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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 12:55 GMT
US looks to Northern Alliance
Northern Alliance soldiers in AI-Khanum, Takhar province on Monday
US planes are now dropping ammunition, not just aid
Jonathan Charles

America's help for the hard-pressed opposition Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan has taken a new turn.

No longer are American jets just bombing Taleban frontlines, they are also now dropping essential supplies from the air for the under-equipped and under-trained Alliance troops.

The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said that ammunition has been dropped into areas where the Northern Alliance is fighting. It is likely that most of the ammunition will have been sent to the units based around Mazar-e- Sharif.

The ammunition is not just a morale booster, it is desperately needed. The Alliance forces there are surrounded in a pocket by the Taleban and are urgently trying to break out.

It has been reported for some time that they have been short of ammunition because all road routes into the region they control have been cut by the Taleban. The only way in is by air.

The waiting game

America hopes that with fresh ammunition supplies, the Alliance will now launch a long-awaited assault to capture Mazar-e-Sharif.

It is one of the sites identified by the Pentagon as a possible forward base for US helicopters and ground forces to use inside Afghanistan.

But on the present Alliance performance, it will be sometime yet until it is seized and is safe to use.

A Northern Alliance soldier in Dasht-i-Qala, Takhar province on Monday
America is hoping that Alliance soldiers will soon attack the strategic town of Mazer-e-Sharif
The Alliance shows no desire to risk casualties in any attack, preferring to wait until American planes have carried out more air strikes on the frontline.

Mr Rumsfeld knows that despite the ammunition drops, there is a sense that the Alliance have no hunger for battle.

Mr Rumsfeld said that even when the ammunition is dropped, the Alliance still has to take it by donkey to the frontline.

Lack of preparedness

He was not just making a comment about the dated nature of the Alliance's transportation, he also appeared to be voicing concern about the general lack of preparedness amongst America's allies on the ground.

More than three weeks into the air campaign, both parties - America and the alliance - are airing their frustrations about each others performance.

Air drops of ammunition are unlikely to heal the divide - both want the Taleban defeated but each wants the other to do the bulk of the work.

The BBC's Andrew Harding in Afghanistan
"All the evidence suggests it will be a long war"
The BBC's David Shukman
"The pressure to achieve something or stop can only intensify"
See also:

29 Oct 01 | South Asia
Taleban tell tribesmen to wait
28 Oct 01 | Middle East
Rumsfeld: Iraq may be target
28 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition leader buried
30 Oct 01 | Americas
New anthrax cases in US
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