With US help, rebel recruits prepare to fight Taliban

Northern Alliance commanders say increased US help is making a difference.

Call it "How to Make War, 101." It's an outdoor classroom in Afghanistan, where fresh rebel recruits are being hurriedly trained to take on the Taliban militia.

As they mark a warrior's rite of passage common in Afghanistan for decades, the 150 young men - who look like they're reporting for their first day of high school - settle into a circle around their new commander.

They hardly look like the shock troops who are going to force the Taliban from Kabul, even if they are able to take advantage of renewed heavy American bombing of front-line positions around the strategic northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, which continued yesterday.

Commanders in a hard-to-supply rebel pocket there confirmed yesterday that some 20 uniformed US soldiers had set up a base at Dar-I-Suf, south of the city, to help the rebel Northern Alliance launch a fresh offensive.

Rebel capture of Mazar-e Sharif is deemed to be the first piece in the Pentagon's Afghanistan puzzle, and defense officials in Washington say that future commando raids may be launched from airfields inside the country - possibly near Mazar.

After days of rebel criticism that US strikes have had limited impact, alliance foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah yesterday said that the Taliban had been "paralyzed." He predicted that "large areas" south of Mazar-e Sharif would be "liberated" within days.

Regardless of the bravado of these new recruits - and of the 150 troops on a nearby part of this parade ground in their newly issued uniforms from Iran - rebels in Mazar-e Sharif are reportedly begging for food from locals, and desperately short of ammunition.

By contrast, the new recruits here seem to have more potential. At first glance, nothing matches: not the array of guns and rocket launchers that they shoulder; not the dark turbans or bright scarves they wear with the traditional salwar kameez.

But uniformity will come soon enough, Cmdr. Mohamed Aref promises them as America, Russia, and Iran pledge more support for the rebels in their effort to topple the radical Islamic Taliban regime in Kabul.

"We are waiting for new uniforms, new types of automatic guns, and we will teach you how to train and shoot them," Commander Aref says, addressing the soldiers beside an old Soviet tank in alliance territory 30 miles north of Kabul.

The pep talk, in tone at least, is like a coach pumping up his high school football team. But the stakes here are much larger - the future of Afghanistan, and the future of Washington's declared war on terrorism.

The Pentagon confirmed Monday that it is ramping up help and coordination with alliance chiefs. Mr. Abdullah yesterday confirmed that the increased help was already being felt.

Despite calls from some congressional leaders for a robust US troop presence on the ground to help oust the Taliban, the alliance rebels know that the key to victory may be in their hands.

"We will rescue our country from the invaders, and save it forever," Aref tells his recruits. "You should know the timetable: breakfast, training, learning, and time for the Holy Koran," Aref says. "The future belongs to you. You are the next generation growing up in Afghanistan."

The aim is to turn this rag-tag bunch into Northern Alliance zarbati, literally a "strike force" of uniformed troops as disciplined, trained, and organized as any in the rebel ranks.

The zarbati are the brainchild of the late alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, who began forming them in the past two years. But little could he have anticipated the critical role these ground troops are likely to play in Afghanistan, as both sides dismiss the first three weeks of American bombing here as ineffective.

The Pentagon on Monday announced that it had begun to systematically destroy a complex of mountain caves and hideouts of Mr. bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan, with heavy bunker-buster bombs, designed to rip-through reinforced concrete.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says that several mid-level "terrorist leaders" of bin Laden's network have been killed so far, and that the deliberate pace of attacks - despite criticism at mounting civilian casualties - are undermining the Taliban's will to fight.

But on the ground around Kabul, refugees and alliance soldiers say that, at least on this front line, more than a week of sporadic US bombing has had little impact.

Mohamed Halim overheard boastful Taliban soldiers joking with each other, the night before he fled the capital. "The American bombing and cruise missiles are useless," Mr. Halim says he heard the men say, laughing about their limited impact. "They tell each other: 'It's not important, it's not momentous.' "

Almost the exact same words came from the rebel side of the lines yesterday, north of Kabul, as US jet fighters dropped four large bombs on the front.

"The American bombing is useless," says Abdulmohid, a rebel fighter who watched the bombs drop from a commander's roof near the front line. During the Soviet occupation, he says, planes would come more than a dozen at a time. "We have seen that, and it was effective. But the Americans come with one plane, drop one bomb, and leave."

Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar remains defiant, too."We will never welcome them with flowers," Mr. Omar told the Algerian newspaper El Youm. "They will receive a tougher lesson than that of their Russian predecessors."

That is exactly the result that the young-faced recruit Azizollah says he wants to fight to prevent. "God willing, we will succeed," he says, with a 25-year-old Soviet PKM gun in his hands that, he says, was captured from the Taliban three years ago.

"We are training," the 18-year-old says, the red plastic prayer beads wrapped around his left wrist rattling, as he reaches for the worn wood butt of the gun. "We will learn the military arts, to save our country from the enemy."

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