With guidance from American commandos on the ground and intensified airstrikes at Taliban frontline positions, Afghan rebels say they will launch an offensive this weekend to take the strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
The Northern Alliance - a loose group of Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara fighters - is reported to have advanced to within five miles of the Mazar-e Sharif airport to the southeast and within 30 miles to the southwest.
The information could not be independently verified. But if true, this marks the first progress made by the 100 or so US Special Forces troops the Pentagon says are now in at least four locations in Afghanistan to help rebel groups who, officials say, sometimes advance against Taliban tanks on horseback.
"The question is: Is this the beginning of a military push that is going to inexorably alter the political map of Afghanistan?" says John Pike, a Virginia-based defense analyst and head of GlobalSecurity.com. "Or is it a brief lunge in the next 10 days, to make some symbolic gains before winter and [the Islamic holy month of] Ramadan?"
The answer is likely to determine the future path of Washington's declared war against terrorism in Afghanistan, as failure so far of the air campaign to dislodge the radical Islamic Taliban is increasing speculation about the possible deployment of US ground troops next spring.
Stepped up US bombing of three Taliban fronts - near Mazar-e Sharif, along the Taloqan front in the northeast, and north of Kabul - appear aimed at narrowing the gap between the Pentagon's underestimation of Taliban resistance, and overestimation of rebel abilities.
"The American bombardment is very effective," says Qudratullah Hurmat, an aide to Mohamad Atah, one of three alliance generals on the front line. "In the next two or three days, we will start our attack."
Between 15 to 20 Americans on that front have been instrumental in getting the rebel act together and in pin-pointing US bombing raids, he says. US helicopters began arriving a week ago to supply this isolated rebel pocket with ammunition and blankets.
Yonus Qanoni, one of the top three civilian leaders of the alliance, confirmed yesterday that a push on Mazar-e Sharif is imminent. "It's difficult to predict how long, but we're hoping to capture it within one week," he said.
Taking the city would be a coup for American efforts to support the rebels, whose military capacity until now has been lackluster at best. Control of the city would provide new supply routes and a border for the rebels, while cutting off Taliban lines to the west.
Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor), an internet analysis group with a long track record of making predictions, notes that the road to neighboring Uzbekistan, just north of Mazar, "could be used as an invasion route for US ground forces."
But alliance fighters are outnumbered 3 to 1 by the Taliban. And a Taliban spokesman in the capital, Kabul, reportedly denied the loss of the four districts south of Mazar claimed by the alliance, and said that 500 reinforcements were being sent to the north.
US officials describe the fighting as very fluid south of Mazar-e Sharif, and say they are trying to supply alliance units there that are exceptionally short of ammunition and food. American provision of everything from ammo, blankets, cold-weather gear - and even fodder for horses - has begun to arrive by helicopter, and is sometimes delivered by mule.
"They're taking the war to their enemy and ours. We are supporting as best we can," said Gen. Peter Pace, vice chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday. He added a David and Goliath note, saying that Special Forces were reporting that rebels were "riding horseback into combat against tanks and armored personnel carriers."
Romantic as that image may be, it doesn't hide the difficulties faced by the alliance, which has been pushed back in seven years of fighting to a sliver of just 10 percent of the country. Initial US hope that the Taliban could be toppled with sporadic air bombardment, combined with an uprising by moderate ethnic Pashtuns - the same group that dominates the Taliban - is now giving way to stronger support for the rebels.
"Airpower has done its business, but it is only stage 1," says Andrew Brookes, an air power specialist with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "Air power alone will never do the job. The US thought it would in Kosovo, and it didn't. And it will not in Afghanistan. Ground forces are needed now as much as ever."
The problem for US planners, though, is that the local units available are a mixed bag, with different aims that are only held together by hatred for the Taliban. "In many ways, this is a medieval campaign, in which a lord would come with 200 or 300 soldiers," says Mr. Brookes. "Here you have a bunch of warlords who come in to fight, then move out again. Its impossible to impose the idea of a 21st-century army on that."
The result - regardless of the outcome in Mazar-e Sharif - could be a growing call for US troops, or at least a greater US troop commitment to arming and training alliance forces, if the Taliban is to be ousted.
While the US pins its hopes on the rebels, though, Stratfor notes that it lacks the manpower, skills, and equipment necessary to defeat the Taliban in combat near Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif.
While Stratfor says that alliance plans call for seizing Mazar within three days and capturing Kabul by the end of November, its analysis released Wednesday points out that chances of success are unlikely.
"If the US is serious about destroying the Taliban," Stratfor concludes, "a bloody war next year with numerous US and allied forces on the ground in Afghanistan is a must."
But the idea of such forces is not welcomed by the alliance, says Abdullah Abdullah, foreign minister of the rump Islamic State of Afghanistan, which is still recognized by the United Nations but was pushed from Kabul in 1996.
"A large number of American ground forces in Afghanistan wouldn't help more than what is happening already," Dr. Abdullah says. "There is no need for many US troops, and chances of success can be maximized with better coordination."
While focus is on US and alliance moves in the north, analysts say that it is only a fragment of a US policy that appears to still be evolving. "American military objectives regarding the Northern Alliance remain unclear, both with outcome and timing," says Mr. Pike of Global Security. "What is going on in the south, and what has the CIA been able to cook up with anti-Taliban efforts?"
While north and south plans should be viewed in tandem, Pike says he is concerned that the northern strategy is the only one on TV every day. He says questions also remain about the rebels: Commanders don't generally broadcast their war plans in advance. The Northern Alliance might, but a professional army doesn't.