- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 7, 2001

DAHAN-I-MAIDAN, Afghanistan Sitting behind sandbags on a rooftop just yards from the Taliban, a front-line opposition commander complains that his men haven't received their salaries in six months.
A young fighter says he can see the Taliban bring in reinforcements to the front "but our guns can't reach them."
Leaders of the Northern Alliance fighting Afghanistan's Taliban rulers insist they are ready to advance on the capital, Kabul, and other key cities. But despite new equipment, stepped-up training and high morale, the ragtag opposition army still appears to be outgunned and outmanned by the Taliban, raising the question of whether U.S. ground troops will be required.
In the past, most victories in the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance have had more to do with shifting loyalties than military prowess. The alliance is a fractious grouping of mostly ethnic minorities whose leaders earned many enemies when they were in power five years ago and plunged Afghanistan into factional infighting that killed thousands.
As America presses its war against the Taliban and the suspected terrorists they harbor, there are doubts about whether the opposition will be able to prove its mettle on the battlefield.
The Northern Alliance claimed to have captured several towns yesterday near the strategic northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, near the border with Uzbekistan, after U.S. jets cleared the way through intense bombing.
The claim could not be independently verified, and the opposition has advanced before in recent days only to be mauled in counterattacks.
But there are palpable changes near the front lines north of Kabul. Two weeks ago, most Northern Alliance fighters were clad in turbans and tunics, their aging Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders and their feet covered in dusty sandals.
Now, many fighters have been issued new camouflage uniforms in addition to rifles, rocket launchers and machine guns. Near Kabul, about 1,000 strike troops have been brought in from positions in the north. Tanks and armored personnel carriers vie for space on dirt roads filled with goats and donkeys.
To shouts of "God is great," former President Berhanuddin Rabbani, the titular head of the Northern Alliance, reviewed several thousand opposition troops Monday in the opposition-held town of Jabal Saraj as infantrymen snaked up a dusty hill and tanks blasted their ammunition in a show of military strength.
Yet for its tanks, helicopters, heavy artillery and missiles, the Northern Alliance like the Taliban is essentially a band of guerrillas.
At the front-line village of Dahan-i-Maidan yesterday, 34-year-old Northern Alliance commander Khatar peered at enemy troops from a rooftop as explosions rang out from all sides: gunfire from the Northern Alliance and the Taliban and bombs from U.S. jets.
"Our men are not angry, but they are worried about their families," he said, explaining that most of the 70 fighters under his command have been waiting for months to receive their monthly salary of $10.
Whether Taliban fighters are being paid is not known. Workers at Taliban ministries in Kabul say their own salaries are still coming.
Opposition leaders insist their troops are well supplied, but commanders on the front lines complain of a lack of ammunition, fuel and food.
Zaubet, a 19-year-old fighter, said he saw the Taliban truck in ammunition and troops on recent nights, but that they were mostly out of range of his group's Kalashnikovs and rockets.
Taliban troop strength has been estimated at about 40,000 fighters, including 10,000 Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks and others from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda movement, which stands accused of carrying out the September 11 terror attacks in the United States.
Opposition strength is estimated at about 15,000 to 20,000 fighters.
The Northern Alliance has one advantage: U.S. war jets are busily destroying Taliban armor.
The opposition's armor includes T-62 and T-55 main battle tanks, BMP-1 and BMP-2 armored fighting vehicles, D-30 122 mm artillery pieces and a range of mobile multiple-barreled rocket launchers.
If the alliance attempts to break the Taliban front lines around Kabul and other cities, "optimum use of armor is going to be very important," said Anthony Davis, an Afghan expert who writes for Jane's Defence Weekly.
He said the terrain around a key road leading to the capital "is exceptionally favorable for a defensive force orchards, walled lanes, walled fields, houses."
"If they [the Northern Alliance] fritter away their armor as infantry fire support, they risk losing it without achieving very much," Mr. Davis said.


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