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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

On the frontline 17/10/01

TIM WHEWELL:
In northern Afghanistan, it's no good trying to get to the front line in the morning rush hour, and you'll never see any action unless your papers are in order. Luckily we bumped into someone with a very important signature. We were given permission to advance by no lesser personage than the first deputy defence minister, General Muhebulloh. He effects complete indifference to changes in American policy.

GENERAL MUHEBULLOH (TRANSLATION):
The Americans can strike or not strike. That's their political choice. We will continue our own struggle. But at the moment we are in a state of heightened military alert, waiting to start a mass advance.

WHEWELL:
Lines of communication in this war are slow and primitive. This is the same route and the same transport used by Alexander the Great 2,300 years ago, though he, unlike us, probably had the use of stirrups. The cliff-top city Alexander founded to command the river is now a base for Northern Alliance artillery. The Taliban positions in the hills opposite are a few kilometres away. At the top of the slope it's silent as the grave. There were fierce battles here a year ago. Now the path that leads the final few hundred yards to the front probably sees more journalists than soldiers. On this north east front, there's no movement. The trenches of the two sides are within easy rifle range of one another, but the shooting has a desultory air. The commander is still waiting for orders to advance, though he hints there's not much reason to delay.

COLONEL ABDUL RASUL (TRANSLATION):
America struck at the Taliban headquarters in the town over there. The communications centre and their tanks were all hit.

WHEWELL:
A visit to the Northern Alliance positions makes it no clearer why so little is happening here. The local commanders say many of the Taliban forces facing them have been withdrawn to fight elsewhere, and some have simply melted away. Yet still there's no push forward. It may be a sign of the alliance's military weakness, or it may be deliberate calculation. Since the assassination last month of its revered leader, Ahmed Shah Massood, the alliance has lost political and military direction. Precise targeting of its foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, has proved a difficult task for reporters, but he has now given something away. The United Front, as the alliance calls itself, won't move on Kabul just yet because it can't agree on what to do when it gets there.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH:
There are some people in the United Front who will say that since we have resisted against the Taliban for so many years, we should have the chance to rule the country. There might be some elements in the United Front. What we are saying as the political leadership of the United Front of the Islamic state of Afghanistan, yes, we deserve that right, but we have to include everybody.

WHEWELL:
The alliance has to march with America. And America can't afford to get out of step with Pakistan. That means a new Afghan government must represent the south of the country as well as the north. Until a shadow administration is formed, it's safer for everyone to test their strength well away from the capital. We put in a call to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance commander who's advanced towards the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The general was in bullish mood, though it's now reported he's facing some Taliban resistance. Can you ask General Dostum what's happening around Mazar-e-Sharif?

ABDUL RASHID DOSTUM (TRANSLATION):
The Taliban have already given up a lot of territory and gradually we are advancing. I can say with all confidence that in the coming days we will take over Mazar-e-Sharif.

WHEWELL:
Northern Alliance commanders are too proud to admit receiving outside help, but America has targeted the Taliban around Mazar-e-Sharif, as well as near Kabul. What the alliance won't say is how closely those strikes are co-ordinated with their troops on the ground. Are you exchanging operational information, military operational information with the Americans?

GENERAL MUHEBULLOH (TRANSLATION):
This is really a question for the defence minister. The information we get from intelligence is passed upwards. The co-ordination of operational plans and military strikes is done at their level.

WHEWELL:
Intelligence contacts can't really pass over the head of a deputy defence minister, but the truth is, America and the Northern Alliance are still sizing one another up. Neither side knows exactly where it's going.


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