Despite US, Afghan rebels approach Kabul

US wants a political deal to be reached before rebels take Kabul.

The panic in the Taliban fighter's voice shot through every syllable, as it crackled across the field radio.

"Quickly, quickly, quickly!" he screamed to another Taliban officer, as the first line of Taliban defenses north of Kabul fell to rebels yesterday. "Six of our friends are still trapped there. You must help them!"

The plea for help broke into heavy radio traffic of the Northern Alliance rebels, who are riding a wave of fast-paced, sweeping military gains across northern Afghanistan and pushing toward the capital of Kabul.

The past few days have marked a significant military turning point in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance - in control of just 10 percent of the country last week - has taken key airports, towns, and supply routes in half of the country. The strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif fell overnight Friday. The western city of Herat fell yesterday. The alliance says it must capitalize on this momentum, as the joint US-rebel strategy appears to be quickly demoralizing Taliban fighters across the north and putting them on the run. Rebel radios on the Bagram front here yesterday barked out repeated orders to move forward, toward Kabul - despite American warnings not to take the capital before a political deal is reached.

Top alliance officials say they will stop at the gates of Kabul, and then seek a multiethnic political deal. But commanders on the front - where thousands of troops are now girding for war like a legion of ancient hoplite warriors, banging their spears against their shields in anticipation - say they will make the decision when they arrive at the gates, regardless of US plans.

Where the rebels decide to stop - and how they will handle the capture of Kabul - could determine success or failure in Washington's declared war against terrorism.

Last night a hazy dusk, rebel artillery and rocket fire, and the plumes from American airstrikes on Taliban lines coated the valley route to Kabul. Taliban vehicles sped across the open space, as shells exploded with flashes of light; a burning Taliban ammunition dump kept discharging fiery rounds.

As darkness fell, one flash after another of grenades fired into the air - the signal for alliance troops to mark new territory under their control.

"If we collect 20 Mazar-e Sharifs, it is not the same as breaking this [Kabul] line," says Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, deputy chief of the Alliance Leadership Council. "If it falls, then the Taliban will fall down very quickly. Kabul is like the head of the enemy, and when you hit him in the head, his hands and feet cannot move."

Heavy American airstrikes against the Taliban lines in Mazar-e Sharif - in which air activity for days was so intense that plane contrails criss-crossed the sky - set a precedent that US military planners applied to the western city of Herat, which also fell to the alliance yesterday.

While US bombing north of Kabul was heavier than normal yesterday, it did not match the Mazar example - a signal of caution to the alliance, commanders say. "It creates more problems for us if we attack and stop," says alliance Col. Alim Khan, in charge of the Kapisa front northeast of Kabul. "I'm a military man; my house is in Kabul. How can we go to the gates without entering?"

The fate of Kabul presents to the US a fine-line dilemma that is difficult to draw with bombs alone: How far can the US help its proxy allies in Afghanistan in overthrowing the Taliban, while ensuring that the alliance stops short of taking the biggest prize?

US officials are concerned that control of the city by the alliance, which is largely made up of ethnic minorities, could result in ethnic bloodletting like that began in Kabul in 1992 that left tens of thousands dead when dominant Pashtuns rejected their rule.

Senior alliance officers say that this time their forces are fully under their control, and that they have orders to stop at the gates of the city. At that moment they will decide what to do.

"We will stay there, but if we see the Taliban resist or looting in Kabul, we will send some security forces there," says Gen. Fazil Ahmad Azimi, as he described the offensive at the front. "The Taliban has been making propaganda that there will be some Pashtun revenge, and that's 100 percent wrong. We will announce a common peace for everyone."

Alliance troops say their hope of an imminent offensive turned to despair Saturday, when they heard reports of President Bush and Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf. Bush said the US would "encourage our friends to head south ... but not into the city of Kabul itself. Mr. Musharraf warned of "total atrocities, killing, and mayhem."

"We were very much surprised and depressed," said Colonel Khan. "It was like pouring cold water into boiling water."

Still, thousands of troops yesterday prepared for war north of Kabul. Rebels cleared their own minefields overnight to open the way; uniformed Zarbati (strike force) troops - many of them from Kabul - gathered before dawn. As the troops loaded into trucks to move forward from Kapisa, the arcing contrail of an American B-52 bomber - the first of many yesterday - cut a perfect semi-circle across the blue sky.

"If the Americans bomb, we can easily move forward," says Major Kamran, as his troops await the final order to advance. "Everybody knows it is effective, and if they bomb, we will have many less soldiers dead."

As the offensive got under way around 2 p.m., the alliance fired off more than a dozen volleys of rocket fire from a bank of Stalin Organ launchers near the Bagram airfield.

Reports came in of 30 to 40 Taliban cornered in one village; hundreds of Taliban defected to the alliance in another. General Babajan, chief of the Bagram Front, was overheard on a secret frequency, describing how alliance troops had broken the first of the Taliban's three defensive lines, but that the Taliban - bolstered by 300 Pakistani and Arab troops earlier in the day - were counter-attacking on the second line. The alliance later broke through the second.

All the front-line action meant radios kept blaring. "We capture a Taliban hiding in a garden!" came one urgent message from an alliance officer. "We have him, so don't shoot at our position."

But there were moments of relative calm, too. As the last pastel of light from the sky disappeared from the sky, General Azimi stopped his car along a Bagram road.

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