- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

PULI KHUMRI HILL, Afghanistan Artillery fire cracked incessantly yesterday at a front-line outpost in northern Afghanistan, and fighters in an anti-Taliban alliance said they were eager to take advantage of the U.S. assault to advance.
"We're very happy. Now we can go farther and capture more Taliban posts," Mohammed, 40, said moments after firing a round of ammunition at a Taliban outpost about 750 yards across a valley.
But the soldiers firing Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers some 150 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, said they have not yet received orders from their superiors to move forward.
Mohammed's commander, Safiulla, who like many Afghans uses just one name, said he and 500 Northern Alliance fighters in this section of Afghanistan's Takhar province are "waiting for orders" to attack.
The Northern Alliance, which has an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers in the 10 percent of Afghanistan it controls, has claimed a series of advances including several defections by Taliban soldiers since the terror attacks on the United States.
It's difficult to verify those claims. The Taliban, which has an estimated 40,000 fighters, has denied them. If the front line at Puli Khumri Hill is indicative of other regions of Afghanistan, few significant changes likely have been made on the ground since Sept. 11.
Here, the alliance and the Taliban fire at each other from two dusty hills overlooking the town of Quroq, whose 5,000 inhabitants fled a year ago because of the fighting. The front-line positions at Puli Khumri have not changed for at least two months, soldiers said.
The Northern Alliance, a grouping of ethnic minorities and warlords, is considered a key element of the U.S. assault on the Taliban because of the intimate knowledge it possesses on the disposition of Taliban forces, as well as its main bases and command-and-control mechanisms.
Alliance officials have said they would like to move into areas cleared by the U.S. assaults, but their general strategy in the face of the current conflict remains vague.
So far, no joint operations are known between the alliance and the U.S. forces, perhaps because disparities in training, equipment, operational procedures and language would make them difficult.
But military analysts say the alliance would be well-placed to offer the United States forward-staging bases and perhaps guides to make it through Afghanistan's treacherous terrain in the event of U.S. ground operations.
The United States says it has been in close contact with the alliance on military matters. But it would face great opposition both at home and abroad to the idea of the alliance taking power in Afghanistan because its members represent mostly minority interests and because of the havoc its leaders wreaked on the country before being ousted from power by the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban five years ago.
The alliance suffered a huge blow with last month's death at the hands of suicide bombers of Ahmad Shah Massood, its charismatic military leader. Nonetheless, initial pronouncements that the alliance could not survive without Mr. Massood gave way to the realization that it received a big boost after the attacks on New York and Washington.
Yet the ragtag nature of the alliance's war was evident yesterday on the hills of Takhar province. The soldiers wear neither fatigues nor uniforms, but knee-length shirts, baggy pants and turbans as they fire their Soviet-era weapons.
Less than a mile away from the front line, children play on the rocks and dust piles that serve as roads in this impoverished Central Asian country of 21 million people.
Despite a lot of firing yesterday, it seemed no targets were hit on either side.

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