View from Northern Alliance's front lines

When the first hammer blow of American military strikes hit Afghanistan during the night Sunday, Commander Laludin was ready.

But instead of engaging in war with his rocket battery and heavy artillery cannon, his men of the opposition Northern Alliance had a party. All the rhetoric about the US war against terrorism was over: American forces were finally targeting their enemy, the Taliban militia. And these soldiers of the Northern Alliance could now push forward with their ground assault to gain control of the country.

"We're colleagues of the US, ready to help," says Qari, a young Northern Alliance gunner who perhaps best sums up the alliance frame of mind. "Our guns, our mujahideen - they're at America's service."

Commanders and leaders of the Northern Alliance say their primary push will be for Mazar-e-Sharif, a city about 50 kilometers south of the Uzbek border that is home to a strategic air base currently controlled by the Taliban. Capturing Mazar-e-Sharif would not only benefit the Northern Alliance; it could also provide the Americans with a forward base from which to operate in Afghanistan that wouldn't offend surrounding countries, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Contacted by satellite phone at his base at the Samanghan Province, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the commanders of the push in the north, says: "We're fighting around the clock."

At a press conference yesterday, Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said the Northern Alliance forces made advances on three fronts, on the North-South routes through Afghanistan that the Taliban use to supply their troops in the north.

Already, opposition leaders claim, the Taliban are in disarray. Dr. Abdullah said the Alliance could be involved in a ground offensive against Kabul within the week. Capturing Kabul, which lies just 25 miles from the front, would symbolically put the Northern Alliance in charge of the country, and effectively put the Taliban and followers of accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden on the defensive.

Several Taliban commanders had defected yesterday to the Northern Alliance, Abdullah added, bringing with them 1,000 troops. "There are no radio communications between Taliban bases anymore," he said, suggesting that the Taliban's whole communications network is down.

But already there is an evident human cost: Fearful Afghans fleeing target areas tell of desperation in Kabul and how Taliban control there has tightened unbearably in recent months.

While the US seeks to reassure Afghans that its operation here is both military and humanitarian - by air-dropping 37,000 meals Sunday evening, just hours before the first shots at capturing Mr. bin Laden and ousting the Taliban - civilians caught near the fighting felt panic.

Less than two hours after the first strike, just before midnight, groups of people from villages near the Bagram airbase - one of the first areas targeted by the US - had taken to the road.

Through roiling dust, boys pushed bicycles loaded with goods, while women in head-to-toe blue burqas made a surreal image, like ghosts flitting through the darkness as headlights pierced the gloom.

As dawn broke across the valley on the Old Kabul Road, the story was the same for those who had seen the first of the fighting. "It started at Bagram, an artillery exchange, and we escaped from there," says Sharifa, who with her four children and another woman, hired a horse-drawn cart to flee to the north. Even on this blue-sky morning, clopping along past tree-lined fields, her comments were punctuated by the sporadic tick-boom of artillery shells, in several directions.

Still, she said, as her friend held her head in her hand, she understood the purpose of the fight. "We don't know what will happen," Sharifa says. "But we hope these terrorists - the Taliban - will be taken out of this country."

A chief aim of the US strikes is to remove the Taliban, so that their ability to shelter bin Laden and the elements in Afghanistan of his Al Qaeda (the base) network will disappear.

Afghans in Kabul and Western relief workers familiar with the mood in the capital say that Taliban rule has grown increasingly strict in recent months. Two ancient Buddhas were destroyed earlier this year; eight Western relief workers have been put on trial accused of Christian proselytizing, and remain in the country.

In one case, a hospital built by the Italian agency "Emergency" was shut down three weeks after it opened last May, by whip-wielding, hard-line police from the Ministry of the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue who jumped over the wall in a raid. Local and foreign staff were whipped and beaten, and accused of indiscretions in dealing with women such as permitting men and women eating together.

"We did everything we could. You would need a helicopter to see women there," says Kate Rowlands, a British nurse at Emergency, who works on both sides of the front line. "It has been a lot more rigid and a lot more strict," she says, speaking from offices in Alliance territory. "People feel that they live under this threat - what could happen?"

"There is no hope to leave the situation as it is now - it is impossible," says Emergency director Gino Strada, an Italian who has spent years in Afghanistan. "The Taliban have sort of reached an end point. Many [Afghan] people find [the Taliban] unacceptable, and see the regime as an occupation force. People say there is no future for the Taliban."

Taliban reliance on foreign fighters from 22 nations, he adds, has hurt the Taliban's once-popular image as corruption-free militiamen battling to save Afghanistan from mujahideen warlords locked in civil war. Often those Arab forces seem to act beyond anyone's control, wherever they go, though analysts say that now they are among the Taliban's most aggressive fighters.

Gretchen Peters in Takhar Province contributed to this report.

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