Afghan alliance's attack falters

Monday, November 5, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- After four weeks of U.S. attacks, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban are no longer "functioning as a government," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday. But an opposition attack on a key northern city was reported faltering only hours after it was launched.

That raised doubts whether the factious, poorly armed northern alliance opposition could exploit U.S. airstrikes and topple the Taliban without the assistance of American ground troops.

Meanwhile, U.S. jets struck the front line about 30 miles north of Kabul, according to Atiqullah Baryalai, deputy defense minister of the northern alliance. In the Afghan capital itself, American bombs hit near the Intercontinental Hotel, set on a hill in the southwest part of the city.

They also struck the northeast town of Taloqan, which the opposition lost to the Taliban last year.

Rumsfeld, on a tour of front line states in the war against terrorism, sought to dispel fears that the air campaign, now in its fifth week, was failing to crack the Taliban's grip on Afghanistan.

The Taliban are "not really functioning as a government," Rumsfeld declared after meeting Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key Muslim ally in the anti-terrorism campaign.

Rumsfeld, who later Sunday went on to India, said the Taliban were "using their power in enclaves throughout the country" and were "not making major military moves."

"They are pretty much in static positions," he said. Rumsfeld said the Islamic militia was using mosques as command centers and as ammunition storage sites to spare them from American attack and "actively lying about civilian casualties."

Earlier Sunday, in Uzbekistan, Rumsfeld gave an assessment of the military campaign's success to date. "The effort to deal with the problem of terrorist networks is proceeding," Rumsfeld said. "It is, we believe, proceeding at a pace that is showing measurable progress."

Three-pronged offensive

A key element of the U.S. strategy has been to attack Taliban positions facing the northern alliance -- especially on the front north of Kabul and on positions defending the Taliban-held city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

On Sunday, opposition spokesman Nadeem Ashraf said alliance forces launched a three-pronged offensive south of Mazar-e-Sharif in strategic Kishanday district in Balkh province, which borders Uzbekistan. The spokesman said the attack began after U.S. jets softened up Taliban positions by heavy bombing.

Hours later, however, Ashraf said one of the three opposition columns, led by Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, was making no progress and the offensive was faltering. He said Dostum's forces numbered only about 700 to 1,000 fighters and had "no high morale."

His assessment could not be independently confirmed. However, it points to ethnic rivalries within the northern alliance that have long hampered the opposition's ability to mount an effective challenge to the Taliban.

Opposition commanders around the other major front, north of Kabul, have said they are preparing for a major offensive toward the capital.

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