out of central casting from the Prague Spring of 1968 or some Cold War stand-off in Berlin.

Weapons in Afghanistan are the currency of power. During the battle of Kunduz two weeks ago, truck-mounted 20mm anti-aircraft guns were in hot demand among discriminating commanders at the front. Though plenty of them were parked on the streets of nearby Taloqan, they became a prized piece of war booty as the Taliban fighters surrendered with more than a couple of dozen of them over the course of a week. Two different groups of fighters within the army of Northern Alliance Gen. Mohammed Daoud almost shot it out because their commanders wanted to claim one that had just been handed over by surrendered Taliban forces. The fighters scattered to both sides of the road, searching for cover as journalists suddenly worried if they were on the wrong side of the front line.

Russian-made Katyusha rockets are in such ample supply that Northern Alliance fighters used them as makeshift explosives after the Taliban uprising at Qala-i-jangy last week. They stuffed them into holes and set them off with detonating cord in an attempt to flush hidden Taliban fighters out of an underground bunker. Explosions shook the ground all day, but in the end, not a single Taliban fighter emerged. Eighty-six of them eventually surfaced and surrendered two days later, but only after the Northern Alliance fighters above ground pumped the bunker full of freezing cold water.

Piles of spent casings and often live ammunition litter the ground like dung piles near scenes of recent fighting. Unexploded mortar rounds lay scattered around the 19th century fortress grounds like deadly mushrooms. The mud-walled citadel was the scene of a fierce three-day battle between 600 foreign Taliban and Northern Alliance soldiers. A quick tour through the grounds is enough to make one realize how the Taliban were able to hold out against withering U.S. air strikes and superior Northern Alliance forces. The prisoners were kept in an area close to the weapons storerooms. Once inside, they had enough firepower and ammo to hold off almost any counterattack imaginable.

The storerooms held a vast cornucopia of weapons and ammunition. Quad-mounted 20mm anti-aircraft guns known as ZUs. AK-47s, PK machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades. Hundreds of boxes of dozens of kinds of ammunition — 20mm anti-aircraft guns, 60 and 80mm mortar rounds, 155mm artillery rounds, belt links of machine gun rounds, World War II-vintage Mauser ammunition, empty boxes of American-made AK-47 rounds, even an American-made Stinger missile, capable of taking down an aircraft from two miles away, rusting and stripped of its batteries and sights.

Most fighters carry the venerable Ak-47 Kalashnikov rifle or 7.62 mm PK machine gun, generally a rocket-propelled grenade or two. The Datsun and Toyota pickups the Northern Alliance soldiers use as their primary mode of transport are usually festooned with a couple of bouquets of RPG rounds sticking up next to the cab, as the trucks speed through the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif and other cities.

These little pickups have earned a formidable reputation for themselves among the fighters for their reliability and durability, but in a country where armies still use calvary, sometimes pickups can only go so far.

“The Datsun is more effective than the tank,” said Gen. Haji Mohammed Muhkaqiq, leader of the Hazara faction in northern Afghanistan, said recently. “But the horse is more effective than the Datsun.”

Most fighters have captured their weapons in battle or they are issued one by their commanders, according to Mubaraz, the veteran mujaheddin commander. But weapons are also readily available on the black market as well. A Kalashnikov sells for about $75 at the current exchange rate. An RPG sells for about twice that. A PK machine gun goes for three times as much.

Most of the weapons the soldiers carry are older than the soldiers themselves. It is not uncommon to find 15-year-old fighters with 30-year-old Kalashnikovs. Abdul Aziz Mujahed, a Northern Alliance fighter at Qala-i-jangy carried a Soviet-made SKS semi-automatic rifle stamped with a production date of 1955.

He claimed to have killed a number of Taliban with it.

Sometimes, the oddest things appear. At the Bangi front, outside of Kunduz, a group of soldiers tooled around the frontlines in a camouflage jeep with an American-made Korean War-era 90mm recoilless rifle mounted on the back. Ammunition was probably difficult to find. But at least they looked cool.

For some inexplicable reason, a weapons storeroom at Qala-i-jangy held an enormous pile of World War II-era Soviet submachine guns. None of them had probably worked in years. The bolts were frozen shut with rust on each.

One Northern Alliance fighter at Bangi carried a single-shot, bolt-action .22 caliber hunting rifle, slung over his shoulder with a piece of braided string. The fighter looked barely old enough to shave, obviously a recent arrival at the front.

