Rebels ill-equipped for battle

Tribune staff reporters

Commander Daoulad didn't have enough fingers to tick off the wish list of gear he said he needed to finally counterattack his old enemy, the Taliban.

Crouched with his tattered band of Northern Alliance fighters in a muddy trench only 170 yards from Taliban frontline positions, he ignored the racket of nearby gunfire to list everything from more bullets to new shoes, from fresh mortar rounds to unbroken tea glasses, from heavy machine guns to bottles of cooking oil.

"America needs to help more," insisted Daoulad, who like many Afghans uses one name. "So far they have done nothing for us."

Even the previous day's ferocious B-52 strikes on the Taliban lines facing him did not change his view. "Unless there is more," he said, surrounded by freshly dug graves marked with handfuls of rocks, "I wait."

There is a lot of waiting and wishing these days in the frontline trenches of the Northern Alliance, Washington's unlikely ally in the war against terrorism. Bad weather, already hampering U.S. efforts to deploy ground troops in the area, is getting worse, and the rebels are ill-prepared for a winter campaign.

Pentagon officials promised to supply the troops the gear they need, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Saturday sought more assistance from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that would help supply Northern Alliance-held areas along their borders.

President Bush defended the progress of the U.S.-led bombing campaign, which now is four weeks old, saying that it's a "different kind of war."

But it seems very familiar to the Northern Alliance, an army that does not appear ready to risk a dangerous step forward.

Badly trained, badly armed, badly equipped, the Northern Alliance seems to be no challenge for the Taliban today and perhaps for months to come. Its formal name is the United Front, but that is a misnomer. Its forces are an amalgam of warlord militias and troops loyal to the exiled Afghan government. The independent-minded warlords pretty much do what they like.

Until U.S. bombs began raining down on the Taliban on Oct. 7, the Northern Alliance was squirreled away in one-tenth of Afghanistan, desperately trying to hold on to a mostly mountainous, poverty-stricken stretch of land.

"We were not attacking, we were defending," said Commander Hasan, a widely respected leader of one of the militias in northern Afghanistan.

Some analysts suggest that if the U.S. is not cautious, it could end up making decisions in Afghanistan similar to those it made during the Afghan uprising against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. During that conflict, Washington decided to support Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a radical Afghan freedom fighter whose movement attracted a young Saudi exile named Osama bin Laden. The result was the flowering of militant Islam worldwide and the birth of bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Supplies badly lacking

The Northern Alliance's problems are many. To begin with, the rebels lack almost everything an army needs to fight.

"If we get some ammunition, some weapons, some wheat, some shoes, some oil and gas, then we can fight," said Gen. Mohiballah Khan, one of the exiled government's commanders in northern Afghanistan, repeating a refrain heard among opposition military leaders.

Despite loud appeals to the world, leaders of the Northern Alliance complain that few nations have come to their rescue. "The Russians gave us meat, milk and wheat and some ammunition. That is all," Commander Hasan said.

Although Moscow promised to send heavy equipment to match that of the Taliban, nothing has shown up, said Bariyola Khan, deputy minister of defense.

Except for coordinating their own bombing runs, the U.S. military has offered little help, said Gen. Khan. As for Washington's promise to send U.S. Special Forces personnel to provide technical assistance on the ground, Khan said none has shown up in northern Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance has been talking about launching an attack.

"If [Americans] are here, I have not seen them," he said.

Daniel Byman, an expert on Afghanistan with the Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy, agreed that the Northern Alliance's troops are unlikely to race soon toward the capital, Kabul. "They need to learn to mobilize for major operations again, and now winter is biting at their heels," he said.

"Bringing in sufficient supplies for a major assault before winter seems pretty unrealistic," Byman said. "Given the tasks before them, I think the Alliance will need the entire winter to get themselves into shape, or maybe even more time than that."

At most, Northern Alliance officials say they can muster about 15,000 armed and trained fighters. They figure the Taliban can call up to 60,000 fighters, at least half from Pakistan, Chechnya, China and the Arab world.

The number of Taliban fighters also appears to be growing as bands of new fighters travel across the high mountain passes linking Pakistan with Afghanistan, according to Northern Alliance officials. Word of these new arrivals last week quickly deflated Alliance leaders, who were counting on the U.S. bombing to weaken the spirit of the Taliban soldiers.

Defensive posture

Instead, they believe the fresh soldiers bolstered the Taliban's morale. Now, rather than planning their own attack, some rebel commanders have shifted into thinking about how they can defend themselves.

"It is a very difficult situation," said Commander Hasan. "If we don't do something soon, all of the terrorists in the world will be fighting with the Taliban."

But the chances of the Northern Alliance doing something soon seem slim.

Afghanistan's much-vaunted winter only adds to the opposition's tactical disadvantage. The craggy peaks where the Taliban fighters are based are difficult to assault.

Now that the rains have begun in the desertlike valleys of northern Afghanistan, where there were no roads before, travel is almost impossible; the land has turned into an impassable sea of mud.

Northern Alliance leaders insist they will continue their effort through the winter, but that seems unlikely. As a result of snow in the high mountains and freezing rain elsewhere, the Northern Alliance's helicopters cannot reach two elements of its fighting forces, pinned down near Mazar-e Sharif.

Worse yet, because its communications network is tenuous, rebel officials cannot even reach their fighters at Mazar-e Sharif to get updates.

The rebels' supply lines are another weak point inhibiting a full-scale assault on Taliban positions. A single enemy artillery shell could knock out the coalition's sole road link to Tajikistan, a crucial back channel for food and ammunition. A rickety ferry, exposed to Taliban fire, chugs across the border river there, hauling one dilapidated truck at a time.

The first key test of the rebels' military viability, by almost all accounts, will be the battle for Mazar-e Sharif, a crucial crossroads that dominates much of northern Afghanistan. The Taliban wrenched the city from Northern Alliance troops in bloody fighting in 1998. In recent weeks, opposition forces have tried to take it back but were repelled by powerful Taliban counteroffensives.

If the reactions of civilians in Mazar-e Sharif are a good indicator of the tides of the war, then the Northern Alliance has reason to worry.

Phone calls last week to inhabitants of the key city revealed few signs of hardship or panic. Stores still were well-stocked with food, and life was orderly, residents said. They added that the city was packed with Taliban reinforcements, many of them Arab and Pakistani volunteers.

"Nobody is leaving the city," said a merchant reached by cellular phone. "Business is still good."

Wait-and-see attitude

With the news from the fronts so discouraging, opposition warlords increasingly seem to be taking a passive, wait-and-see attitude about greater U.S. military action before committing their own bedraggled troops to further ground operations.

In the meantime, their fighters polish their ancient Russian-made AK-47 Kalashnikovs for the benefit of foreign journalists.

As a recent day dragged on at the front line, an officer stood atop a hill, carelessly exposing himself to enemy fire, holding his walkie-talkie skyward so he could pick up a signal from an equally isolated comrade.

Tank shells slammed into Taliban hillside positions at the rate of one every hour. For miles around there were no lineups of trucks waiting to carry soldiers to the front. At the skimpy military bases, there were no lines of soldiers waiting to receive their weapons and supplies.

Nor had security changed at the last checkpoint on the muddy river of a road leading to Khwaja Bahauddin, the Northern Alliance's military base for the northern region. The checkpoint is manned by a middle-aged, one-eyed soldier and a rifle-toting teenager in sneakers who together hold up a thin blue plastic rope, blocking any suspicious travelers.

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