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Saturday, 10 November, 2001, 18:07 GMT
The price of victory in Mazar
Northern Alliance soldier covering a comrade in Baghram, north of Kabul
Opposition troops are now moving towards Kabul
Daniel Lak

The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif is the first significant victory of the anti-Taleban campaign.

But Afghan history is littered with reversals of fortune.

General Abdul Rashid Dostum and allied Northern Alliance commanders would do well to remember this as they celebrate in the streets of their country's second city.

So too would the Americans.

Secure supply lines

If they want Mazar-e-Sharif to remain in opposition hands, as they assuredly do, they will be called upon to do far more than simply drop bombs and food parcels from the air.

For a start, Mazar, as it is known in Afghanistan, will need secure supply lines secured to neighbouring Uzbekistan, about 60 kilometres to the north.

It is still not yet clear if the Taleban have pulled their forces back from the only road to the Amu Darya, or River Oxus - the border with Uzbekistan.

The strategic container port of Kheyrabad sits on the southern river bank, at the end of a rail network that connects Afghanistan - ultimately - with Moscow, a holdover from the days when the former Soviet Union thought the Afghans could be convinced or coerced into becoming good Communists.

The city is in Balkh province, which along with others in the vicinity ... is facing the worst food shortages this coming winter

The port and rail line could be used to move supplies and possibly armaments into newly captured bits of Afghanistan in the hinterland around Mazar.

Food shortages

They have not really been used for legal trade in the years that the Taleban have controlled the area, thanks to the hostility between neighbouring Central Asian states and the Taleban.

Even more crucial to the American campaign than arms - according to many observers - is for Mazar to become the centre of a massive aid operation for northern Afghanistan.

The city is in Balkh province, which along with others in the vicinity - Jozjan, Faryab, Baghis, Ghor and Baghlan - is facing the worst food shortages this coming winter.

The World Food Programme admits that it has got little aid to people in those provinces.

They are remote and suffer from climatic extremes.

But their deprivation is mostly due to instability and the ever-shifting front lines and loyalties of local commanders.

The fall of Mazar to the Northern Alliance will not mean an automatic change in that situation.

In fact, it may make things immediately worse as retreating Taleban fighters redeploy in the outlying districts and provinces.

Mixed city

Nonetheless, aid agencies will welcome the chance to use Mazar airport with its lengthy runway.

Another problem lies in the complex ethnic rivalries of the Mazar region.

The city is a mix of Tajik, Uzbek, Pashtun and mainly Shia Hazara people.

Many of those, especially the Hazaras, fled since the Taleban first took the city in May of 1997, losing it several months later and then regaining it in July of 1998.

Human rights groups have accused the Taleban, and a dissident faction of General Dostum's forces, of large scale atrocities during the various rounds of that fighting.

Northern Alliance commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum
General Dostum says he controls Mazar-e-Sharif

More than 10,000 are confirmed to have died, probably more.

This was during some of the most savage and vicious fighting ever seen in modern Afghanistan.

Huge numbers of Taleban fighters were killed in cold blood or tortured to death; in retaliation, when the Islamist militia re-entered the city in mid-1998, they killed thousands of Hazara and members of ethnic minorities, civilians as well as fighters.

Resentments still smoulder.

Nor are there any guarantees that Uzbekistan does not have its own plans for the territory around Mazar-e-Sharif.

Kabul rule

Afghanistan's Uzbek community lives in the steppes around General Dostum's former stronghold of Shibergan, about 200 kilometres by road from Mazar.

They have never been particularly happy with rule from Kabul.

The fact that the ethnic Uzbek General Dostum was once part of the feared Communist Afghan army before switching sides in 1992 has not been forgotten in the capital either.

All of these are complicating factors that the Americans will be have to be acutely aware of as they ponder whether to try to use Mazar as their first "forward base" of the Afghan military campaign.

Mazar-e-Sharif has certainly fallen - but its capture guarantees nothing, as the shifting, bloodstained sands of Afghan history show all too clearly.

See also:

25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Profile: General Rashid Dostum
23 Oct 01 | South Asia
Mazar-e-Sharif's bloody history
09 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's uneasy day off
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