A quick trip to the front is enough to illustrate that most of the fighters, at least on the Northern Alliance side, do not spend a lot of time on target practice.

A flock of geese flew over one morning a few weeks ago at the Bangi front. Gunfire erupted all along the front line as the birds winged by overhead. Not a single one fell.

For better or for worse, some fighters say they don’t need the practice. After so many years of war, learning how to use a weapon in Afghanistan is a skill that you acquire at an early age.

“There is no one in Afghanistan who doesn’t know how to use this weapon,” said 30-year-old Mohammed Anwer, gesturing at an AK-47 nearly as old as himself.

Anwer stood guard outside the foreign affairs ministry in Mazar-e-Sharif one a recent afternoon. A boy about six-years-old stood nearby, watching the exchange.

“Even if I were to give it to this child,” he said. “He would know how to use it.”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Northern Alliance soldiers capture Kunduz

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Nov. 26) Jubilant residents celebrated in the streets Monday as Northern Alliance forces under Gen. Mohammed Daoud swept into the former Taliban stronghold of Kunduz, freeing the besieged northern city from control of the radical fundamentalist regime for the first time in five years.

Northern alliance fighters waged a brief, but intense gun battle with Taliban holdouts in the center of Kunduz shortly after daybreak, securing the city by noon. Dead Taliban fighters lay within yards of the city’s central intersection and on surrounding streets, as joyous residents poured out of their homes to greet the northern alliance soldiers as their liberators.

“It’s been almost 10 days since we’ve been able to come out of our homes,” said 15-year-old Amman Allah. “The situation here was very bad. Everyday, there was a lot of fighting between the Taliban. They were fighting among themselves.”

“The Taliban were very dangerous people,” said Jalil Akhmad, a 20-year-old shopkeeper. “I was afraid of them.”

Many alliance fighters were greeted with warm hospitality.

“After we found that we were in control, we came out of our houses to celebrate,” said Nasrullah Aman, a 20-year-old English tutor. “We took some of them into our houses and gave them tea. I had more than 10 soldiers with me in my home.”

Northern alliance officials claim they now control Kunduz, an ancient trading city on the fabled Silk Road. But as many as 6,000 Taliban fighters have retreated with tanks and other heavy weapons to the village of Chahar Darreh, about 10 kilometers west of Kunduz, where they are regrouping, said Abdul Wahid, assistant foreign minister for northern Afghanistan.

Many of the remaining Taliban are Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreign mercenaries thought to have links with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorist network.

And northern alliance officials warn that small pockets of hard-line Taliban remain inside Kunduz, vowing to fight to the death.

“Some terrorists remain,” said Raz Mohammed Uria, a Daoud aide. “It’s difficult to estimate how many. Maybe in two or three days, we will establish full control and drive out these small groups.”

Underscoring the chaotic nature of events inside the city, a group of Taliban guerillas ambushed and killed a northern alliance commander Sunday night and wounded five other soldiers, Uria said.

Many residents seemed unconcerned about the dangers as they celebrated their first taste of freedom in years.

“This is the first time I’ve ever spoken English with a foreigner, so I am very happy,” Nasrullah said. “I came out here at 9 a.m. and waited. I was looking forward to talking to and interviewing foreigners.”

Many in Kunduz expressed astonishment at the Taliban’s sudden departure and the rapid appearance of the northern alliance forces in the city.

“We didn’t believe that they could disappear so quickly,” said 22-year-old Nuraga Mohmmed Asan. “We didn’t believe that they would ever disappear from here.”

Newly-plastered posters of the late mujaheddin leader Gen. Ahmed Shah Masoud hung on municipal buildings alongside Taliban slogans. Masoud was assassinated by al Qaida terrorists on Sept. 10, the day before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The green and white flag of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the United Front’s name for the country, flew atop the small police station in the center of the Kunduz’s main intersection.

Some expressed hope that the defeat of the Taliban will finally bring peace to their country, ravaged by 22 years of war.

“I wish that the United Nations and other countries can come in here and help make a good government for us that has all of the nationalities of Afghanistan included,” said Atep, a shopkeeper.

He gestured at the ground beneath his feet.

“Look at Afghanistan,” he said. “Everything here looks very old, and it’s all because of the war. I don’t wish for my children to be like us. They must be happy and free and live in a peaceful country. They should not see all of the fighting I have seen.”

Victorious northern alliance fighters sped past in all directions in pick-up trucks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles. A large military transport truck pulled up next to the police station and stopped. The driver leaned out and gestured at the crowd.

