- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance, bolstered by a rush of international offers of support, yesterday stepped up its offensive in three provinces held by the country's ruling Taliban regime.
The motley, often-divided alliance, whose charismatic leader Ahmed Shah Masood was assassinated earlier this month, has suddenly emerged as the global focus of the U.S.-led campaign to pressure the Taliban and undermine the terrorist network of Afghan-based Saudi financier Osama bin Laden.
Although its successes could not be verified independently, Northern Alliance spokesman Moham-med Ashraf Nadeem told reporters that opposition forces had gained ground on several fronts in sustained fighting in Afghanistan's northern regions.
Fierce fighting was reported yesterday around the northern provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif, which has been a Taliban stronghold since the late 1990s.
A spokesman for the increasingly isolated Taliban regime conceded yesterday that the opposition had made gains in two days of sustained fighting, but not as much as they claimed.
"They exaggerate too much just to raise the morale of their fighters," the spokesman told the Agence France-Presse news service in Kabul.
Despite its recent advances, the Northern Alliance still controls less than 10 percent of Afghanistan's rugged territory, and its 10,000 troops are outnumbered by the estimated 45,000 better-armed Taliban forces.
The Taliban which has refused President Bush's demand to surrender bin Laden suffered a major diplomatic setback yesterday when Saudi Arabia announced it was cutting its ties to the regime, leaving Pakistan as the only nation in the world that recognizes the Kabul government.
Pakistan itself has watched the accelerating support for the Northern Alliance with mounting alarm, fearing a destabilizing crisis on its doorstep that could inflame radical Islamic opinion at home.
"We fear that any decision on the part of any foreign power to give assistance to one side or another in Afghanistan is a recipe for great suffering for the people of Afghanistan," Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar warned yesterday in a press conference in Islamabad with a visiting delegation from the European Union.
"Those who have intervened in Afghanistan and tried to plant their own preferred leaders paid a very high price for that blunder," Mr. Sattar added.
Stepped-up contacts with the Northern Alliance have emerged as a critical component in the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
President Bush yesterday appealed directly to Afghans unhappy with the Taliban's toleration of bin Laden.
"Our mission is to root out terrorists, to find them and bring them to justice," Mr. Bush said after a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
"And the best way to do that is to ask for the cooperation of citizens within Afghanistan who may be tired of having the Taliban in place or tired of having Osama bin Laden," the president said.
The State Department acknowledged Monday that U.S. officials have been in "close contact" with Northern Alliance leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised the rebel force arms and military equipment. Regional power Turkey is increasing its offers of equipment and training aid, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said over the weekend.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also revealed yesterday that William Pope, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Rome, met with exiled Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah yesterday to discuss events in the country. A previous meeting took place in December.
Many see the 86-year-old monarch as a potential unifying force for anti-Taliban groups.
With U.S. forces assembling in the region for a possible strike, the Northern Alliance could play a role similar to the Kosovo Albanian guerrillas in the 1999 NATO war against Yugoslavia.
The prospect of ground attacks by the Kosovo guerrillas drew regular Yugoslav forces into the open, leaving them vulnerable to NATO air strikes.
Much of the land controlled by the Northern Alliance also borders on Central Asian states that could become staging areas for any U.S.-led strikes inside Afghanistan, and the alliance could provide important logistical and intelligence aid.
But, as in Kosovo, a close identification with the Afghan opposition group could pose longer-term problems in the region.
U.S. Afghan specialists say the elements of the loose confederation that makes up the alliance have been linked to drug trafficking, while bitter feuding among the warlords who still dominate the Northern Alliance helped the Taliban seize power in Kabul in 1996.
The Northern Alliance also has close ties to Moscow. Although Mr. Putin has pledged to aid the U.S. military buildup, Russian officials view with deep suspicion any suggestions of a long-term U.S. presence in Central Asia.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reacted warily yesterday to suggestions of closer military ties between the U.S. force and the Northern Alliance, noting there were divisions within the Taliban regime, the opposition and throughout the country as the Pentagon weighed its options.
"It's a little like a billiard table trying to figure out exactly how it might happen," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

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