The tactics in the US air war in Afghanistan appear to be shifting. After initially targeting Taliban air-defense systems and Osama bin Laden training camps, US aircraft began bombing some Taliban convoys and armaments yesterday.
The shift is critical if the US strategy is to topple the Taliban - or even to keep its forces off balance during the hunt for Mr. bin Laden. For now, the Northern Alliance is too small, too fractious, and too poorly equipped to defeat the Taliban, say military experts.
"The Americans can't do it [beat the Taliban] without us, and we can't do it without them," agrees General Babajan, the Northern Alliance commander in charge of the Bagram front, 30 miles north of Kabul. "We need to work together." But General Babajan notes that the initial expectations that the US would launch decisive military strikes have been misplaced, so far. The US hasn't targeted this front. "There has been no military impact on the Taliban that we can see."
Military experts say it will take more than the cluster and 5,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs dropped yesterday - and perhaps more than crack US and British special forces commandos - to rout bin Laden and his Taliban hosts in the six weeks remaining before Afghanistan's bitterly harsh winter begins.
At present, the Taliban are estimated to outnumber the Northern Alliance by at least 3 to 1. And while the Northern Alliance have lost their brilliant strategist, Gen. Ahmad Shah Masood, during a still-unsolved assassination on Sept. 8 at Masood's headquarters in Khwaja Bahauddin, the Taliban military command is still reportedly intact, battle-hardened, and at least outwardly loyal to Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
"The US military intervention will obviously have a huge impact on the shape of things in Afghanistan - or so we assume," says Maria Podkopayeva, Central Asia expert with the independent Experimental Studies Center in Moscow.
"But as yet there is no sign that the Talibs have suffered any serious damage after several days of heavy strikes. It appears the Northern Alliance has managed to go over from defense to offense. But it is doubtful whether they will be able to translate this into any strategic advantage."
Most experts on Afghanistan agree that while both sides are fractious, the Taliban are far more unified. Indeed, while the Northern Alliance has been making battlefield gains near the northern cities of Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, these gains are more the function of personal warlordism than of a coordinated strategy. In addition, the Northern Alliance's ethnic makeup, largely of the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Shiite minorities, spelled the demise of the Alliance's previous bid for power, when they held Kabul from 1992 to Sept. 1996.
"Of course the chances of the Northern Alliance are better than before, but that doesn't offer much hope," says Alexander Goltz, a Moscow-based independent military expert and Afghan war veteran. "Its various factions hate each other, have fought each other before, and probably will do so again. As a result, their performance on the battlefield is spotty and ill-coordinated. I doubt very much they can ever be made to work together under a unified command. Basically, the Northern Alliance is just a loose grouping of regional warlords. Their ethnic base is far too narrow to appeal to the entire country."
The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan is Pashtun, and it dominates the south. But the Northern Alliance has very little support, at the moment, from this group. US officials are reportedly hoping to buy or persuade Taliban commanders in the south to defect, and provide information on bin Laden's hideout.
For now, the Taliban have the clear advantage in the south, even with the reported defections of key Taliban commanders in Badghis and Laghman provinces - in western and southeastern Afghanistan, respectively.
The Taliban have some 50,000 fighters, including some 5,000 Arab mercenaries, a fluctuating number of Pakistani volunteers drawn from religious schools or madrassahs. By contrast, the Northern Alliance has only about 12,000 to 15,000 well-armed troops, along with an undefined number of lightly armed volunteers.
The Taliban advantage is even more gaping in terms of equipment - at least, it was before the US attacks began. The Taliban had some 650 tanks and other armored vehicles, compared with the Northern Alliance's 60 armored vehicles. And while the Taliban's air-defense systems now appears to be knocked out, there has been no confirmation yet on the extent of the damage to its air force. At last tally, the Taliban air force consisted of 10 SU-22 fighter bombers, 5 MiG-21 fighters, 10 transport helicopters, and 40 cargo planes. By comparison, the Northern Alliance air force has eight transport helicopters and three cargo planes.
But despite such advantages, continued US airstrikes could shift the momentum toward the Northern Alliance, particularly near Mazar-e-Sharif in northwestern Afghanistan. There, the former Communist Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and some 3,000 troops appear to be making gains against the Taliban's weakest point in northern Afghanistan.
Some Northern Alliance commanders say they're just starting to receive fresh arms shipments. General Dostum's troops are now getting mortars, rocket propelled grenades, and other supplies from nearby Uzbekistan, purchased with US aid money, reports the Washington Post.
And near the western city of Herat, another Alliance commander Ismail Khan, who controls some 5,000 troops, told Reuters that he'd taken the key town of Chaghcharan in Ghor Province and appears to be moving in on the regional capital of Herat itself.
Chaghcharan straddles a vital road linking Kabul to the western city of Herat. The Northern Alliance said Tuesday that a group of Taliban commanders had changed sides and closed the Bagram-Bamiyan road to their former comrades. The Bagram-Bamiyan road was the Taliban's main supply route from Kabul to their forces in northern Afghanistan. The road to Herat is the only other supply route from Kabul to the north.
"I think it's a matter of time, a very short time, before Herat falls," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the seminal book "Taliban." "Then we have to see what sort of defections will take place from the Taliban side."
But like many experts on Afghanistan, Mr. Rashid says that the US should not be too hasty to bring about the Taliban's downfall.
"It has to be timed carefully, when a political entity has been established," says Rashid. Since Taliban, who are primarily ethnic Pashtuns, would never defect to the Northern Alliance, who are primarily Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, the only political entity that could unify all these ethnic groups is Afghanistan's deposed King Mohammad Zahir Shah.
"When a city falls, it can't fall to one of these warlords, otherwise there will be political chaos," says Rashid. "When a city falls, the warlord has to say it has fallen to the king, and then invite the king to come sit in government in that city. The Northern Alliance agrees to this in principle, particularly the Tajiks, but I'm not so sure about the Uzbeks and General Dostum."
But while most experts warn against the US pushing for a quick victory over the Taliban, including heavy bombardment of the Taliban's armored positions north of Kabul, other experts note that there are only six fighting weeks left in this calendar year. And time is running out.
Snows are already falling in northern Afghanistan, particularly in the mountains of Pamir, home to both the Northern Alliance and to a few training camps of accused terrorist bin Laden. Traditionally, Afghan guerrillas abandon their front lines during the winter and return only in late January and early February to fight again.
Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed to this story from Bagram, Afghanistan.