US eyes Mazar to bring down Taliban

Oct 10 2001

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NEW YORK, Oct 9: The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif has become pivotal in the US campaign to oust the Taliban regime from power says the New York Times in an analysis of American strategy.

The Taliban forces hunkered down at Mazar-i-Sharif have been at the top of the target list for American forces. The United States has already pounded a concentration of Soviet-made tanks, fighter aircraft and an SA-3 anti-aircraft missile site that the Taliban had placed there, Pentagon officials told the Times.

If the Taliban forces near Mazar- i-Sharif are destroyed and the supply lines to the city disrupted, that could weaken the Taliban’s defensive line to the east. And that, in turn, could enable the Northern Alliance to punch through defences and extend its control over northern Afghanistan.

“If Mazar-i-Sharif falls, that would be a significant blow to the Taliban,” a Pentagon official told the paper.

The Taliban have signalled their determination to beat back their rival, something they have succeeded in doing for years and if they do it again that would mean stopping the Northern Alliance from breaking through the front line in the north of the country that runs from the Tajik border to just north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

More than 20,000 Taliban troops, including Arab fighters that Mr Osama bin Laden has recruited from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Chechnya, are aligned against the Northern Alliance along two long mountainous fronts north of Kabul, according to an overview provided by Defence Department officials, sources told the paper.

Some 10,000 to 15,000 troops from the Taliban’s 5th and 7th Corps are stretched along the front near Taluqan, a town east of Mazar-i-Sharif. Another 10,000 to 15,000 from the Central Corps are on the front north of Kabul. Mullah Omar directs the war effort from his headquarters in the Kandahar region, issuing orders by couriers, radio and cellphone.

A Pentagon official told the paper that the Taliban front-line positions consisted of trenches and dug-in artillery that were easily identifiable from the air. But it is not just the front line that is a potential target. Pentagon estimates that the Taliban has 40,000 to 60,000 fighters throughout Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials say they have received reports of “pre-defection negotiations” between tribal leaders allied with Pakistan and rival groups. Pentagon officials stress it is too early to tell if the Taliban will disintegrate as a fighting force but assert that much of the Taliban’s support is soft, the report says.