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Taleban Buttress Northern Defences

Mullah Omar has reinforced his positions in the north of Afghanistan in readiness for expected US-led strikes.
By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

The Taleban have reinforced their units in the north of Afghanistan in the apparent belief that American forces will use territory controlled by the Afghan opposition to launch military strikes against them, one of the leading Northern Alliance commanders has told IWPR.

General Abdul Rashid Dostum, in charge of Uzbek forces in the anti-Taleban coalition, said that Mullah Omar had redeployed many of his troops from the southern border with Pakistan to the area around the strategically important town of Mazar-e-Sharif, about 60 km behind the Taleban front line.

Dostum said he launched an offensive against Mazar-e-Sharif at the end of September, believing the Taleban had been distracted by the international clamour over the terrorist attacks in the US. He had calculated that their guard would be down, but was proved wrong as his 8,000-strong force was beaten back by unexpectedly large numbers of Taleban troops, backed by fighter planes.

"Dostum wanted to take the initiative and push the Taleban back, maybe even drive them out of Kabul," said Arkady Dubnov, Central Asian correspondent for the Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei.

The Northern Alliance commander believes Mullah Omar had decided the US was unlikely to launch an attack from Pakistan, as first thought, and was now more inclined to do so from territory controlled by anti-Taleban forces. Accordingly, says Dostum, the Taleban have shifted many of their troops from the south to the north of the country, which was why he met such stiff resistance.

"I lost some of my commanders and many of my best fighters. It looks like they (Taleban) decided to finish off my troops before the US military campaign begins. They brought in reinforcements from Kunduz and Kandahar (in the south) and put them under leadership of Mulla Kadyr," said Dostum, speaking to IWPR on a satellite phone from Kutondyk, about 50 km from Mazar-e-Sharif.

The Taleban's apparent tactical switch came after fierce opposition from Pakistani-based Islamic groups to Islamabad's military cooperation with the US. Washington had wanted exclusive access to Pakistan's military intelligence and the use of the country's airbases as a springboard for assaults against the Kabul regime.

Initially, Mullah Omar had rushed his forces to the border with Pakistan. But, if Dostum is to be believed, as soon as it emerged that the US was instead thinking of basing its forces in the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and possibly Tajikistan - both of which neighbour Afghanistan and in some cases border Northern Alliance-held areas of the country - the Taleban leadership redeployed much of the southern force in the north.

The likelihood of America hitting the Taleban from the north is growing by the day. Tashkent has officially allowed the US to use its airspace and there have been reports that airports in the south of the country are being prepared. The Uzbek military, meanwhile, are on full military alert.

Dostum said his forces at present are no match for the Taleban. "They are at present much better armed - they don't have any problems with munitions, which are regularly supplied by air," he said. "We do not have enough weapons and are running out of medical supplies. "

Apparently taking advantage of the international community's seeming willingness to assist the Northern Alliance in their struggle against the Kabul regime, Dostum last week made an unprecedented public appeal to Moscow for help, read out on Russian TV. In the past such appeals have always been made secretly because of the UN embargo against Afghanistan.

With the US dragging its heels over military intervention in Afghanistan, Dostum, in the short-term at least, is heavily reliant on fresh deliveries of Russian weapons - which the Northern Alliance has been receiving clandestinely since 1996.

For now, Dostum admits that he is unable to count on the rest of Northern Alliance forces to help him try and dislodge the Taleban from the Mazar-e-Sharif. "We try to keep in touch with Fahim (successor to the assassinated Northern Alliance military leader Ahmed Shah Massoud) but he is unable to help us because mountain ranges stand in his way."

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is coordinator of IWPR's Central Asia programme.

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