“Take off your white caps!” he shouted, a grin spread across his bearded face. “After today, there will be a punishment for those who wear them. Take them off. Those are Taliban caps!”

Many in the crowd laughed along with the joke. An old man stepped to the driver and handed him a round green hat.

“You need a cap like this one,” the man shouted. “It is the color of the United Front.”

The two men hugged each other. The driver got back in his truck and moved through the crowd.

“Death to Osama bin Laden!” Abdad Shamoli, 35, a refugee from the Panjshir Valley shouted. ” He needs to die. Yesterday, I could not say such things. I was afraid. But today the Northern Alliance is here now, and I can.”

Shamoli said he hoped to return home to rebuild his home as soon as authorities clear the roads of remaining Taliban bandits.

Daoud’s advance into the city came after several days of negotiations between Daoud’s rival, ethnic Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Taliban leaders inside Kunduz over their surrender. Indications were that the two northern alliance leaders were vying over who would gain control of Kunduz, but it is unclear how far the dispute went. Under an agreement brokered between the two, Dostum has reportedly agreed to keep his forces outside of the city.

Northern Alliance officials claim that as many as 30,000 Taliban were trapped in Kunduz when their fighters began laying siege to the province 10 days ago, supported by U.S. air strikes. As many as 10,000 were Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks and other foreigners, including many believed to have links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorist network.

Thousands of Taliban fighters have surrendered in recent days, including 3,500 on Sunday and Monday alone, said Wahid, the assistant foreign minister.

Many residents in Kunduz said they hope that Monday was the last they will see of any them.

“This is the first day that the Northern Alliance has entered, but everything will become normal soon,” said Akhmad, the shopkeeper. “Tomorrow it will get better. Everyday will be a little better.”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Foreign prisoners face uncertain fate in Afghanistan

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

TALOQAN, Afghanistan (Nov.25) The two prisoners are a study in contrasts: one a self-confessed al Qaida terrorist who says he would kill again. The other a misguided youth who says he made the wrong decision and ended up on the losing side.

Salih Jan, 31, from the United Arab Emirates, and Maqsoud Ali, 22, from Pakistan share a decrepit prison compound with 78 other Taliban prisoners captured in recent weeks by Northern Allliance fighters.

Most of the men here have been imprisoned for common crimes like murder, robbery, theft and burglary, but Jan and Ali share a unique status among their fellow inmates. They are foreigners who answered the Taliban’s call for jihad, or holy war.

Their fate is uncertain. The prison warden says they will remain here until the northern alliance forces capture the last Taliban holdout at Kunduz, about 40 miles away. Some of them may be exchanged for captured northern alliance fighters. Some of them may be sent home. Those deemed responsible for crimes may face justice in an Islamic court.

The paths that brought them to this prison could not be more different.

“I came here with the Taliban to see whether these people or Muslim or not,” Jan said. “I came to see the people with my very own eyes. When I see people who aren’t Muslim, I want to make jihad. I came here to fight against the Russians and Americans and people like them. It is (sacred) to fight against those who are not Muslim.”

Jan rambles on for several minutes. At first, he denies that he is a member of al Qaida and claims to have been born in Afghanistan. The warden says he is lying, and like a stern, abusive father, he boxes Jan lightly on the ear and shoulder. The warden says that Jan can’t even speak Persian or Pashtun, two of the dominant languages in Afghanistan. But fortunately the warden says he speaks Arabic and can translate.

Jan smiles at the warden and speaks to him in Arabic. He seems eager to please.

It is unclear how much of what Jan says is being distorted by the warden, but he now claims that he received terrorist training in the United Arab Emirates for seven years before coming to Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban took power. He arrived with 7,000 others, and they were split into smaller groups and sent to different al Qaida camps.

There, Jan says, “we got training in how to fight against the infidels.”

He claims to have learned how to build and detonate bombs and to use various weapons like AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

“We made plans to kill Masud, and we got him,” Jan says, referring to the popular and charismatic northern alliance leader who was assassinated by al Qaida terrorists on the eve of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He claims to have killed 20 people he believed were infidels because they did not accept the Taliban interpretation of Islam.

“I invited them to be with us and accept the Taliban and to fight against the infidels,” he says. “If they didn’t accept my ideas then I killed them.”

