11 November: The capture of Mazar-e-Sharif was the first victory the Afghan opposition Northern Alliance chalked up in three years against the dominant Taliban regime. It was also the United States’ first tangible achievement in a month of combat.
Without detracting from the victory’s strategic and propaganda importance,
it must be said that fighting still simmers in pockets of resistance remaining
in the town, and the Northern Alliance may turn out to have overstated
it success somewhat. Furthermore, the achievement as it stands needs to
be put into its correct proportions:
A. Without US round-the-clock carpet- bombing of the Taleban plus the guidance of small US Special Forces units, mainly Delta troops, the Northern Alliance would never have breached Taliban defenses of Mazar-e-Sharif.
B. There was no major, militarily significant battle over the city; neither of the adversaries was called upon to show its mettle. What happened was that the Taliban, whose spearhead consists mainly of Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt and some Pakistanis, effected an orderly retreat, thereby sparing itself heavy casualties. This was expected after advance intelligence reached the attacking force and its US advisers that the defenders had been instructed to inflict maximum casualties, then break off contact and pull back. This also explains the Northern Alliance’s relatively high casualty count – 800-900 dead, compared with 120-140 suffered by the Taliban.
Most of the Northern Alliance casualties was sustained by its three cavalry battalions, numbering 1000 mounted troops.
The last time cavalry was seen in a modern battlefield was in the
early World War Two battles in 1939 and 1940 when Germany used them to
invade Poland and Czechoslovakia. In the 2001 battle of Mazar-e-Sharif,
fighters on horseback fit the bill surprisingly well. The attacking tanks
headed down the few routes in the province to face Taliban positions, in
the hope of drawing the full force of their fire, while the horsemen took
impassible side tracks, often fording mountain streams, to circle round
and hit the Taliban army’s flanks.
The Taliban were however well prepared for this stratagem, further evidence of their superior intelligence, and directed their heaviest fire on the cavalrymen.
C. The Northern Alliance threw no more than one-third of their fighting strength into the conquest of Mazar-e-Sharif, because the bulk held back - not for tactical but rather political reasons. The Pashtun tribesmen (40 percent of Afghanistan’s population) and the Hazars (Iran-supported Shiites, who are 20 percent of Afghanistan’s inhabitants) refused to take part in the battle, which was therefore fought mainly by General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Uzbekistani fighters (no more than 6 percent of the general population).
Immediately after taking the key town, most of Dostum’s army headed
north quite naturally to link the newly captured terrain to neighboring
Both US and Northern Alliance sources have emphasized the importance of this territorial link for the rapid transfer of US military reinforcements and humanitarian aid from forward bases in Uzbekistan to northern Afghanistan.
But there is more than one fly in this ointment.
The Uzbek General Dostum, though a charismatic leader, arouses much controversy in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, as well as in Pakistan. His continued victorious progress will only exacerbate these antagonisms. The Pakistani senior commanders, even those who approve of Musharref’s alignment with Washington, let alone the sections of Pakistani ISI intelligence services who do not, are uncomfortable with America placing all its Afghan eggs in the basket of the pro-Moscow Dostum and his following. Any Russian protégé in Afghanistan would be bound, in their view, to lean also towards India.
In Tashkent too, President Islam Karimov casts a beady eye on Dostum’s rise, fearing to be put in the shade by a strikingly successful military chief.
DEBKAfile ’s Central Asian sources report that US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when he visited Tashkent earlier this month was surprised by Karimov’s outspoken resistance to the United States expanding its military presence in Uzbek bases. This factor could negate at least one of the strategic advantage Dostum’s victories if Karimov decides to obstruct the large-scale transfer of air and ground forces between the two countries.
In the last few hours, American and Northern Alliance spokesmen alike have spoken out against Dostum’s forces entering Kabul and jeopardizing the successful outcome of the war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
This cautiousness does not reassure the Pashtuns, the Hazars, the Pakistanis or the Uzbeks. They are all sitting on the fence, awaiting the outcome of the biggest tests facing the Northern Alliance at Konduz and Khanabad. That engagement will be crucial - both politically and militarily, especially as there the Taliban, who largely disregarded Mazar-e-Sharif as a key tactical asset, will be fully prepared.
DEBKAfile ’s military analysts explain that, while Mazar-e-Sharif is the key to a militarily insignificant region of the country, Konduz and Khanabad control the main highway hub branching south to Kabul and Jalalabad and east to Hindu Kush, the Pamirs and the Chinese frontier.
The invading Soviet army in 1979 made straight for Konduz as a prime target and only then turned to Mazar-e-Sharif. Four years ago, the Taliban began building fortresses in the high mountains commanding those two key towns, burying them in bombproof caves and tunnels burrowed especially for the purpose. If the Northern Alliance needed massive US air support and ground units to capture Mazar-e-Sharif, how much more help will be needed to take on the Taliban’s most formidably defended strongholds in the province of Konduz?
To round out the picture, DEBKAfile’s military experts examine the balance of combat from the perspective of Taliban and al-Qaeda military strategists. Reports reaching us from Afghanistan confirmed that both were prepared to write off Mazar-e-Sharif – certainly in the context of their broad objectives.
1. Bin Laden in his November 7 interview may have declared he would resort to nuclear and chemical weapons only if the United States used them first, but he did not, by any means, carve that promise in stone. In certain war contingencies he might avail himself of those weapons of mass destruction – whether in Afghanistan or against Pakistan.
2. Bin Laden’s repeated warnings in his last interview that the Pakistani ruler Pervez Musharref would be punished for allying himself with the United States, open the way to retaliation by means of a coup attempt in Islamabad.
3. He also emphasized that his battlefield is not confined to Afghanistan but reaches far and wide to Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq and Kashmir. Bin Laden could lash out in any of those arenas in the next stage of the war.