Strikes open way for ground war

As both sides build up their front lines, the Northern Alliance is heading for Kabul.

The Northern Alliance is preparing to advance on the Afghan capital of Kabul.

"We are getting ready to attack Kabul," says tank commander Sardar, as his battered armored personnel carrier is fitted with a new 12.7mm anti-aircraft gun in the market of the rebel-controlled village of Jabal Siraj. "Commander Fahim told us yesterday to get ready," he says.

But it won't be easy, in part, because of what awaits them when they finally receive the orders to cross the front line. Alliance spies who are operating behind Taliban lines say they will meet a much-more aggressive militia reinforced by holy warriors from across the region who are loyal to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.

These spies say that up to 2,000 Pakistani, Arab, Chechen, and even Central Asian fighters have been sent from Kabul to the Bagram front line in the two days since American bombing began.

Though the 15,000 strong Alliance soldiers are far outnumbered - about 3 to 1 - they believe the US will provide air cover for their attack. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld states explicitly that American strikes are designed, in part, to pave the way for the Alliance to move decisively against the Taliban.

"The United States is interested in the elements of Afghans on the ground that have it in their mind that they would like to end Al Qaeda's role in Afghanistan and end the senior Taliban's role," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters in a briefing on Monday.

If they are able to take Kabul and secure the Bagram air base, Alliance sources and other experts say, that could accomplish three goals. It will deal a critical blow to the Taliban regime, presaging their likely fall from power. It will send bin Laden and his followers to their mountain hideouts. And it could provide a secure air base where supplies for the Alliance and US Special Operations troops, as well as humanitarian aid, could be flown.

But taking Kabul, for the Alliance, whose top leaders still say publicly that isn't their primary goal, will not be easy. Their strategy depends on three elements: American military support, a mass popular uprising against the Taliban in Kabul, and defections of thousands of Taliban forces to their side.

To prepare for the onslaught, Alliance leaders have called up reserve troops to bolster their 15,000-strong militia, and Alliance chief Gen. Muhammad Fahim has ordered them to repair their equipment.

In the shadow of the green-capped village mosque in Jabal Siraj, the new machinegun mount is arc-welded into place on Commander Sardar's tank. Grinders smooth over a rough hinge for an armored hatch; and more than a dozen two-foot-long Sagger rockets are laid out on the ground for cleaning.

They are preparing, Sardar says, to meet these holy warriors - the Taliban's so-called "foreign legion." It's estimated that these fighters make up about one quarter of the Taliban's 40,000-strong forces. They have played an increasingly important military role by often spearheading offensive operations, and are known to be far more aggressive in combat.

"They have moved Chechens, Pakistani, Kashmiri, and Arab troops to this front in the past two days, because they are much stronger fighters," says Alliance Commander Lalaga, at Bagram, 30 miles north of Kabul.

"The Taliban brought lots of ammunition, arms, and soldiers," he adds. "We have seen the lights of their cars during the night, reinforcing to the Taliban front."

Commander Lalaga says Alliance spies are reporting new foreign troop numbers at 800 Pakistanis, 950 Arabs, and 250 Chechens - elements that refugees and relief workers in Kabul say often act as a law unto themselves in Taliban territory.

The London-based Jane's Intelligence Review supports this. They say the Taliban's reliance on foreign troops loyal to bin Laden and their numbers have increased markedly in the past 18 months. More than half of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 "foreign legion" are Pakistani, and the rest a collection from militant groups throughout the Islamic world.

Moreoever, the Russian breakaway republic of Chechnya set up an embassy in Kabul early last year. Many argue that this "Arab" influence - and bin Laden's close personal ties with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar - has further radicalized the Taliban.

"There seems little doubt at least 2,000 combatants - all apparently affiliated to and financed by Osama bin Laden - are now active in support of the Taliban," Jane's reports. The trend across much of Afghanistan, reflected well before the latest deployments of the past two days, is that "when the going gets tough, Afghan Taliban forces are fighting alongside - or following behind - non-Afghan fighters."

At the front, they are expected to put up a stronger resistance than Taliban forces - partly because defeat could spell the end of the Taliban, and therefore safe haven for Mr. bin Laden and his "foreign legion."

"The Arabs must fight stronger than the Taliban, because all the world wants to take these Arabs to trial," says General Babajan, Alliance commander of this front line, adding that his troops fired more than 100 rockets at Taliban resupply lines overnight Monday, in concert with US strikes.

"There is no place safe for Arab soldiers to go, so they must face the Northern Alliance and fight well," he says, speaking beside a mortar position at Bagram air base.

While claiming that he has yet to receive orders to move on Kabul, he made clear that success of his 2,000 troops stretched across the front from Kabul airport to Bagram - facing off with at least 6,000 Taliban and foreign soldiers - would require American help.

"When we plan to attack Kabul, at that time America should bombard the Taliban with planes and rockets," General Babajan says, adding that the new, disciplined Arab and foreign units might keep Taliban defections down. Already, he says, in the last two days, bin Laden units have set up a new camp at the base of Mt. Safi, which rises from the Shomali Plain north of Kabul. The claim could not be independently verified.

While some argue that the rush of foreign troops to the front indicates a sense of Taliban desperation, foreign and Afghan observers familiar with life in Taliban-ruled Kabul say there is a Catch-22. While the "foreign legion" has helped the Taliban control 90 percent of the country, misbehavior among these forces, including very strict enforcement of stern religious rules on the Taliban's behalf, has worn out their welcome among ordinary Afghans.

"People of 22 nations fight with the Taliban, they are very well-equipped and have good logistics, and aren't Afghans," says Gino Strada, director of the Italian relief organization Emergency, which operates on both sides of the front line.

"But the population doesn't like them," he adds. "They are frightened of them, and they are right. I get frightened too, just looking at them."

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