The cold, hard facts of an Afghan winter offensive

With bitter weather and Ramadan near, anti-Taliban forces train, await US help.

As war games go, these satisfied the commanders of Afghanistan's rebel Northern Alliance, who presided yesterday over "graduation" exercises for some 1,500 freshly uniformed soldiers.

Two hilltops crowned with sandbags and white flags were obliterated by tank and heavy machine gun fire. A handful of troops poured out of advancing armored vehicles, and then stormed the posts to victory, against sheets of wind-swept sand and smoke.

With Afghan flags rippling in the hard wind, this display of troops - the military force the United States is supporting against the ruling Taliban as part of its war on terrorism - looked like a Boy Scout Jamboree, but with guns.

"This shows our highest level of preparation for taking action," says the reclusive alliance defense minister Gen. Muhammad Qasim Fahim, who took over the reins of leadership in September after the assassination of warlord Ahmad Shah Masood. The uncharismatic rebel commander - who left publicly addressing his troops to other officials - would not be drawn out on the rebel strategy during a brief interview, or even which front line was his priority. "Every place is important," General Fahim says.

Rebel plans to oust the ruling Taliban militia may remain opaque, despite the pomp and ceremony on this training field. But pieces of the military puzzle are emerging from rebel sources and analysts.

One key is increasing American support, symbolized during the morning proceedings by three bombs dropped on a Taliban position farther down the Shomali Plain, toward the Afghan capital, Kabul. The Bush administration has promised covert cash and other support - especially ammunition, which is in short supply.

"This force has been on the defensive for five years, and overnight they've had to adopt an offensive posture," says Anthony Davis, an Afghanistan expert with London-based Jane's Defense Weekly, who observed the three-day exercise. "Logistically, they are in a bad position, especially with artillery and tank ammunition. It's what they need."

With the approaching winter, helicopter travel is perilous, and overland routes are already closed to all traffic but mule trains. One solution may be a newly leveled airstrip at Golbahar, 40 miles north of Kabul. A group of at least five American military personnel, traveling clandestinely and with heavy security, visited the airstrip Sunday.

"The Americans saw the airport, but still part of their work is pending," says Yonus Qanoni, the alliance interior minister, who is believed to be one of three key rebel leaders holding strategy sessions with US officials.

Earlier, he was quoted by The Observer (London) as saying that the airstrip will enable a US-sponsored air bridge to supply rebel forces for an eventual move on Kabul. "We've not had any arms from the Americans yet, but we've been promised them," Qanoni told The Observer.

"[The airstrip] is intended for humanitarian assistance," says Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance foreign minister. But he made clear that "it could be used for other purposes as well, we don't deny that. This could be one of the ways to bring ammunition, to bring military hardware."

"The importance of a fixed-wing air bridge is critical, if there is going to be an offensive," says Mr. Davis. "The Americans or Russians need three to four flights a day [of ammunition], or it won't happen much before Christmas."

Another deadline is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins Nov. 17, though Washington has said its Afghan campaign will not stop.

"The war against terrorism should not be stopped," says Dr. Abdullah. "It becomes more obligatory [to fight] in the holy days," he says, adding that Muslims had been the first to suffer under the "rule of fanatics and extremists."

One month of US-led airstrikes against the Taliban has so far yielded no obvious military gain. But beating the winter-Ramadan clock sounded simple yesterday, judging by alliance rhetoric on the parade and training ground. Some 17 tanks lined up alongside 19 armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces and a single truck-loaded ballistic missile - an apt backdrop for the talk of war against "foreign invaders" - as the rebels refer to thousands of Pakistani, Arab, and other volunteers fighting alongside the Taliban.

"All the world now comprehends that we are fighting against terrorists and invaders," Burhanuddin Rabbani told the assembled troops. He is president of the ousted Afghan government that today controls just 10 percent of the country, but is still recognized by the United Nations.

"We are fighting a great battle for the security of our people. You are champions," Mr. Rabbani said. "You can rescue the people of Afghanistan. You can pull terrorism up by its roots."

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