- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

FAIZABAD, Afghanistan Leaders of the Northern Alliance fighting for control of Afghanistan warned the United States Friday that it was missing its chance to deal a death blow to the Taliban.
Speaking in Faizabad the badly damaged and dusty capital of the territory he controls President Burnahuddin Rabbani said the West's hesitancy over setting up a formal alliance with the government was a mistake. The anti-Taliban forces, which control less than 10 percent of Afghanistan, believe that with American air power and NATO logistical support they can overrun the country in weeks.
Mr. Rabbani, a sagelike figure to the Afghans of the North, who was ousted from the capital, Kabul, by the Taliban five years ago, spoke at a small government guest house built in the middle of the fast-flowing mountain river of Kuchka. His government is still recognized by the United Nations.
"America has declared war on terrorism; we are in the front line of that war," he said. "We only hope negotiations will improve. But during recent days America seems to have been stepping back."
Military commanders in the Northern Alliance think that if America does not act now, it may ultimately fail to subdue the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden.
Said Amin Tariq, the military commander of the northeastern province of Badakhshan, said: "After the attack on America, President Bush promised he would arrest the terrorist leaders and punish them. If he delays, world support will divide and the moment will be lost."
For the residents of Faizabad, the stakes of the U.S. battle against terrorism could not be higher. After 24 years of continuous war they have been reduced to a precarious and threadbare existence.
Aid workers now say that the final reserves are being consumed, and that starvation will soon set in, compounding the drought that has already devastated whole regions.
Amir Safawi, a local agricultural engineer, said: "People have already sold most of their livestock. If they once had 50 sheep, they now have two or three, if they had five head of oxen, they now have a single animal."
Even after the grinding poverty of Tajikistan, the former Soviet Union's poorest republic, arriving in northern Afghanistan seems like moving back several centuries to a poorer, meaner world.
The ancient Russian military transport plane making the 50-minute hop over a Western arm of the Hindu Kush into the ravaged, rugged country touched down on a runway so crooked that the pilot had to use heavy yaw to prevent a slide onto the rocks.
Faizabad is like an exaggerated medieval setting from a film. Small children, barefoot in the mud, carry plates of dirty, unleavened bread that they offer for sale.
The president, who has a long white beard and the air of a once-wealthy man now living off reduced means, tours his small fiefdom in two green Land Cruisers.
Abdul Alim, a 43-year-old driver for a Western aid agency that has now evacuated its international staff, said: "The Taliban has taken away the way of our grandfathers and imposed rules we cannot live by.
"Now it is the turn of the whole world to help. They have finally seen the terrorism we have faced for years."
It is almost a wonder that life has survived at all. Only an unreliable air bridge and a precarious mountain road connect the town with its one friendly neighbor, Tajikistan.
The drive to the Panjshir Valley to the south takes two days. The 80 miles to the front line to the west takes a day by car.
Traders hauling contraband on donkeys across the Pakistani border can reckon on a week in each direction and a path 15,000 feet high. Yet, despite the hardships, a steely pride still gleams from the Afghans, who exude determination.
Commander Tariq, who spent two years in a Soviet-run detention center and whose shoulder and forehead are deeply scarred by shrapnel, said: "For those used to living in comfort, Afghanistan seems like hell. Yet Afghans are very resilient I am thinking if the Taliban is not stopped here, there is nothing to prevent them moving into Central Asia."

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