The Ground War: Into The Fray

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U.S. special forces seen inside a building believed to be near Kandahar

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They are about to find out. At the beginning of the air campaign, the Administration carefully calibrated the war to mesh with diplomatic efforts aimed at cobbling together a successor government to the Taliban. But that political alchemy can't be ordered off the shelf. The West must first broker a consensus among Afghanistan's multitude of opposition groups. In Pakistan last week, Colin Powell seemed to get behind Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's proposal that a governing coalition would include Taliban "moderates"--members of the majority Pashtun tribe in the south who could be convinced, or bribed, to peel away from the regime. Rumsfeld signaled that the Pentagon no longer intends to eradicate Taliban forces wholesale. "It is going to be a lot easier to try to persuade a number of them to oppose the Taliban and to oppose al-Qaeda than it is to in fact defeat them." With winter coming and none of the necessary deals for a future government imminent, U.S. and British strategists have reordered their priorities: they will go after bin Laden and his lieutenants now, try to erode the Taliban's ability to fight back and worry about Afghanistan's future later.

Complicating strategy is the fact that U.S. and British ground forces have injected themselves into the middle of a civil war. For all the talk of common cause between the U.S. military and the Northern Alliance, the two would-be partners have largely marched out of sync. The air campaign has delivered a sobering message to the hodgepodge of fighters seeking to oust the Taliban: their hopes won't always mesh with the Administration's broader aims to smoke out terrorists and keep a fragile international coalition onboard while doing it.

But the U.S. is also looking for ways to defuse the combustible synergies that exist between bin Laden's organization and the Taliban. One of the Pentagon's prime targets during the air campaign has been the barracks of the Taliban's 55th Brigade at Mazar-i-Sharif. The brigade's commanders come mostly from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and its members are Arabs who were reeled into Afghanistan by bin Laden to train in terrorist camps. The "Afghan Arabs" are the Taliban's elite militants and ideological shock troops, sometimes dispatched to cajole reluctant elements of the Taliban's 45,000-man army to fight against the infidels. (Slackers have been known to get shot.) After serving time in Afghanistan, many members of the 55th pursue careers as international terrorists working for the al-Qaeda empire. "The 55th is the point where bin Laden and the Taliban overlap," says an Army intelligence officer. "It's the one big target we can hit that will do damage to both."

The northern outpost of Mazar-i-Sharif, which the 55th helped conquer for the Taliban three years ago and where some 10,000 Taliban troops remain dug in, has thus become a vortex of swirling war aims. Should the city fall to the Northern Alliance, the opposition would gain control of a vital airport that could be used as a staging ground for alliance troops and possibly U.S. special forces--and alliance commanders believe that once they win Mazar, Taliban resistance in the north will roll up. Early last week Ustad Mohammed Atta, the 37-year-old general commanding the alliance there, predicted that the city would be captured by midweek. But the Taliban counterattacked hard, and by Friday alliance forces were running low on ammunition. The alliance's interior minister told TIME that his forces had committed "a military mistake" by advancing too far forward without protecting their own lines. The battle had reached a stalemate, and the alliance put its hopes into convincing Taliban fighters to defect. They might remind them of what happened the last time around: in 1997 anti-Taliban forces in Mazar exterminated more than 1,000 Taliban troops by loading them into truck containers and driving them into the desert to be shot. In the heat of the containers, dozens of the men had died by the time they got there.

In an indication of how nasty the U.S. is prepared to get in order to win this war, about a dozen U.S. military officers met in the Darisuf Pass with General Abdurrashid Dostum, the ruthless Uzbek strongman who controlled Mazar before the Taliban's assault. Dostum--whose army includes a cavalry of 700 armed locals mounted on ponies--is considered one of the Northern Alliance's most opportunistic and cruel leaders, but moral distinctions have bent to battlefield imperatives. The U.S. has provided some air backup to forces such as Dostum's, bombing Taliban troops in Mazar, Kunduz and Taloqan and hoping that Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara and assorted other ethnic warlords will soon assert control over Afghanistan's northern territories.

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