- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance yesterday were engaged in a fierce battle to capture the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, an advance that would represent a serious blow to the Taliban and deliver a potential asset to U.S.-led forces.
Leaders of the Northern Alliance, who have fought against the hard-line Islamist Taliban since 1994, said Mazar-e-Sharif airport and several districts around the city center were under their control, though the Taliban denied those reports and claimed that the city was firmly in its hands.
U.S. and British bombing efforts are seen to have softened Taliban defenses in the area, clearing the way for the opposition. Officials in Washington have echoed the confidence expressed by Northern Alliance commanders that the city will soon fall.
Forces loyal to two opposition commanders, Mohammed Ata and Rashid Dostum, have led the attack to wrest control of the city, which has been in the hands of the Taliban since 1997. Mr. Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek in his late 40s who commands a mostly Uzbek militia, once ran Mazar-e-Sharif as a fierce anti-American warlord loyal to the Soviet Union. When the Soviets were ejected, Mr. Dostum remained in Mazar-e-Sharif until he lost control to rival warlords and, eventually, the Taliban.
In the barren terrain of northern Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif holds tremendous strategic importance. The city controls the only overland invasion route to the Afghan capital, Kabul, from Uzbekistan through the border city of Termez, just 40 miles north of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Before Uzbekistan closed the border with Afghanistan in 1997, Mazar-e-Sharif was Afghanistan's chief transit point for goods headed north through Termez. The two cities are linked by a straight, paved highway across Afghanistan's flat northern desert. Termez's once-extensive rail system has connected Afghanistan with cities in Uzbekistan and Russia, though only one rail link remains passing through neighboring Turkmenistan.
During Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's visit to Uzbekistan early this month, Uzbek President Islam Karimov agreed to let U.S. forces operate from at least one Uzbek air base ostensibly limiting use of the base to search-and-rescue missions.
The United States has deployed troops from the elite 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., to an air base roughly 125 miles north of Termez. If Mazar-e-Sharif falls to the Northern Alliance, U.S. military planners may eye the city as a staging post for further forays deeper into Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.
Once Northern Alliance forces secure Mazar-e-Sharif, they are expected to turn north and open a supply route to Uzbekistan before contemplating any further advance into central Afghanistan. Aid organizations would welcome such a move as it might promise a secure channel for the tons of medical supplies and food that have been flown into the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
"We want to be in a position to move when the time comes," said Rudy Rodriguez, a UNICEF official in Uzbekistan. "Whether that's the next day, next week or next month, I don't know."
Mazar-e-Sharif, one of Afghanistan's largest cities, features a massive, blue-domed mosque, a once-thriving bazaar, several administrative buildings and clusters of tiny shops. The city rests in a swath of desert that stretches north across the nearby Amu Darya River border into Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. To the southeast, the Hindu Kush mountain range forms a formidable 200-mile-wide, high-altitude buffer against Kabul.
The city, like much of Afghanistan, is deeply divided along ethnic lines. Northern Alliance commanders claim that Mazar-e-Sharif's largely Uzbek population would welcome any force that could repel the Taliban, largely drawn from Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan.
Recent air strikes against Mazar-e-Sharif have damaged the airport severely and destroyed anti-aircraft defenses, radar and warplanes. The runway could be repaired, however, and become a major hub for U.S.-led forces.
But any operation to secure Mazar-e-Sharif may present a host of unique problems since the desert terrain is inhospitable and littered with uncharted land mines buried during Soviet occupation.
* This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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