They won. According to accounts given to Time by Alliance officials, 3,500 rebels serving under Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, 47, pushed the Taliban out of Kishindi with a 16-hour assault that left 200 Taliban and an unknown number of Alliance troops dead. To the west, forces loyal to Ustad Atta Mohammed, another Alliance commander, lost 30 men in a barrage of Taliban tank fire but seized the outlying village of Aq Kuprik. From there the Alliance's long-promised and much delayed march on Mazar-i-Sharif gathered an irresistible momentum. Some Taliban soldiers ran and hid, others switched sides. One Taliban commander on the front lines secretly arranged to defect with a few hundred of his men and agreed to let the Alliance through his line. The advancing rebels found another Taliban commander, Mullah Qahir, trying to avoid capture by snipping off his beard with nail scissors. He wasn't the only one. "From what I hear," said an Alliance officer, "it's a good time to be a razor salesman in Mazar."
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Taliban soldiers torched villages as they retreated, and there were fears that hundreds of locals--mostly ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara--may have been barricaded in their burning homes. By Friday morning, when Dostum's troops reached the gates of Mazar, the Alliance said it had taken dozens of Taliban troops captive; many more were on the highway, headed out of town. Across the northern tier of Afghanistan, the Taliban abandoned several garrisons but made fierce efforts to defend others. "When they first arrived here, these fanatics believed they were bulletproof," said an Alliance spokesman. "Now they've been shown they're not."
In the high command of the U.S. military, that was enough to elicit a few sighs of relief. The U.S. had yearned for a battlefield victory in Afghanistan that would vindicate five weeks of aerial attacks, bolster confidence in the Pentagon's strategy and puncture some of the Taliban's swelling resolve before winter sets in. While the Alliance's siege of Mazar may not have satisfied all those aims, it did give the U.S. campaign a welcome adrenaline jolt. And its significance ran deeper: in its quick betrayals and shifting tempo, primitive clashes and unanticipated results, the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif offers insights into the ways people fight in this forbidding land. Afghan forces on both sides often appear formless to visitors, but they can conceal tightly bound units with a fighting philosophy that places greater importance on energy conservation and brutal surprise than on sheer military muscle. "We must make sure that we pick the right time to fight," says Mohammed Kabeer Marzban, a warlord who controls the northern town of Khoja Bahauddin. "Otherwise we will have wasted our soldiers in vain." As the conflict wears on, learning the strange art of Afghan warfare will be critical to American success.
Last thursday, in his first pentagon briefing since the war began, Centcom chief General Tommy Franks came as close as the Pentagon gets to revealing specifics about its strategy: he acknowledged that the Pentagon was "interested" in Mazar-i-Sharif. Two out of every three bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes last week fell on Taliban lines guarding Mazar. The critical prize was the airport, three miles east of the city; Atta told Time that "taking the airfield is the same as taking Mazar." The runway may serve as a base from which U.S. jets will be able to strike targets within minutes. And the unclogging of the roadways leading into Mazar will help the U.S. build a "land bridge" from Afghanistan's northern border with Uzbekistan that the allies can use to pour in ground troops for an all-out assault on the Taliban.
All of which is to say there is still a long way and a lot of bloodletting to go. Mazar had barely been liberated last Friday when Dostum's forces overran the towns of Tashkurghan and Hairatan and zeroed in on Kunduz, one of the last Taliban strongholds in northern Afghanistan. A senior Alliance official told Time that the Alliance now controls the northwest and has advanced as far south as Pul-i-Khumri--100 miles away from the capital, Kabul. The official said Taliban soldiers stranded in Kunduz and further east in Taloqan have been cut off from fresh supplies. On Saturday the Alliance launched an assault near Taloqan, hoping to seize the heavily defended city and then coordinate its forces with those moving east from Mazar to strangle the Taliban in Kunduz. If Kunduz falls, the rebels will hold nearly all of northern Afghanistan.
The war's action may be shifting south. Late last week both sides mobilized in preparation for a trench battle for control of the air base at Bagram--the front north of Kabul. "We will advance to the gates of Kabul within two weeks," predicts a senior rebel officer. Sources told Time that the Alliance, which is outnumbered 2 to 1 by Taliban forces around Kabul, has asked for close air support from American attack helicopters. So far, the Pentagon has demurred, but AH-64 Apache choppers are already suspected to be in the region, with A-10s on the way. If U.S. gunships take to the skies above Kabul, the Taliban will likely raid what is left of their stash of 250 antiaircraft Stinger missiles--arms sent to the mujahedin in the mid-'80s by the cia--to try to shoot the Americans down.
The Pentagon would prefer to continue blasting Taliban lines with B-52 carpet bombs while the Northern Alliance does the dirty work on the ground. Though the number of U.S. sorties flown daily last week dipped from 100 to 75, the bombers were able to hit harder and with more focused rage. U.S. special-ops spotters deployed to the front more than doubled last week to almost 100 men. Target guides on the ground allowed the U.S. to pulverize Taliban troops in the north with a pair of BLU-82 "daisy cutters"--15,000-lb., minivan-size killing machines carried one at a time in the belly of MC-130 cargo planes. When detonated three feet above the ground, the bomb's slurry of ammonium nitrate and aluminum dust wipes out everything within a half-mile radius. Those who are not killed often suffer ruptured lungs or broken eardrums.
