Alliance delays move on Kabul

Into the second week of US airstrikes, the Northern Alliance debates the timing of an advance on Kabul.

Sweating in the morning sun, in dust-free new uniforms and carrying freshly oiled guns, 150 soldiers of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance rebels storm a hill in a training exercise staged for the television cameras.

Young men of the ethnic Hazara unit drop to the stony ground, providing a blast of "cover" over the barren hillside, as their comrades charge. The commander blows a whistle, the shooting stops, and the recruits walk back down the hill as the dust settles.

Instead of piling into trucks bound for the frontline, to make an expected advance on the capital, Kabul, the soldiers return to their barracks, start up a game of volleyball, and drink tea.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, more than a week after US air strikes began pounding positions of the Islamic Taliban militia around Afghanistan. Opposition leaders once predicted that "within days" of the first attack, they would be advancing on Kabul.

But, while alliance helicopters are being repainted in green camouflage and tanks are washed off beside canals, there is little evidence yet of what Shakespeare once described as the "dreadful note of preparation" for war.

High expectations are faltering fast. They are mired in regional politics involving Pakistan, which helped create the Taliban.

The US is saying that a workable coalition government should be mapped out first, before any group takes control of Kabul. Even alliance commanders are voicing the need to avoid repeating the bloody mistakes of the past, when alliance - then mujahideen - chiefs ruled in Kabul from 1992 to 1996.

"If the Americans are serious, they should put in an action to support the Northern Alliance," says General Mohammad Sharif Tawasly, of the tea-drinking Hazara unit. "We're talking about a military solution, because a lot of Taliban commanders have lost their morale."

That view has recently put opposition political and military leaders at odds. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance foreign minister, denies reports that the alliance has made any agreement with Washington to hammer out an inclusive political coalition before the US will endorse any alliance move on Kabul.

But Dr. Abdullah admits that some commanders are ready to advance. "Perhaps the military leaders are in more of a hurry than we are," he said over the weekend. "My evaluation is that it is the right time to do it [move toward Kabul], but it is not all my decision."

That decision would be based on "purely military factors," he added, while admitting that the alliance - which the US is using as its focus on replacing the Taliban regime - had been in close touch with American officials. "We have discussed different aspects of the military operation that would make it more effective," Dr. Abdullah said.

Much to the disgruntlement of alliance chiefs, one place the Taliban haven't lost their morale - despite reports of sizeable Taliban defections to alliance ranks - is along their three defensive lines north of Kabul that have not yet been targeted by US (and some British) bombing raids.

Pakistan is voicing concern, which has reportedly caught Washington's ear, that an alliance takeover of the capital could result in bloodshed if not managed properly.

Pakistani officials point out that the alliance was responsible for atrocities in the past, and that entire districts of the capital were flattened in a civil war between competing rebel groups.

It is a legacy that worries some Alliance commanders today, though they are loath to accept orders from Pakistan, after its intelligence services sought to defeat them by arming, training, and building up the Taliban.

"We will never pay attention to [Pakistani] words or speeches," says Gen. Tawasly. "We will never again listen to the Pakistanis telling us what to do."

But there is a silver lining to a delay, he says: More Taliban soldiers are likely to defect. And, he adds, creating a 'security force' and an administration will be critical. "When armed troops enter Kabul, we want to avoid looting and harassment of civilians," he says. "It was the biggest problem of the Islamic state, when troops first entered Kabul in 1992. Some commanders were out of control."

The delay in the offensive, therefore, is "because of the bad experience we had with Mujahideen in Kabul," he adds. "They [the alliance] are trying to establish a security force and administration to protect civilians. Because of that, we don't attack Kabul."

Other commanders suggest a half-way solution. "If you want to have an offensive soon, then we should move up to the gates of Kabul, and make arrangements for security," says General Fazel Ahmed Azimi, another key alliance commander.

"That's how we avoid a repetition of 1992, when Mujahideen fought against each other ... We want a solution this time of all people working together."

Gen. Azimi says there is no military agreement with the US, "but politically there is - not only with America, but also with the United Nations to make a broad-base, multiethnic coalition."

Discussing Kabul as if it were a military plum just waiting to be picked, however, may be premature, according to Arab, Pakistani and Taliban prisoners held by the Northern Alliance far up the Panjshir Valley at Douab, north of Kabul.

Arab volunteers "will never go over [to the alliance]. They will fight forever with the Taliban," says prisoner Obaidur Rahman, from Yemen.

"We are not weak," adds Salahudin Khaled, a self-proclaimed Pakistani Islamic fundamentalist, who fought with the Taliban for years before capture in a campaign about five years ago.

"Maybe some airports are destroyed, and some other points. But you will see: when the American Army comes to Afghanistan, then you will see who will win the fight."

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