Afghanistan: November 10, 2001


The Taliban announced that they had lost Mazar-i-Sharif last night, but provided no other details. The Taliban lost Mazar-i-Sharif because of American bombing and the shaky loyalty of their local vassals outside the city. These lads were switching sides in reaction to the American bombing and the realization that the Taliban were getting weaker. When the Taliban took over northern Afghanistan, they often just gave the local warlords an offer they couldn't refuse and the warlords became Taliban supporters. These guys were expected to defend their neighborhoods, but were not trusted with anything really important by the Taliban. The key positions around Mazar-i-Sharif were held by bin Laden troops, as well as some hardcore Taliban. These fellows are on a mission from God, not following some local chief. These units could have provided diehard resistance in the city itself, unless the Northern Alliance leave them a way out. This is a favorite Afghan tactic, to keep the casualties down. The Taliban, seeing the Northern Alliance cutting more and more roads out of Mazar-i-Sharif, took the hint and left, moving to the east (towards Kabul) and west (towards Heart). If the US had had a JSTARS aircraft overhead, this movement could have been spotted. The Taliban have also abandoned territory along the Uzbek and Tajik borders. Northern Alliance troops have moved into these areas. Most importantly, the three commanders (Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara) of the Northern Alliance forces entering Mazar-i-Sharif have apparently managed to keep their troops from pillaging the place (as happened the last few times it switched sides.) 

Taliban losses in defending Mazar-i-Sharif probably total at least ten percent of their armed forces (that is, 4-5,000 defected, dead, deserted or captured). The Taliban could lose another 8-10,000 troops as they withdraw from northern and western Afghanistan. Northern Alliance losses in the Mazar-i-Sharif campaign are thought to be a few hundred (dead and wounded.) Many civilians (mostly Pushtuns who moved in after 1998) fled with the Taliban. The Northern Alliance declared amnesty for Mazar-i-Sharif residents who supported the Taliban. It's not clear yet if Northern Alliance troops have respected this promise. 

Taliban troops retreating to the east and south can escape through the Salang tunnel, but they will have to do it on foot. The two entrances to the tunnel were blown five years ago. Locals have cleared away enough of the rubble to allow pedestrians and animals (mainly mules and horses) to get through. A lot more work, using some heavy construction equipment, would be required to open the tunnel to vehicle traffic.

Why did the Taliban abandon the city? Several reasons. The big one was logistics. With Winter coming, getting food, reinforcements and ammunition into Mazar-i-Sharif will become more difficult. Moreover, the Taliban know that the U.S. is bringing in JSTARS aircraft. These recon planes can watch roads round the clock (in 12 hour shifts) and spot any vehicles heading north for Mazar-i-Sharif. Attack helicopter and four engine Specter gunships based in Uzbekistan can then sweep down and destroy the supply trucks. Another reason is purely military; the Taliban cannot afford to loose too many of their fanatic bin Laden and Pakistani troops. Staying to fight for Mazar-i-Sharif risks loosing too many of these fighters. Kabul is a more important city and the Northern Alliance is preparing to move out and surround the city. The Northern Alliance, uncharacteristically, announced that they will surround Kabul within two weeks. The Taliban can afford to lose Kabul, for the Taliban's real capital is the southern city of Kandahar. This city is deep in Pushtun territory. The final battle for Kandahar will be decided on how many of the Pushtun tribes can be persuaded to turn against the Taliban. This is not an unreasonable goal, for many Pushtun's see the Taliban as the creature of the Pushtun tribes in the Kandahar area. Moreover, many Pushtuns are increasingly angry at the "Arabs" (bin Laden's troops) and the Pakistanis. But many of the Arab's and Pakistanis will fight to the end. At this stage of the campaign, we may see a lot of American (and allied) ground troops going in to finish off these fanatics. Most Afghan's will go along with foreigners fighting foreigners to the death, especially if the American's promise to get out afterwards, but continue to pour in economic and humanitarian aid. At that point the big problem will be convincing the Afghan's to make make peace among themselves. 

U.S. fighter-bombers, especially navy F-18s, are coming in lower to drop their bombs. Moreover, moreover, cluster bombs are being used more frequently. This indicates that the targets are increasingly Taliban troops hiding in out of the way places (like villages.)

Mazar-i-Sharif is the largest city in northern Afghanistan, and normally has a population of about half a million. It is the main market town for a rich farming area. The region produces most of Afghanistan's food crops. 

American bombing has now shifted to Taliban troops north of Kabul. The bombing won't be as effective outside Kabul, because there are few non-Pushtun troops in the area. In the next few weeks or months, most non-Pushtun commanders will either switch to the Northern Alliance or become neutral. This will sometimes get ugly, as the Taliban are arresting anyone suspected of disloyalty. This can be someone from a Pushtun tribe that has had a defection, or anyone who is not Pushtun. The puritanical Taliban were irritating enough to most Afghans, but the paranoia is pushing more people to consider a non-Taliban government. The loss of Mazar-i-Sharif is likely to speed up the Taliban losing northern and western Afghanistan. In these areas, most of the tribes are non-Pushtun. Even many Pushtun tribes are inclined to switch sides. But it's important to remember that the U.S. is in the middle of a civil war, hoping to get Northern Alliance help to find bin Laden and his people. As long as the war in Afghanistan stays a civil war, and not an invasion by Americans, most Afghan's will concentrate on which faction they think will win, not fighting America. While the United States is very much involved in the war, most Afghans don't identify it as an "American" war if there are not a lot of Americans on the ground. And the U.S. is going out of it's way to keep the American presence on the ground in the background as much as possible. Even in Uzbekistan, where several thousand American troops are already operating, no Uzbeks or foreigners are allowed to go near the base the U.S. troops occupy. A similar policy will probably be adopted in northern Afghanistan. Mazar-i-Sharif has a large air field that is expected to be used for American aircraft. 

Osama bin Laden claimed, in an interview with the English language Pakistani newspaper "Dawn", said he had nuclear and chemical weapons. Bin Laden said he would only use his nukes in retaliation for American first use. It has been known for years that the bin Laden people have been trying to get their hands on the components for a nuclear weapon. It is thought that, as most, the bin Laden crew may has some low level radioactive material. However, this stuff could be packed around explosives to produce a "dirty bomb" that would not produce a nuclear explosion, but would leave an area around the detonation radioactive. The interview took place outside Kabul late on November 7th. The non-English version of the interview published in local newspapers made no mention of the nuclear and chemical weapons.

U.S. troops in the region (Persian Gulf, Indian ocean, Central Asia and Afghanistan) has increased from 30,000 to 50,000 over the last three weeks.


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