Jan smiles at the warden as he is talking and the warden translates. Barefoot and dressed in filthy, disheveled clothes, it is unclear whether Jan is telling the truth about his exploits or lying. Perhaps, he is simply crazy. It is also unclear how much of what he is saying is being distorted by the warden. At one point, he squats on his heels, while the warden strokes him on the head as if he were an obedient dog. Jan looks up at the warden and smiles, squinting in the sun. His teeth are brown with stains. He nervously fingers his prayer beads. His lips move as if he is reciting a prayer.

At one point, Jan says those who fight for the United Front are not Muslim. In the next sentence, he says he is happy that foreign Taliban have surrendered to the United Front in Kunduz because the United Front fighters are good Muslims, too.

Those who kill infidels or die in battle, even if they blow themselves up in suicide attacks have a special place in heaven, he says.

“They are doing these things for God,” he says. “They are going to be martyrs.”

Al Qaida trained us that this is not the real life, that the real life is in paradise.”

Jan says that he cares nothing about his family back home in Dubai. Bin Laden’s organization sends his family $1,200 a month for his service in Afghanistan, he claims. And he declares that he is unrepentant about his deeds.

“My enemy is America,” he says. “When I get out of here, I will fight again against America, Russia, Israel and India.”

Jan announces abruptly that he does not want to talk anymore. He retreats to a spot near a metal shipping container he shares as living quarters with several other prisoners. After a few minutes, he takes his prayer rug to the middle of the tennis court-sized compound and begins to pray. It is unclear how long where he was captured or how long he has been imprisoned. He kneels for a long time in the midday sun.

By contrast, Maqsoud Ali, 22, joined the Taliban only one month ago after he answered the call to jihad at a madrassa, or religious school, in his native Peshawar. Like thousands of other devout, young Pashtuns in Pakistan, he joined the Taliban out of obedience to his mullah, or religious teacher, only a month ago, when American bombs began raining down on Afghanistan.

“Our leaders told us that Afghanistan is a Muslim country, so we have to go make jihad against the infidels. But when I came here, I found that all of them were true Muslims already, and that the mullahs were wrong.”

Ali said at that point, he decided to return to Pakistan, but didn’t have the money go back home. He ended up in a Taliban camp in Takhar province with three other Pakistanis who entered the country with him.

He spent all of his time living in a former school with 12 other Taliban, his three Pakistani countrymen and nine Afghans. He thought that he might be sent to fight against the United Front, but was told they would be kept in reserve.

But they spent their days studying the Koran and other Islamic literature, rather than in military training.

“There was no difference between the local Taliban and the foreign Taliban,” he said. “We ate the same food. We drank the same water. We slept in the same place.”

He and the other Taliban at the school were taken by surprise when northern alliance forces moved swiftly in Takhar province 14 days ago, as they made their stunning march across Afghanistan after capturing the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Though the Taliban teaches its young fighters that it is preferable to die in battle than to be captured, Ali says he and his group gave up without a fight.

“It was not the time to die,” he said. “Maybe God decided it was best to keep me alive.”

All around the small compound, the other prisoners sit and watch Ali tell his story. Some of them begin their preparations for midday prayers by bathing in a ditch that runs through the area.  The early afternoon is filled with the sounds of dry hacking coughs and men spitting. The walls of the mudbrick prison are covered with graffiti like those of prisons everywhere.

The warden, 23-year-old Quiamuddin Noori says the prisoners here are treated well, in contrast to the conditions he faced when imprisoned by the Taliban himself.

“When I was in prison and in control of the Taliban, they didn’t give me any food,” he said.

Ali notes that the Taliban taught them that the northern alliance soldiers could be cruel to their prisoners, but says he has not been mistreated.

“I don’t have any complaints about them,” he says. “They haven’t punished me yet.”

Ali says that all he wants to do now is to return home and resume his life. He regrets that he ever came to Afghanistan.

“I just wish for the United Front to make me free,” he says.

Noori, the warden, says that he treats the foreigners no differently from the former Afghan Taliban fighters and even feels sympathy for them.

“They are the same to me,” he says. “In fact, I prefer the foreign Taliban because they are refugees in my country. They made a mistake and they are not happy with what they have done.”

As he stops at the entryway, Noori says again that he doesn’t know what will happen to the prisoners. Perhaps, they will be exchanged. Perhaps, they will be set free. But he is adamant that they will not be harmed in anyway.

However, as he pauses, Noori acknowledges that he understands why so many foreign Taliban have been reluctant to surrender to the northern alliance forces. His comments suggest that justice may not yet be done for many of them.

“They think that if they surrender, they will be killed,” he says. “They have murdered a lot of people when they were in Takhar province, and now they think they will be killed in return.”

