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Friday, 9 November, 2001, 20:14 GMT
Mazar-e-Sharif: Vital target
Northern Alliance fighters near front line as opposition forces advance towards Mazar-e-Sharif
Taking on the Taleban: opposition fighters in battle
Paul Adams

American officials have made it plain for some time that they regard Mazar-e-Sharif as important.

At the Pentagon on Thursday, the man in charge of the military campaign, General Tommy Franks, said the city, located so close to the border with Uzbekistan, could provide a "land bridge" into Afghanistan.

Map of Afghanistan showing capital Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif
This would provide "a humanitarian pathway for us to move supplies out of Central Asia and down into Afghanistan," he said.

General Franks cited other possible points of access, from Herat in the west to Kandahar and Jalalabad in the south and east.

"If you look at Afghanistan, you'll find that there are a number of major routes into Afghanistan," General Franks said.

A Northern Alliance fighter checks his gun
Preparing for battle
"That route structure is interesting to us as a piece of geography."

But the emphasis is clearly on the north.

American special forces have been there for some time, helping to coordinate air strikes and supporting opposition commanders.

Verifying

It will be up to these men to confirm that Mazar-e-Sharif and the surrounding area is indeed in Northern Alliance hands.

America also has a thousand troops from the 10th Mountain Division standing by in Uzbekistan.

Taleban HQ in Mazar-e-Sharif
Bombing destroyed the local Taleban HQ
If the city, and its airport, are truly under Northern Alliance control, these soldiers could be the first coalition forces to establish a base inside Afghanistan.

In taking Mazar-e-Sharif, the Northern Alliance has been told not to engage in a bloodbath - something that would do untold damage to Washington's campaign.

The city has changed hands repeatedly in the past and massacres have invariably followed.

Bloodshed

Another round of blood-letting now would render the Pentagon policy of active support for the Northern Alliance untenable.

Western officials have learned to be cautious in recent weeks, avoiding rash predictions about the course of the war.

Northern Alliance fighters being briefed before advancing towards Mazar-e-Sharif
Anti-Taleban fighters prepare for offensive

But there is a mounting sense that a watershed may have been reached, one that would help to vindicate weeks of sustained military pressure by American jets and heavy bombers.

In London, a defence source confirmed that Taleban communications are now virtually non-existent.

Front-line forces have no way, except by runners, of knowing what is going on elsewhere.

Command and control, never a strong part of the Taleban's military structure, has been all but eliminated.

The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif would provide a timely propaganda coup for Washington, allowing it to display images of stepped-up humanitarian efforts to the outside world during the problematic Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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