The weapon's intent--like the cluster bombs the U.S. began unleashing a few weeks ago--is to terrorize enemy troops into surrender. The Pentagon believes such intimidation is beginning to take hold. Though the Northern Alliance claimed massive enemy desertions, U.S. commanders know better than to count on a collapse of the Taliban's fighting zeal.
Taliban resolve has caused mounting anxiety among U.S. military strategists, particularly because until last week the Northern Alliance showed few signs of war readiness. Three weeks ago, near Mazar-i-Sharif, a rebel charge was turned back by a Taliban counteroffensive because the Alliance's four rival commanders failed to coordinate their attacks. In the north, the Alliance's loose-knit guerrilla bands are plagued by ethnic infighting, inexperience and customary drug use. The preferred narcotic is a potent, pungent hashish that is smoked by Alliance and Taliban soldiers alike from dinner until midnight. Alliance soldiers say they make up for their lack of Western-style military discipline with versatility. "We can do everything," says Fazel, a tank commander in the Farkhar district. "But we don't do anything very well."
What the Alliance does possess is an intimate knowledge of the terrain, a visceral hatred of the opponent and a war-honed knack for exploiting Taliban vulnerability. "These folks are aggressive," U.S. Marine General Peter Pace said Wednesday. "They're taking the war to their enemy--and ours." For the Alliance, the war's critical turn came early this month when U.S. B-52s began hammering Taliban front lines dug in near Mazar and Kabul and further north, along the Tajik border. Despite U.S. frustration with the Alliance's sluggishness, the complexity of waging war in an alien, booby-trapped environment gave Pentagon strategists little choice but to embrace the rebels as a proxy ground force. For the first time, the Pentagon last week acknowledged that the U.S. has air-dropped guns and horse feed to Alliance forces. Meanwhile, U.S. Green Berets slipped into rebel-held territory and worked to prepare the Alliance's factions for a coordinated assault on Mazar. "Obviously, we needed help," said General Muhibullah, a senior commander in Dasht-i-Qaleh. "It was very effective for us when the U.S. advisers came to Mazar."
The order to attack came last Monday. Dostum's men scrambled out of their trenches and dashed toward the Taliban line in Kishindi, ducking behind rocks, bushes and trees. A handful of Taliban armored vehicles and tanks opened fire, forcing Dostum to order his forces to fall back. Sitting astride his dark bay pony, he radioed for the cavalry. By the next night, after "very fierce" fighting, the Alliance broke through. A local uprising against the Taliban sent the regime's men running from the district capital, Shulgarah. The treacherous Shulgarah Pass--a narrow ravine 14 miles southwest of Mazar where the Alliance had expected to be ambushed by enemy gunners--had been abandoned by Taliban troops before the Alliance arrived.
On the outskirts of Mazar, hundreds of the Taliban's 5,000 troops in the region took shelter around a power plant and a fertilizer factory; they believed the U.S. wouldn't hit the factory because doing so could send deadly ammonia fumes into the air. After a meeting with Atta Thursday night, Dostum initiated skirmishes with the Taliban. On Friday morning, the two met with Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, who commands anti-Taliban Hazara fighters, to plan a three-pronged attack on Taliban positions ringing the city. A group of rebels surprised the Taliban by veering off the main road into Mazar and advancing from the southwest, through a rugged mountain pass known as the "gorge of healing springs." An all-night U.S. air raid along the pass knocked out Taliban defenses and allowed the Alliance to seize the vitally important ridge.
Heavy rains slowed the rebel advance. Just west of the city, Taliban forces in the old citadel Qala-I-Jangi uncorked a final fusillade from cannons, multibarrel rocket launchers, mortars and fixed machine guns. Alliance troops found hundreds of Taliban fighters--most of them Arab and Pakistani volunteers--holed up in a girls' high school. They were zealots, primed for death: after the Alliance commanders failed to coax them into surrender, a two-hour fire fight broke out, and all the Taliban troops were killed or captured. It was their last stand. The Taliban had set up no defenses inside Mazar, and by nightfall Friday the Alliance stormed the city. Dostum's men swept the streets, "trying to find Taliban fighters who have thrown away their guns and are pretending to be ordinary people," said a Dostum aide. "But most of them jumped into their pickups and left."
Among the Taliban commanders at Mazar was the regime's army chief, Mullah Fazil, a man in his mid-20s who is the youngest member of the inner circle around supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Fazil's fate was unknown, but Alliance sources told Time that U.S. bombers inflicted heavy casualties on fleeing Taliban fighters. In Mazar locals rounded up stray Taliban who had failed to escape and held them until rebels arrived. Some captives were released and, a top Alliance official told Time, the conquering generals received specific orders not to mistreat prisoners of war. But the depths of tribal hatred in the city raised the possibility of brutal reprisals against captured Taliban.