Noori shakes hands warmly as he bids goodbye. Over the entryway above him were the following words: “We begin in the name of Allah, who is merciful and kind.”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

As Ramadan begins, Afghans hope for elusive peace

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

DASHT-E-QAL’EH, Afghanistan (Nov. 18) –  Sahibnuzar remembers a time nearly 30 years ago when the streets of this village in northern Afghanistan were clean and the stores were stocked with food and other supplies.

Roads were being built throughout the country. There was a five-year plan towards economic improvement.  The regime of President Sadar Mohammed Daud was the most peaceful and prosperous in Afghanistan’s history.

But that time is an ancient memory, an almost idyllic interlude before the 1979 Soviet invasion and the 22 years of war that have followed.

“The difference” between then and now, “the 42-year-old farmer notes wryly, “is as great as that between the earth and the sky.”

From the moment one crosses the Amu Darya River from neighboring Tajikistan, only a few kilometers away, the signs of war that have engulfed Afghanistan for the last 22 years are everywhere.

An artillery emplacement overlooks the ferry crossing. A ruined tower stands silhouetted on a distant hill. Teenaged boys in camouflage fatigues stand idly on the far bank, AK-47 rifles slung casually over their shoulders. On the Afghan side of the river, two grenades explode in muffled thuds several minutes apart. Geysers of water erupt into the air. The soldiers are probably fishing, an interpreter notes.

American B-52 bombers crawl across the sky at 25,000 feet or more, leaving long contrails in the sky as they head towards Kunduz, where as many as 20,000 Taliban, mainly Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens, are under siege by the Northern Alliance. Their lightning offensive has left them in control of nearly all of Afghanistan. Kunduz in the north and Khandahar in the south remain the last Taliban holdouts.

Two pairs of Russian-made helicopters fly north towards the border, a couple of hours apart. The helicopters belong to the Northern Alliance, an interpreter says. They are generally used to ferry wounded soldiers to hospitals in Tajikistan and return loaded with fuel or ammunition.

Only a week ago, Taliban soldiers were entrenched on a hill across the nearby Kowkcheh River and fired regularly into the village. Their rapid collapse over the last week and half has left Sahibnuzar and other Afghans in this village a little surprised and cautiously optimistic that peace may finally return to their country after so many years of war. But they know that they cannot do it alone.

“Everyone’s eyes are turned towards Europe and America,” says Sahibnuzar. “The only way we will ever have peace is if Europe and America come in and take all of the weapons out of people’s hands, including the Northern Alliance.”

The Afghanistan that Sahibnuzar described seems centuries removed from the Afghanistan of today. The country is stuck somewhere between the medieval age and the modern world. Heavy trucks and jeeps bounce along narrow, deeply-rutted dirt roads, some of the worst in the world. A single vehicle kicks up a swirl of dust so thick at times that it blocks the surrounding landscape completely from view. The vehicles run on home-distilled gasoline sold from jerry cans at stalls along the side of the road. They compete for space along the narrow tracks with farmers herding goats, sheep and cattle in much the same way that their forefathers have done for centuries. Only two or three houses in Dasht-e-Qal’eh have electricity, which is supplied by generator. There is little running water. Plumbing is nonexistent.

“Afghanistan is the world’s poorest country,” Sahibnuzar says. “People here need bread. They need work. If anyone comes here and gives people the basics — bread and work to do, then everyone will be in favor of that country.”

Sahibnuzar and fellow residents invest a lot of hope in America. They point out that the United States initially supported the Taliban as a stabilizing force in Afghanistan in their early march towards power in the early 1990s. They say that while they support the United States in its bid to oust the Taliban and destroy Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, they feel America bears a responsibility for helping rebuild the country.

“If America just gets rid of bin Laden and doesn’t do anything else and leaves everything to the Northern Alliance, then nobody in the world will believe in anything America does anymore,” Sahibnuzar says.

So far, the United States has shown little inclination to get heavily involved with the Northern Alliance on the ground, preferring to focus primarily on aerial bombing. Actual materiel support to the Northern Alliance has been limited to a few helicopter shipments of Russian ammunition, according to an American military source familiar with the situation.

Sahibnuzar and others in Dasht-e-Qal’eh fear that soon the Northern Alliance, which is made up of a loose coalition of primarily ethnic Uzbek, Tajiks, and Hazaaras will splinter, and that the warlords will begin fighting among themselves again. They say there will never be peace in Dasht-e-Qal’eh and other Afghan towns as long as the warlords hold sway.

