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Monday, 15 October, 2001, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Eyewitness: Northern Alliance on the move
Northern Alliance fighters in northern Afghanistan
Alliance fighters have been moving equipment to positions north of Kabul
Kate Clark

All along the dirt-track road from the north of Afghanistan, trucks loaded up with Russian-made arms and ammunition are steadily making their way south, ploughing through rivers and over the 6,000-metre high mountain pass into the Panjshir Valley.

Northern Alliance fighter  in northern Afghanistan
The Northern Alliance uses Russian-made arms and ammunition
They are bound for Northern Alliance positions north of the capital, Kabul.

Troops and commanders are in bullish mood.

Six years after losing Kabul to the Taleban, Alliance troops believe they are now poised to recapture the city.

But a few commanders are more cautious, admitting that American and British attacks - on radar and communication equipment and even underground bunkers and ammunition dumps - have so far made no dent in the Taleban's position as the supreme military power in Afghanistan.

Low-tech warfare

They are a low-tech army - their most significant weapon the Toyota pick-up.


Any American-backed Alliance victory in Kabul could actually make it easier for the Taleban to mobilise volunteers

This vehicle revolutionised the civil war, allowing the Taleban to cover vast distances of Afghanistan's rough terrain and seize wide swathes of territory.

But pick-ups are difficult to target with missiles.

The Northern Alliance will need America to weaken the Taleban before they have a hope of retaking Kabul.

No major defections

In one place at least, there are credible reports that Taleban troops have dispersed to avoid American attack.

Taleban fighters near Jalalabad
The pick-up truck has helped the Taleban cover vast distances

Some 120 pick-ups full of soldiers are reported to have left their garrison in the town of Bamiyan, famous for the two statues of the Buddha which were destroyed by the Taleban in March.

Some 4,000 troops have been stationed there to guard the main route between the north and south of Afghanistan.

All but 500 are reported to be foreign militants or Afghans from the Taleban's stronghold in the south of the country.

The leadership fears defections.

Some commanders - particularly from the ethnic minorities - have said privately that they are waiting for the right time to switch sides.

But as yet - despite Northern Alliance claims - there has been no confirmation of any major defections.

Lawlessness

Travelling through Alliance-held areas, there was also a reminder along the road of why many people in Kabul fear their return.


Many residents say they fear a repeat of the lawlessness of the mid-1990s when the Alliance was last in control

Late one night at a checkpoint, a youth with a Kalashnikov rifle demanded money to let us through.

The Alliance spokesman, Abdullah Abdullah, has said any return to Kabul would be different this time.

But many residents say they fear a political vacuum and a repeat of the lawlessness and infighting of the mid-1990s when the Alliance was last in control.

Political vacuum

There is also an ethnic problem with the Alliance. Pashtuns, the main group in the country and in the Taleban, are poorly represented within the organisation.

"OK, so the Taleban will be toppled," says a university lecturer.

"But what kind of government will replace the Taleban? There is no mechanism in place to establish a new government and this points to a coming power vacuum."

Any American-backed Alliance victory in Kabul could actually make it easier for the Taleban to mobilise volunteers - against the Alliance and the United States.

In Alliance-held areas, many civilians also told me they do not want the Taleban or the Alliance.

After 20 years of war, they are weary of the rule of armed men.

See also:

15 Oct 01 | South Asia
Kabul hit by heavy daylight raids
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
Thousands cross into Pakistan illegally
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan rebels change tack
14 Oct 01 | Americas
Military campaign: One week on
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