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Afghan Opposition Launch Offensive

The Northern Alliance say they have taken several key Afghan villages in an offensive coordinated with US-led air-strikes.
By Tim Judah

As the United States and Britain began major strikes against Afghanistan last night, the forces of the country's opposition Northern Alliance were claiming to have made significant military gains in a new offensive.

They announced they had taken eleven strategically placed villages and to have advanced on Aibek, a major town in Samangan province whose fall would cut off

Taleban lines to the north.

Soon after the US-led strikes began, a Northern Alliance spokesman in Dushanbe, the capital of neighbouring Tajikistan, said that a major offensive coordinated with the American and British attacks would now begin.

Northern Alliance forces, who hold some ten per cent of the country, are hoping that air-strikes will lead to a collapse in Taleban morale and fighting capacity. Military sources confirmed on Sunday that the Afghan opposition were making preparations for an offensive, including air-lifting by helicopter hundreds of soldiers up from the Panjshir valley close to Kabul.

The soldiers, who said they were special forces before being forbidden to speak to journalists, were gathered at a mustering point close to Afghanistan's border with Tajikstan. According to Northern Alliance military commander, General Isaq, they were not being sent to the front immediately but being held back "until we get the orders".

Interviewed six hours before the attacks began, he said he was looking forward to the US-led strikes. "Yes, I want them to come but they must be careful of civilians," he said. "Anyway, whatever the Americans do, we will continue. If Pakistan had not supported the Taleban we would have defeated them by now."

General Isaq noted that he personally, as well as his country had already been at war for more than twenty years, since the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country.

Amongst last night's attacks were strikes against the key northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif. If Aibek falls, followed by Mazar-e-Sharif, the Northern Alliance will capture a huge swathe of the north of the country, opening the main road to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, where US and British troops are being deployed.

Ever since the attacks on the United States on September 11, Western officials have been courting the Northern Alliance. While they see them as a crucial partner in the forthcoming battle for Afghanistan, they have also been wary as the bulk of the opposition is made up of Afghanistan's minorities, including Tajiks and Uzbeks.

For any future government to succeed, it must include major representation from the country's southern Pashtuns, who make up the bulk of the Taleban's support.

They hope that a recent agreement between the Northern Alliance and the former King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who is a Pashtun, will help bridge the country's ethnic gap, and provide the basis for a first post-Taleban interim government.

In the hours running up to the US and British strikes, Northern Alliance forces kept up artillery fire on Taleban troops close to the Tajik border. Captain Tillo Muhamed said he was optimistic that Kabul regime forces would soon collapse. "We have been fighting them for years," he said, "but now they are becoming weak."

According to Captain Muhamed, Mullah Omar's forces have been weakened over the last few weeks as many Pakistanis and Arabs fighting in their ranks have left the front-lines. It was impossible to confirm such statements.

General Isaq said that messages had been sent to Taleban fighters calling on them to defect. Standing atop the majestic natural escarpment of Ay Hanoum some four kilometres from Taleban lines, Captain Shirindil Sohil said Mullah Omar's fighters had two choices, "Come over to us or die".

Half in jest, General Isaq took his walkie-talkie, on which he had been monitoring a conversation between Taleban fighters on the other side of the front-line and said, "Hello, Taleban...over?"

The walkie-talkie went silent, but General Isaq said that Kabul regime fighters often do reply but generally with unprintable expletives.

Two miles closer to Taleban lines, atop another huge natural escarpment at Kuruk, a Northern Alliance spotter was helping direct outgoing artillery fire at Kabul regime positions. As plumes of smoke rose above their lines, he shouted directions into his radio, "Right a little, a hundred metres down, that's it! You got the truck with the gun on the back!"

There appeared to be little return fire from Taleban lines. In a nearby river crossed by Northern Alliance soldiers and civilians, a single huge plume of water rose, the result of an apparent shell fired by Mullah Omar's forces.

In the little town of Khoja Bahoudin in Takhar province, where Afghan opposition officials are based, there was no initial reaction because there is no electricity here and thus no television. In the compound, which serves as the foreign ministry, officials at first appeared stunned, and then refused to make statements.

Some followed developments on CNN, which they could watch thanks to an electrical generator, but others tuned into the BBC World Service's Farsi language broadcasts.

Over the last few days, most of Northern Alliance territory has been remarkably calm. Even as shells were being fired near Kuruk, soldiers rode casually to and from the front on horseback while traders followed many of the same routes, leading sedate camel trains loaded down with goods.

Most of northern Afghanistan is sunk in grinding poverty and drought. This year's crops have withered. Fields which would normally grow wheat and cotton are nothing but swirling dust today.

Two decades of war have also reduced an already weak health system to a critical state. Rupert Neudeck, a German doctor from the medical emergency group Komitee Cap Anamur, said that, in effect "the whole health system has collapsed. The hospitals, such that exist, are not ones that we would recognise". In most of the country, he said, children had not been vaccinated for fifteen years.

Along the dusty road from the front, refugees from Taleban-held areas of the country eke out a meagre existence living in tents. For one refugee family though, whatever else was happening, last night was one of relief and muted joy. In the small concrete building which serves as a hospital in Khoja Baoudin, a five-year-old girl lay in a deep sleep.

Dr Abdul Majid said, "She was brought in four days ago with cerebral malaria, but now she is going to be okay."

Just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was to plunge this country into wars which continue to this day, and indeed to change the history of the world, last night's attacks also mark a turning point. If nothing else, Afghans are hoping that the future, especially for children like the little girl in the hospital, will bring them something other than war without end.

Tim Judah is a leading Balkans specialist and IWPR contributor.

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