“You have to disband the warlords and create a normal army,” says Sho’Mohammed, a local driver. “Otherwise, we will never have peace.”

As they talk, automatic weapons fire crackles occasionally in the distance. Sahibnuzar and the other men barely seem to notice. Despite the sporadic gunfire, they and the area’s sole police officer maintain that the local roads are safe to travel, at least during the day.

As the sun goes down Sunday, a group of Northern Alliance soldiers saunter into a cafe for supper. Some of them spread out prayer cloths that they keep slung over their shoulders or tucked into their jackets. They remove their shoes, then shuck off AK-47 rifles and combat gear. They face west towards Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed.

The soldiers kneel and pray several times, then sit cross-legged on a rug on which is spread a thin dining mat. They lounge against the far wall and chat quietly as a boy brings steaming bowls of meat soup, rice and shish kebabs to them. The presence of a few American journalists piques their interest for a while, and they agree to allow a few photographs.

The men are from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where the Northern Alliance began their offensive two weeks ago. They fled the area when the Taliban took the city in 1998 and have been fighting in this area ever since. They say they intend to start the journey home on Monday.

The men seem polite enough, even offering a photographer a cup of green tea as he snaps several shots of them. But these are men who’ve likely known little else but war for most of their lives, and such men can be extremely unpredictable. An interpreter suggests that it is time to leave.

The men are asked how they intend to return home, since Kunduz, where the Taliban are under seige, stands in the way. Their answer is a familiar one in Afghanistan.

“There are two roads,” one of them says. “Maybe one of them is clear. If it’s not, then we will fight our way through. ”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Afghan Family Caught in Refugee Limbo

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan (Nov. 17)–  There is a blue door to a second story walk-up flat in a dingy apartment building in Micro Region 5 which carries a simple inscription.

Written in white chalk, it says, “Our door number is 27.”

To the visitor, the scrawling English words may seem out of place among the rows of dilapidated Soviet-style apartment buildings in this dusty, sprawling town on the northern border of Afghanistan.

But to the shy, 19-year-old girl who penned them, the words are the language of hope and the dream of a peaceful life far from the terror she has known.

“I want to go to America,” says Suhilla Omedwor, a refugee from the northern Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif. “Right now, I dream of having a good life and of studying in school. That’s all I can dream.”

But Suhila’s dreams are now caught in a maze of bureaucratic limbo. Granted refugee status by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in June, she and her family were hoping to immigrate to the United States. They had been told initially that they might be able to immigrate as early as October. But then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occured.

“After the accident, UNHCR said we should wait,” Suhila says. “But we don’t know how long.”

No one else in Uzbekistan seems to know either. Inquiries to UNHCR office in Uzbekistan produced no clear answers. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in the capitol of Tashkent said he was not aware of any changes in policy that would prevent Afghan refugees from immigrating to the United States. Inquiries to the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have gone unanswered.

There are an estimated 600 registered Afghan refugees in Termez alone, according to Liya Kholmatova, a doctor with the Red Crescent relief organization — the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross — and other aid workers. Another 600 are unregistered. Kholmatova estimates that about 55 Afghan families in Termez and Tashkent waiting to immigrate are caught in the same bureaucratic limbo as Suhila and her family.

“Anywhere in America that will take us, we will go there,” Suhila says. “But when I ask when we shall go, they (UNHCR) said, you should just wait. It’s not clear when we will go.”

Suhila fled Afghanistan three years ago with her mother Kahir, her three sisters and a brother. Her siblings range in age from 16 to nine. They occupy the three-room flat with an uncle, his wife and five children. There are 13 of them altogether.

They eke out a marginal existence on the frail edge between a country in which they do not feel at home and a homeland to which they do not want to return.

“We left because of the Taliban,” Suhila says. “They just want to kill everybody.”

Suhila and her family are native Hazara, one of a handful of minority ethnic groups in Afghanistan, where the majority Pashtun have dominated for centuries. As Shiite Muslims in a predominately Sunni Muslim country, they face the added burden of being a minority within a minority.

Though now allied nominally with ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks as part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, the Hazara have often been caught at the center of the ethnic infighting and civil war that erupted after the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation. Tajiks under the command of Mujaheddin leader Ahmad Shah Masud massacred thousands of Hazara in 1993 and 1995. The Pashtun-led Taliban massacred thousands of Hazara in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 and tried to starve them into surrender in their historic homeland in the Bamiyan valley. But the Hazara have also carried out massacres of their own, including when they rose up in revolt and killed hundreds of Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997.

