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

November 9, 2001

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.

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