Afghan Opposition Advance on Kabul

The battle for Kabul has begun. Thirty-seven days after the US bombing of Afghanistan began, the whole political, strategic and diplomatic map of the country has changed.

Afghan Opposition Advance on Kabul

The battle for Kabul has begun. Thirty-seven days after the US bombing of Afghanistan began, the whole political, strategic and diplomatic map of the country has changed.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

The battle for Kabul began early on Monday morning. Northern Alliance artillery, mortars, rockets and tank fire let rip across the wide Shomali plain north of the Afghan capital, while US B-52 and fighter bombers attacked the Taleban from the sky.

Vast clouds of smoke and dust billowed into the air following the B-52 strikes, some of which dropped bombs along what appeared to be, at the very least, a solid seven hundred metre long "carpet". Fighter bombers prowling in the sky above wheeled and dived at will.

At Bagram air base, Northern Alliance commander General Baba Jan directed operations while a thousand soldiers with backpacks awaited the orders to move.

The attack began exactly 72 hours after the beginning of the Afghan opposition offensive on the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which promoted a Taleban collapse across all of northern Afghanistan.

Late Monday afternoon, the artillery and air strikes died down and Northern Alliance troops and tanks began pouring across the old front lines. The Northern Alliance foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah said they had advanced to within 6 km of the city by sundown Monday.

By that time most of the north of the country had fallen to the Northern Alliance, including the historic city of Herat in the west, but it was still unclear whether the Taleban had been driven out of Konduz.

From Rabat, smoke and dust could be seen rising along a 30 km front, as shells and bombs exploded all the way along it. On the so-called "old road" to Kabul, hundreds of "Zarbati" or shock troops lounged in the afternoon sun awaiting orders to advance.

In Jabal Saraj, 60 km north of Kabul, some 120 mainly ethnic Hazara troops who had defected overnight from the Taleban were being housed in the barracks of the Azad Mahamad brigade, who are also ethnic Hazaras.

The Hazaras from Oruzgan province said they had been forcibly drafted by the Taleban two months ago and had been in discussion with the Azad Mahamad brigade for the last two weeks about the mechanics of crossing the front line safely.

Said Ali Rizahi recounted the terror of being on the front line at Kuhi Sofi while it was bombed by the Americans. "Some of us jumped into the trenches, some escaped and some put their hands up. It was very efficiently targeted and half the Taleban ran away."

The rout of the Taleban across northern Afghanistan utterly changes the whole political, strategic and diplomatic map. If Abdullah Abdullah is to be believed then the extraordinary events of the past three days mark the beginning of the end of the war since he says 15,000 Taleban troops, "their main fighting force", have now been lost either having been killed, captured, fled or otherwise encircled in northern Afghanistan with no chance of escape.

The lightening advance of Northern Alliance forces implies that in most regions there has been little fighting, but that local Taleban commanders have defected to the Northern Alliance, as hardcore, ideological Taleban plus their foreign legion of Arabs, Pakistanis and others, have fled.

Asked whether he was surprised by the speed of the Taleban collapse, Abdullah said, "I was not surprised, I knew they would crack somewhere and this would produce a domino effect for Taleban forces, and that things would get out of their control." What did surprise him, he said, was that the Taleban had not withdrawn earlier "from a hostile environment" thus saving their forces.

According to Abdullah and Yonus Qanuni, the powerful Northern Alliance minister of the interior, their plan is for their troops to go only to the gates of Kabul and from there on only to send in their police forces.

The idea of this is to avoid a repetition of the bloody internecine fighting which cost tens of thousands of lives when the Mujahedin entered Kabul following the collapse of the Russian-backed regime in 1992.

The idea of halting at the gates of Kabul is also aimed at assuaging US fears that the Northern Alliance intends to seize power before a political settlement is made, which would include Pashtuns who make up some 38-45 per cent of the country's population.

Whether the Northern Alliance actually do stop at the gates of Kabul remains to be seen.

The Northern Alliance is dominated by Tajiks, Uzbeks and other Afghan minorities, while the bedrock of Taleban support is in the Pashtun south of Afghanistan.

Northern Alliance leaders are calculating that in the next few days they will flush the Taleban out of all the non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and that after that Taleban rule will similarly crumble in Pashtun areas, where local resistance leaders will emerge.

In the north of the country, the Pashtun-dominated Taleban were regarded as little better than foreign occupiers but the Northern Alliance know that the minute the tables are reversed and their troops set foot in Pashtun areas they will be the ones who are regarded as the foreign occupiers.

The Northern Alliance do have Pashtun elements among their forces though and they are in constant touch with men like Hamid Karzai, a prominent Pashtun anti-Taliban leader, who has now entered Afghanistan to foment rebellion.

In strategic terms, the Northern Alliance now control most of the famous Salang highway which leads from Kabul, through the mountains of Salang pass, and then up north to Uzbekistan.

While US spokesmen are talking of sending humanitarian aid down this road, its real significance is that it can be used to send in huge quantities of ammunition and, of course, Western troops should any decision be made to do that.

Today, Taleban troops are still believed to control that part of the road north of Kabul and another part just north of the Salang tunnel. However, it is a mark of the confidence of Northern Alliance forces that on Sunday they sent an engineer into the blocked tunnel to assess how long it would take to reopen it.

Speaking in the middle of the tunnel, where massive icicles hang from the ceiling, Haji Azmuddin, a civil engineer said, "it should take us 20 days to clear and we will start tomorrow."

In fact, clearing the 2,200 m tunnel may take somewhat longer as both ends are completely blocked by huge mounds of rubble and debris caused by an earlier Taleban attempt to stop a Northern Alliance advance and then by a Northern Alliance attempt to stop a Taleban advance.

Still, since the idea of clearing the tunnel would have seemed absurd on Friday, nothing can be taken for granted here anymore.

Tim Judah, author of Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale), is a regular IWPR contributor.

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