Suhila’s father Barat Ali served in the post-Soviet government of President Najibullah. She grew up in Kabul and attended an English school there. But the family fled to Mazar-e-Sharif after the Taliban took Kabul in 1994 and murdered Najibullah. They lived in relative safety in Mazar until the Taliban took the city, first briefly in 1997, then again in 1998. During a two-day killing spree that followed the second time the city fell, the Taliban went door to door to Hazara homes, murdering anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 people. Suhila’s father was one of the victims.

“They came to the door, and said to my father, ‘come here,” Suhila says. “After he went out with them, we heard the shot.”

She still cries every time she recalls the incident.

Suhila’s 16-year-old sister Sufwrah witnessed her father’s murder. She has suffered from epilepsy ever since, according to the family. Without the proper medicine, she suffers as many as three attacks a day, according to Kholmatova. Though Suhila’s uncle has a job selling ballons, the family lives mostly on about $16 a month in assistance from UNHCR.

The Taliban conducted the massacre in retaliation for the Hazara slaughter of more than 600 Taliban soldiers when the Taliban first took the city in 1997. Kahir, Suhila’s mother, says she has no idea why her husband was singled out.

“A woman doesn’t know why things happen in Afghanistan,” she says.

The family fled after Barat Ali was killed, selling everything they owned in order to slip into neighboring Turkmenestan, then to Termez. They feel more comfortable there than they do in Tashkent or elsewhere in the country because they are among fellow Afghans. But still they face enormous difficulties because they do not speak Uzbek or Russian.

Suhila is attempting to learn the language by taking a couple of classes a week at the Red Crescent facility. But the other children have dropped out of school because they felt out of place. They do not go outside much and play with other children because they do not speak Russian.  Suhila spends much of her time teaching her brothers and sisters English from lessons and songs she remembers when she attended school in Kabul.

“I love English,” she says. “It is my second language.”

Kahir hopes that her children, especially her daughters, get the kind of chance she never had.

“We just want to live our lives,” she says. “I want my children to study in a school. My mother was illiterate. I am illiterate too. I don’t want my children to be illiterate.”

Once she is finished with school, Suhila says she hopes to become an airline stewardess.

“I want to see every country,” she says.

Faqhir, Suhila’s uncle, admits that he would like to immigrate to America as well. But he cannot obtain refugee status because he works, no matter how little his job pays. He wonders what sort of future he and his children will have in Uzbekistan. But he has no desire to return to Afghanistan, where he fears they  may face renewed war.

For the moment, he prefers to live in the present only.

“The Afghan people have forgotten how to dream of the future, ” he says.

Suhila says that by attending school in America, she will be honoring the memory of her dead father.

“My father wanted me to become an educated person,” she says.

Kholmatova doubts that her student will get that sort of chance if she remains in Uzbekistan.

“I hope that America will take them, she says. “I think your country will treat them better country than ours.”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Anti-Taliban forces reportedly enter strategic Afghan city in major battlefield victory

Friday, November 9, 2001

By Drew Brown and Warren P. Strobel
Knight Ridder Newspapers

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan – Anti-Taliban forces entered the strategic northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday in what appeared to be their first major battlefield victory and a potential turning point in the war for Afghanistan after a month of escalating U.S. air attacks.

Commanders of the United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance, said their forces captured the crossroads city after a fierce battle. A popular uprising was reported to have occurred as panicked Taliban troops fled the city heading east.

“Mazar has fallen,” said Mohammed Hassan Saad, the United Front’s top official in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. “The Taliban left the city and are retreating toward Kunduz.”

The claims from the alliance, which often exaggerates battlefield successes, could not be independently verified, and the Pentagon would not publicly confirm them.

However, U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that opposition fighters entered the city and said hundreds of Taliban soldiers had defected and others appeared to be on the run.

The officials cautioned that the Taliban still have tanks and artillery and could counterattack. Some U.S. officials argued that American forces should be sent from Uzbekistan to secure the city, but a decision has been put off until the situation is clearer.

The loss of Mazar-e-Sharif would be a major military and psychological blow to the Taliban, whom President Bush accuses of harboring terrorist Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It would allow U.S. military forces to establish a land bridge to ferry in ammunition, fuel, food and other supplies to the alliance from neighboring Uzbekistan, where U.S. troops are based. That route also could be used to speed the delivery of humanitarian aid.