While jubilant residents greeted the liberators by sacrificing sheep in the streets, the American response to the Alliance's triumph was muted. Privately, U.S. officials fretted that the three main factions storming the city could end up battling one another before the smoke could clear. Dostum, the charismatic warlord who governed Mazar until a Taliban offensive unseated him in 1997, is notorious for his inconstancy and ruthlessness, and he has no intention of ceding authority to the 37-year-old Atta, a rising military star. Atta has curried support like a small-town mayoral candidate, printing up posters of himself to plaster around the city, and Dostum is likely to take that as an affront. "There's a war within a war here," says Dostum aide Sayed Kamil. The area's Persian-speaking Hazara aren't happy about taking orders from either the Uzbek Dostum or the Tajik Atta. "We're not going to accept anybody as big brother," says Abdul Wahid, an aide to Mohaqiq, the Hazara military commander. If the tense alliance among these factions collapses, the U.S.'s dreams of a land bridge from Uzbekistan could fall with it.
Despite losing Mazar, the Taliban is far from crippled. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admits that air strikes have killed only a tiny fraction of the Taliban forces, who are burrowed into caves and hidden in mosques and schools. The regime may be marshaling its soldiers and artillery for a hellacious counterattack. "It's not very surprising, given the heavy U.S. bombings, that they pulled out of Mazar," says Rifaat Hussain, head of defense and strategic studies at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University. "If the Taliban choose to fight a real battle, it will be over Kabul." The capital is the destination of choice for the 20,000 militants who have crossed the border from Pakistan to fight for the Taliban.
Though the Taliban came to power using "maneuver" warfare--compensating for a manpower disadvantage by attacking on the run from the beds of their Datsun pickups--the regime more recently has won by attrition, digging forces in deep and attacking in mass formations. But the American bombings have flushed Taliban soldiers into the open and forced many of them to return to their roots--the mobile, hit-and-run guerrilla tactics they know best. "Their forces seem to be composed largely of fanatics," says Julie Sirrs, a former analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, "or conscripts whom the Taliban are willing to toss into the fire." The hardest core--about 10,000 men, most of them foreigners--will fight to the death. "When they have to secure a position, they secure it," says Haron Amin, the Alliance's representative in Washington who has fought the Taliban. "They don't worry about their casualties."
The Alliance has its own elite corps deployed near Kabul. Visiting Western journalists often portray the Alliance's militia of part-time, agrarian soldiers as representative of the rebel force as a whole. But that picture is misleading. A zarbati, or strike unit, of some 1,200 uniformed, well-trained fighters is massed north of the capital. The best of the bunch, the Guards Brigade, was created by the late mujahedin commander Ahmed Shah Massoud--even in death the spiritual leader of the Northern Alliance--and comprises several infantry assault battalions backed up by Russian T-55 and T-62 tanks. The Guards have already moved into position northeast of Kabul for a possible raid on the city. Winter won't necessarily deter them: against the Soviets, Afghan guerrillas fought brilliantly in the cold, fortified by high-protein energy bars made of nuts and fruits ground to a pulp and dried into a gristly purple block.
After two decades of conflict, rebel commanders are patient to a fault. But they have never undertaken a major offensive involving thousands of troops organized in numerous brigades, each with its own artillery and armored vehicles. "An offensive of this size is going to be a first for all these commanders," says a Western military specialist. "And it's not at all clear how they'll do." The Alliance forces stationed north of Kabul possess 100 tanks and other armored vehicles, but they may not be deployed in ways that inflict maximum damage. Afghans tend to split their armor into small portions to use as mobile artillery or infantry support. But, says a Western analyst, "that's not how you break lines and sow confusion in the enemy's rear."
That's why the Alliance needs American advisers, and why it may wait for more carpet bombs to fall before it tries to take Kabul. The U.S. hopes the fall of Mazar will set off a string of rebel victories in the north, demoralize Taliban forces in the rest of the country and inspire wholesale desertions. Now that a major city has fallen, says Sirrs, "the momentum will start to turn against the Taliban." But those who don't defect will melt into their surroundings, lie low and wait to pounce. "The Taliban is unlike anything we've ever seen before," says a senior Pentagon official. "If you destroy the military capability of the Taliban and you take away 90% of its following and the rest go into the hills, you still have a movement."
If the world intends to rid itself of that movement and the lethal vision it promotes, the U.S. will have to rip out its heart--by hunting down the Taliban in the caves and redoubts of southern Afghanistan, where the Pentagon believes Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's leaders have taken refuge. Even if they continue to roll back the Taliban in the north, the Afghan rebels won't be of much help in Kandahar. "The Northern Alliance can never control the whole of Afghanistan," says Dostum's aide. "We have no following in the south." That means only a U.S.-led force--made up of special-ops commandos, conventional troops or both--will be able to finish the job. To succeed, these soldiers will need to school themselves in the Afghan way of war. Because if they don't, someone will do it for them.
--Reported by Hannah Beech/Khoja Bahauddin, Anthony Davis/Jabal-us-Seraj, Michael Fathers/Islamabad, Terry McCarthy/ Dasht-i-Qaleh, Alex Perry/Termez and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/ Washington