The Washington Post

Paul Wong
A bank set ablaze by Taliban supporters to protest the British and U.S. attacks on Afghanistan burns in Quetta, Pakistan, yesterday.<br><br>AP PHOTO

QALAI SHARIF, Afghanistan Rebel leaders said yesterday that two nights of U.S.-led strikes have crippled the ruling Taliban militia”s key defenses but had not yet allowed them to break out of the pockets they control to contest Taliban-held areas.

The bombs and missiles, which last night sent thunderclaps rolling through the valleys here north of the capital, Kabul, have destroyed radar systems and damaged Taliban air defenses and its air force, the rebels said. Afghan radio reports said last night that the Kabul airport and a television transmission tower were struck by massive explosions.

But some commanders of the rebel Northern Alliance were disappointed that the first phase of the U.S. military operation had not done more to help them advance against Taliban positions. U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles, for instance, did not strike the government forces perched above the Bagram air base north of Kabul, a key juncture for any drive toward the capital.

“The U.S. can”t win by bombing,” Haji Almaz, a top rebel commander, said in an interview yesterday in his headquarters north of the front lines. “Bombing is not effective against the Taliban. Soldiers (on the ground) and the Northern Alliance are effective.”

In some parts of the country, though, rebels said their forces have taken advantage of the American-led assault. The rebels claimed to have seized control of two districts near Mazar-e Sharif, a strategic town in northern Afghanistan, and captured 200 Taliban soldiers. The Afghan Islamic Press agency reported that yesterday”s attacks by the United States and Britain struck Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz, another Taliban-held city close to concentrations of rebel troops.

Opposition leaders said several prominent Taliban commanders agreed to switch sides yesterday and would bring 1,000 fighters with them.

But there were few other signs that the explosive force of the Anglo-American coalition had unraveled Taliban resolve. While some low-ranking Taliban officers were unnerved enough to defect, others made clear that they remained unbowed. “The United States is the enemy of all Muslims,” one Taliban post commander said by two-way radio last night when his rebel counterpart here in the hills overlooking the Shomali Plain called to suggest he come over to the other side. “They want to destroy all Muslims. We have only begun the jihad against America.”

At about noon yesterday, U.S. surveillance aircraft detected four Taliban Mi-17 helicopter gunships attempting to escape from an air field in Afghanistan”s Paktia province to Pakistan”s North-West Frontier Province, which has cultural and religious ties to the Taliban. One helicopter disappeared from the surveillance tracking, but three landed in the remote Kurram Valley just inside Pakistan, according to officials here.

The helicopter crews told local tribal leaders they were hoping to protect the aircraft from the U.S. attacks, officials said. Pakistani military officials arrived at the site late yesterday and detained the crew members.

Rebels said Taliban leaders have protected their troops in Kabul by moving them to the front lines north of the city at night, both to avoid bombs and missiles aimed at the city and to forestall any offensive by rebel forces. One rebel outpost at the front line in Rabat spotted more than 100 vehicles carrying Taliban troops out of the city Sunday night. At daybreak yesterday, after the U.S. air assault ended for the night, the Taliban troops were transported back into the city.

The Northern Alliance fired into the mountain village of Estalif last night after hearing that senior Taliban leaders and perhaps even Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden might be holed up there for the night, according to a front-line rebel commander. However, there was no confirmation that bin Laden was present.

Rebel officials insist that for the United States to succeed in Afghanistan, the Americans must coordinate more with rebel forces. But Almaz, the top rebel commander, added that he was confident the two sides would work together to push the Taliban out of Kabul. “We”re very happy that strong enemies will be destroyed,” he said. “We expect that when the fighting is finished, the Taliban will be uprooted.”

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