And, said a senior Bush administration official, the capture of the city could convince ethnic Pashtun leaders in the south that the Taliban’s days are numbered, prompting them to defect. It might also quicken U.S.-backed efforts to form a broad-based post-Taliban government, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The alliance’s advances came after the United States intensified its bombing in recent days of Taliban positions near Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and elsewhere. Those strikes reportedly have become more accurate due to closer collaboration between the alliance and U.S. special forces teams directing U.S. aircraft to their targets.

“The bombing appears to have cracked the Taliban around Mazar-e-Sharif,” said a U.S. official who requested anonymity.

There also were reports Friday that alliance forces were massing along the front line on the Shomali Plain 25 miles north of Kabul, where they face an entrenched Taliban force.

The reported advances against the Taliban after 34 days of U.S. air strikes also provide a much-needed boost to President Bush, who is due to speak at the United Nations on Saturday morning.

In the speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Bush is expected to announce U.S. backing for a major international reconstruction effort for Afghanistan after the Taliban have been ejected from power, the senior U.S. official said. The package, with contributions from Washington, the European Union, Persian Gulf countries and others, would be worth roughly $1 billion a year, the official said.

Bush administration officials have encouraged the United Front, an alliance led by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, to advance on Mazar-e-Sharif for weeks.

“It was a very fierce battle,” Mukhaqiq said, speaking by satellite telephone from Mazar-e-Sharif.

A number of Taliban tanks were destroyed by the bombing. Others lay abandoned along the path of the Front’s advance. Taliban dead lay on the ground.

“We haven’t counted them up yet,” said Mukhaqiq. “But every time we advanced to a new position, there were five or six dead bodies there. They were, almost without exception, Arab or Pakistani. Almost all of the fighters on the frontline were foreigners.”

In Washington, Pentagon officials reacted cautiously in public, saying they could not confirm Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen and they were still trying to sort out reports from the field.

“There are skirmishes happening across these various fronts, if you want to call them as such, and with that dust in the air, it’s very hard to tell exactly what’s going on,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Pentagon press briefing.

A senior Uzbek official noted that Afghanistan has a turbulent history of cities and districts changing hands within days of capture. “If today Mazar-e-Sharif has fallen, three days later it could be given back,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “One month after the opposition captured the city, you can gauge the military action.”

For that reason, the official said, Uzbekistan will not react immediately by opening its border with Afghanistan, closed since 1997. “The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif is a very good reason for considering the option, but it doesn’t mean we will react after one or two days. Who knows what can happen tomorrow?”

Military planners in Washington had been debating about whether to press to get the border open so that U.S. forces could advance down a highway from Uzbekistan and take possession of the air base at Mazar-e-Sharif. A senior defense official said it appeared the United States would wait a few days.

“This is one of those wars where the tide shifts constantly, and I don’t think you’d want to pull up and move down there to find out that the tide just shifted back,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The apparent capture of Mazar-e-Sharif already was bolstering the hopes of other rebel soldiers fighting in other parts of Afghanistan.

“If Mazar-e-Sharif has fallen, it will be fruitful because the alliance can send us military equipment and food,” said Gulom Shah, a soldier fighting under Rulan Hassrat, a commander with allegiances to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another prominent Afghan warlord once backed by the CIA and now allied with Iran.

Friday’s reported capture of the city marked the third time since 1997 that it has changed hands between the Taliban and its opponents.

Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum held sway in the city until it fell for the last time to the Taliban in 1998. Alliance factions have attempted several times to retake the city in the last three years, but their efforts have been hampered by infighting and betrayals among the various factions, poor coordination and a lack of sufficient ammunition and weapons.

The senior U.S. official said the United States has warned the alliance not to engage in the reprisals and massacres that have characterized captures of cities in past Afghan fighting. Dostum in particular has a reputation for brutality.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told radio reporters in Washington that the likely capture of Mazar-e-Sharif will allow the U.S. military to use the upcoming Ramadan period to bring in relief supplies by land from Uzbekistan. Ramadan, which starts when the light of the crescent moon is visible, likely Nov. 17, is the Muslim month of daytime fasting and religious contemplation.

(Brown, of the Macon Telegraph, reported from Termez, Strobel from Washington. Jonathan S. Landay and the Tallahassee Democrat’s Tony Bridges in Washington and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Andrew Maykuth in Jabal Saraj, Afghanistan, and Sudarsan Raghavan in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, contributed to this report.)

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.