- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2001

The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance has gained a huge tactical advantage in three days of U.S. air strikes and is poised to begin an offensive into the Afghan capital of Kabul, rebel and Pentagon sources say.
The Bush administration is publicly keeping an arm's link from the alliance's fractious mix of ethnic groups so as not to upset Pakistan, arguably the United States' most important ally in the region.
But there is some coordination, both covertly and on the battlefield.
American warplanes have struck Afghanistan's ruling Taliban troops around the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The Northern Alliance, which controls 10 percent of the Texas-size country, is attempting to evict Taliban troops from that city. The Pentagon plans more attacks on the Taliban's modest military machine in the next few days, further moving the balance of power toward the alliance.
In the air, the rebels had been hampered by continuous air strikes from Taliban MiG fighters. Those strikes have ceased, and the Pentagon proclaimed yesterday that it now commands the skies over the Central Asian country.
"That is good news from our point of view," said Daoud Mir, the Northern Alliance's special envoy to Washington. "They cannot strike us from the air."
Rebel sources also claim that the U.S. bombing has created widespread dissension within the Taliban and spurred hundreds of defectors to join the Northern Alliance.
Mr. Mir said any offensive against Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul is being delayed while American warplanes bomb mobile targets such as Taliban troops and armor.
"It's a common strategy, a coordination on the ground," said Mr. Mir. He said the alliance is interacting with some American troops in rebel-controlled northern Afghanistan. "I cannot get into the security of the presence of international troops in Afghanistan, but there is pretty good coordination," he said.
Working with the opposition is a gingerly process for White House officials, who have met with the alliance's local representatives. Washington badly needs the aid of Pakistan, which is providing airspace and intelligence on the Taliban. But Islamabad is adamantly opposed to aiding a group it helped topple from power in 1996. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, reiterated a warning on Monday not to arm the alliance.
Still, establishing a relationship is enticing for the Pentagon. America potentially has a ready-made army that is willing to do the nasty job of battling the Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist network on the ground. This coordination could prevent American soldiers from getting trapped as the Soviets did in a bitter Afghan civil war.
The alliance controls an ill-equipped army of about 15,000 and scores of aging Soviet helicopters. The Taliban's military force is about 40,000.
The Pentagon walked the tightrope yesterday as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, delicately handled media questions on the Northern Alliance.
Asked if the U.S. strike targets around Mazar-e-Sharif helped the opposition, Gen. Myers disabused reporters of that notion. "What we're trying to do militarily, of course, is defeat the terrorists, the network and infrastructure that supports them, not particularly support any particular element. But as we can help with those kind of targets, and people that can help us, of course we'll take that input."
When Gen. Myers was asked why he would not want to help a group opposed to the same rulers the Pentagon was bombing, Mr. Rumsfeld interceded to give a more pro-alliance answer.
"Let there be no doubt," he said. "Those elements on the ground the tribes in the south, the Northern Alliance, elements within Taliban that are anti-al Qaeda we're encouraging them. We would like to see them succeed."
Then, in his most explicit statement yet of what he wants the military operation to achieve, the defense secretary said: "We would like to see them heave the al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership, that has been so repressive, out of that country. Don't make any mistake about that."
On Sunday, the day strikes began, Mr. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon is planning to help the Northern Alliance. "Our goal is to make them more successful. Getting into exactly how we'll do that, I think I'll defer," he said.
Administration officials told The Washington Times that one goal is to destroy the Taliban military to allow rebels to capture Kabul and other major cities. The United States would then be free to start a manhunt for al Qaeda network terrorists and their leader, Osama bin Laden.
Before the strikes, Northern Alliance officials claimed they could find bin Laden if given the chance. But yesterday, Mr. Mir said the elusive terrorist could be in any number of mountain hideouts.
He said that earlier this year bin Laden holed up in caves in the province of Oruzgan north of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban student movement that took power in 1996. "At that time, he was very mobile," he said. "Bin Laden never stayed in one place. He was moving quickly from one area to another area."
Mr. Mir said the only escape route for bin Laden is across the border into Pakistan, where the fugitive has thousands of fanatical sympathizers. But that would likely mean scaling back his large security detail.
"He cannot move with his bodyguards," Mr. Mir said. "He would move with a very small group and he would take a huge risk. If the Afghans find him, they would kill him or tell the Americans."

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