Rebels: Mazar-i-Sharif is Ours

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Explosions rise over the Taliban positions in the Qala-Cata mountains

The Taliban spent three years fighting for Mazar-i-Sharif, precisely because its capture would confirm them as masters of all Afghanistan. And that they are no longer. Sources reached by TIME inside the city on Friday confirmed claims by Northern Alliance generals Rashid Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed to have recaptured Mazar-i-Sharif. Taliban forces reportedly withdrew from the city after a bloody 90-minute battle at its southern entrance which began late in the afternoon, local time, triggering jubilant celebrations among the townspeople whose ethnic and political affinities are with the Northern Alliance.

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"The people in Mazar-i-Sharif were very happy when we marched in," Haji Jamil, an aide to General Mohammed, told TIME. "They sacrificed many sheep, because many of the soldiers were originally from Mazar and their families were still living in the city, so they sacrificed the sheep in front of them." Alliance commanders claim to have killed some 250 Taliban, most of them Pakistani and Arab volunteers, and captured a further 500, although none of these claims can be verified. Rather than fight to the finish, however, Alliance commanders say the Taliban retreated north and east after a fierce battle involving troops, tanks and Taliban artillery at the southern gateway to the city.

Showdown in Kabul?

It's not clear where the retreating Taliban forces are headed, and reports from Mazar-i-Sharif said some of their forces had regrouped on an adjacent hillside and were blasting the city with rockets. Still, the U.S. air support that helped the Alliance retake Mazar would make it extremely difficult for the Taliban forces to mass for a counterattack. Alliance commanders are hoping their allies along the way will stop the retreating Taliban reaching Kabul. Rather than defend its remaining northern outposts such as Kunduz and Taloqan in territory that, like Mazar-i-Sharif, is tribally and militarily hostile to the mostly Pashtun fundamentalist movement, the Taliban may instead concentrate its forces for a battle to hold on to the capital, where they have more support among the local population as well as thousands of reinforcements newly arrived from Pakistan over the past four weeks.

The Taliban may not yet be beaten, but they've suffered a serious setback that will substantially change the strategic equation in Afghanistan. The fall of Mazar appeared to signal a collapse of the Taliban's hold on northern Afghanistan, with Alliance troops quickly capturing two important towns to the north and east, and more importantly, almost immediately opening up a land corridor from the Uzbek border. That would allow massive shipments of humanitarian aid to be immediately shipped to hundreds of thousands of Afghans facing starvation on the northern plain. It would also allow the U.S. to ship tons of military hardware to the Alliance, and possibly begin deploying its own forces in larger numbers inside Afghanistan.

An American 'beachead'

The victory at Mazar-i-Sharif sets the stage for a de facto partition of Afghanistan into a northern arc controlled by the anti-Taliban alliance and a southern rump controlled by the Taliban. The main battle to take down the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network may lie ahead, but the Northern Alliance's newly won territory offers tremendous opportunity for the U.S. to intensify its campaign all over Afghanistan. The Pentagon's first priority may be to establish new air bases inside this zone, which can be used not only to resupply the Alliance and any expanded U.S. troop presence, but also to ratchet up the air war. To reach the battle zone right now, fighter planes have to fly over Pakistan from carriers in the Arabian sea — a distance that limits them to a single sortie each day and with a lighter bomb load necessitated by the heavier fuel load. Basing the same fighters at bases around Mazar would allow them to fly three sorties a day and carry a heavier payload to the Taliban frontlines. And the psychological impact of the U.S. basing its war inside Afghanistan may help focus the minds of potential Taliban turncoats.

Not surprisingly, the mood at the Pentagon has been more upbeat this week than it has been for most of the past month. "The Taliban had very bad days yesterday and today," a U.S. official told TIME on Thursday. "The Northern Alliance is closing in and is making very good progress." A victory at Mazar-i-Sharif will be taken as a vindication of the strategy of heavily bombing the Taliban frontlines to weaken their will to fight.

A body blow

While the bombing clearly played a vital role in enabling the Alliance victory, there may have been other factors weighing on the Taliban's decision to retreat rather than make a stand so far north of the movement's Pashtun heartland. Many of the Taliban's fighters in Mazar were reportedly not Afghan at all, but hardcore volunteers from Pakistan, Chechnya and the Arab world. That, and the history of bloody massacres each time Mazar-i-Sharif has changed hands precluded the possibility of surrender, and the overwhelming hostility of the local population to the Taliban left them little chance of prevailing in a street-by-street battle. Alliance commanders were always expecting lots of help from inside a city that had always viewed the Taliban as foreign occupiers.

The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif would be a body blow to the Taliban, although not a mortal one. The battle there turns out to have been a curtain-raiser for a showdown at Kabul. Still, winter's snows have not yet frozen the battlefields, and the Taliban has lost a city whose capture once confirmed its authority over almost all of Afghanistan. Even if the Alliance is unable to press their momentum at Kabul, the fall of Mazar is a signal that even if the Taliban manage to hold out for many more months, their best years are behind them.

With reporting by Terry McCarthy/Dast-i-Qala, Alex Perry/Tashkent, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington