Afghan opposition talks of major offensive

Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Frustrated by weeks of U.S. bombing that have failed to budge Taliban front lines, Afghanistan's opposition forces plotted what they said Monday would be a major push on a vital Taliban-held northern stronghold.

To bring it off, a spokesman of the northern-based opposition alliance stressed, "We will need American help."

There were signs the United States was willing to provide that help.

In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark said the U.S. military extended its bombing toward the Afghan border with Tajikistan, where Taliban troops are holding back opposition forces from their objective -- the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

As the U.S.-led air campaign in Afghanistan entered its fourth week, American warplanes also dropped six bombs in the afternoon about one to two miles behind Taliban lines near Bagram air base about 30 miles north of Kabul.

"I was sitting on my horse cart and saw American jets swoop down and drop bombs on the Bagram sector," said Khan Shirin, a 22-year-old fighter from a vantage point on the main Bagram-Kabul road.

Taliban forces fired anti-aircraft guns, and there were sporadic exchanges of fire between the Islamic militia and forces of the opposition northern alliance. Shirin said that the front line had been fairly quiet for much of the day.

Skies over Kabul were also quiet after a day of U.S. bombing that distraught residents said killed 13 civilians.

Clark at the Pentagon said U.S. bombers were also trying to work systematically through the complex system of caves used by fighters from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.

The bombing campaign, launched Oct. 7, has targeted Afghanistan's Taliban regime and al-Qaida, accused in last month's terror attacks in the United States. The Pentagon has expressed regret for civilian deaths that result from the campaign, saying any such deaths have occurred by accident. It has accused the Taliban of inflating civilian casualties.

In Islamabad, Pakistan, Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the first phase of the American military campaign "had achieved no significant achievement that the Pentagon wished to achieve, except the genocide of Afghanistan people."

Afghan opposition forces are complaining that U.S. bombing is too light to drive out Taliban forces defending Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Unhappy at the pace of efforts to capture Taliban-held territory, key opposition commanders assembled Sunday for a five-hour session to sketch out a major offensive on Mazar-e-Sharif, opposition spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said in a telephone interview.

Commanders also talked of joint offensives on the surrounding provinces of Balkh and Samangan, Nadeem said.

Present, he said, were longtime figures in the opposition's long-stalled struggle: Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum, Shiite Muslim leader Mohammed Mohaqik and Atta Mohammed, commander of deposed Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

The Taliban routed Rabbani's government from the capital in 1996. Two years later, Taliban fighters took Mazar-e-Sharif, which the regrouped opposition forces had made their northern base.

Opposition forces have been fighting sporadically ever since to push back toward the two cities. Seesaw battles outside Mazar-e-Sharif since the U.S. air campaign began have failed to produce any opposition breakthroughs.

Capturing Mazar-e-Sharif would open crucial supply lines from Uzbekistan for Afghanistan's poorly armed opposition -- allowing in fresh stocks of ammunition, troops and equipment before winter, weeks away, hampers fighting.

On Monday, Nadeem said he had reports the Taliban had reinforced defenses in Balkh and Samangan provinces near Mazar-e-Sharif with 2,000 more troops.

Moving forward would take heavy U.S. air support, he said. "For the new operation, when it happens, we will need American help," the opposition spokesman said.

In Washington, Clark told reporters the objectives for Monday's bombing included the Taliban military's armor and troop concentrations. Asked about a report in The Washington Post that the U.S. bombing had attempted to strike Taliban positions near Tajikistan which are defending Mazar-e-Sharif, she replied, "We've been hitting on a variety of areas around the country, including in that area."

In Islamabad, the commander of American forces in the Afghanistan campaign arrived Monday to discuss the operation with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the anti-terrorism effort.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, met with Musharraf during the afternoon along with Pakistani generals and U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin.

Meanwhile, the supreme leader of Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, warned the United States that it will learn a "tougher lesson" in Afghanistan than the Soviet Union did.

Omar told the Algerian newspaper El Youm that once U.S. troops are on the ground, the Americans will lose their technological edge. "We will never welcome them with flowers" he said. "They will receive a tougher lesson than that of their Russian predecessors."