JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan At the crossroads of a dozen northern provinces, Mazar-e-Sharif is the linchpin in the Taliban’s grip on northern Afghanistan. Seizing it would give the opposition and the U.S.-led coalition an in-country staging ground for the fight to capture Osama bin Laden and topple his Taliban protectors.
For the United States and the northern alliance, Mazar-e-Sharif offers two key prizes: a working airport and a road link to Uzbekistan about 40 miles to the north.
With control of Mazar-e-Sharif, the United States and its allies would be capable of rushing in large quantities of ammunition, tanks, artillery, other supplies to bolster the ill-equipped opposition forces and humanitarian relief. Uzbekistan supports the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and has allowed about 1,000 U.S. soldiers to be stationed on its soil.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Afghan conflict, told reporters in Washington that Mazar-e-Sharif would serve as a “land bridge” as well as a “humanitarian pathway for us to move supplies out of Central Asia and down into Afghanistan.”
The city’s airport could be refurbished into a base not only for flying in supplies but also for mounting air attacks against Taliban forces elsewhere in the strategic north.
“This would give more facilities to the United States to get rid of terrorists,” said Mohammed Karim Khalili, leader of the Shi’ite Muslim opposition.
For the Taliban regime, losing Mazar-e-Sharif isolates thousands of their troops elsewhere in northern and northwestern Afghanistan.
The city has an estimated population of about 200,000, mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks. Most Taliban fighters are ethnic Pashtuns, a minority in the north. Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, ruled Mazar-e-Sharif until it fell to the Taliban in 1998.
Reporters have no access to the area and are relying on information from opposition spokesmen contacted by satellite telephones. Normal telephone links to the city have been cut.
As a result, it is difficult to determine conditions for civilians in the city, who have been largely cut off from the rest of the country for months.
There are 12 refugee camps in the Mazar-e-Sharif area where 42,400 people live, according to UNICEF, a moderate number compared with other parts of the country. Near Herat in western Afghanistan, for example, there are 210,000 refugees, according to U.N. figures. The total number of displaced people within Afghanistan’s borders is 350,000, the United Nations says.
Mazar-e-Sharif is key for the Taliban since the city and nearby Shebergan to the west are the two main resupply depots for Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan. Without Mazar-e-Sharif, Taliban troops throughout a half-dozen provinces in northern Afghanistan are largely cut off.
That would enable the opposition to sever roads and mountain paths that link the Taliban front lines in northern Afghanistan, isolating Taliban troops and making them more vulnerable.
Mazar-e-Sharif was considered so significant that when the Taliban first captured it in 1997, three countries Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia immediately recognized it as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The Taliban then lost the city within a week, but recaptured it in 1998 and has hung on to it.
The burial place of Hazrat Ali, the grandson of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, Mazar-e-Sharif is surrounded by lush green fields that provide much of the country’s wheat production.
It also sits in the middle of one of the richest natural gas fields in the region.
During the Soviet era, gas from this region was exported to Central Asia. Now it fuels all of northern Afghanistan.