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There's still much unknown about how the fighting is progressing. There are no journalists currently reporting from the battle zone, and reports from the Alliance commanders must ultimately be taken as unverifiable. U.S. military sources are also wary of confirming the opposition claims, partly to avoid setting off a potentially dangerous race among rival Northern Alliance commanders to be first into the city.
Still, the mood at the Pentagon is more upbeat than it has been for three weeks, suggesting they're hearing plenty of good news from their people on the ground. Similarly, while U.S. intelligence officials monitoring the offensive can't say conclusively that Mazar-i-Sharif will fall soon, they confirm that the Northern Alliance has the tactical momentum at the moment, and that some of its forces are within 8 miles of the city. "The Taliban had very bad days yesterday and today," a U.S. official told TIME on Thursday. "The Northern Alliance is closing in and is making very good progress."
To be sure, surrender was never an option for the 5,000 Taliban troops defending the city. Many of them are reportedly not Afghan at all, but hardcore volunteers from Pakistan, Chechnya and the Arab world. And the history of bloody massacres each time Mazar-i-Sharif has changed hands in recent years gives them every incentive to fight to the last man. On the other hand, the Taliban forces were considered outside occupiers by the city's residents, most of whom are ethnic Hazaris whose Shia brand of Islam is held in contempt by the Sunni Taliban and the Alliance had expected plenty of help from a fifth column of supporters inside the city once the bullets started flying.
If they have chosen to retreat and cede the city to the Northern Alliance, the strategic equation in Afghanistan will have changed overnight. Supply lines from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would immediately be opened to ferry both military materiel and humanitarian assistance to northern Afghanistan, while the Taliban forces in the north and west would be endanger of being cut off. It would also potentially give the U.S. access to two major airfields inside Afghanistan, allowing it to base strike aircraft within ten minutes flying time of Taliban targets U.S. fighters currently have to fly off carriers in the Arabian sea and refuel over Pakistan before reaching their targets.
The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif would be a body blow to the Taliban, but not a mortal one. The city is far beyond the movement's traditional heartland, its capture having served as a symbol of the Taliban's ambition to rule over all of Afghanistan. Its fighting forces reportedly remain strong and resolute in the west, south and east of the country, and their will to resist appears undiminished. Still, the loss of Mazar-i-Sharif on the eve of winter would be a timely reminder that while they may well hold out for many months yet, time is not on their side.
With reporting by Alex Perry/Tashkent, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington