BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) With the front lines in Afghanistan largely unchanged despite U.S. airstrikes, opposition commanders insisted yesterday they plan a major offensive but said it could not succeed without stepped up American attacks to break down Taliban defenses.
There were signs the United States was willing to increase attacks on Taliban forces. Strikes on the northern front entered their second week yesterday with thunderous explosions and blinding streaks of light in the skies over this battle zone north of the capital.
The opposition northern alliance has barely advanced here or at the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif to the northwest. Opposition commanders have welcomed stepped-up bombing over the past week, but say more is needed.
In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark said Monday the U.S. military extended its bombing toward the Afghan border with Tajikistan, where Taliban troops are preventing opposition forces from reaching Mazar-e-Sharif.
And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld rejected criticism the United States wasn”t doing enough to help the alliance, saying Washington was eager for an opposition advance.
“We are anxious to have all the forces on the ground move forward and take whatever they can take away from the Taliban and the al-Qaida,” he said at the Pentagon. “Our hope is that they will work their way into the major cities and the major airports.”
Rumsfeld said airdrops of ammunition to opposition fighters have begun and coordination of targets has become more effective. “We”re dropping thousands of pieces of ordnance to assist them in addressing the Taliban forces that are arrayed against them,” he told CNN.
In other developments:
n American airstrikes on Afghanistan have killed some leaders of the Taliban military and the al-Qaida network, but not the top ones, Rumsfeld said.
n Gen. Tommy Franks head of American forces in the Afghanistan campaign arrived in Islamabad to discuss the operation with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the campaign.
Japanese lawmakers voted to allow the country”s troops and naval vessels to help in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan as long as they do not go into combat a loosening of restrictions that have bound Japan”s military since World War II.
At Bagram, a front line 30 miles north of Kabul, the Taliban “are as strong as ever,” said Allah Mohammed, a commander who leads a group of rebel fighters posted 300 yards from Taliban forces. Opposition commanders say the Taliban have put their fiercest fighters on the front lines to secure the capital, Kabul.
U.S. fighter jets roared high over Bagram on Monday, dropping bombs behind the Taliban”s lines. Explosions rang out from all sides as the Taliban responded with anti-aircraft fire and pounded alliance positions with rockets, mortars and artillery. U.S. jets also carried out airstrikes Monday night around the southern city of Kandahar headquarters of the Taliban militia and there were reports of “huge explosions” near the airport.
Opposition spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said top commanders had met to plan a major offensive for this week to take Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban.
“For the new operation, when it happens, we will need American help,” Nadeem said. He did not say whether launching the assault was conditional on U.S. help, but opposition commanders have said it is doubtful they could take the city without more intensive airstrikes.
The Taliban repelled an opposition advance on Mazar-e-Sharif last week. The northern alliance hopes taking the city and other northern regions, including Taloqan and Bamiyan, will open up supply routes from the north and reverse the Taliban”s fortunes producing mass defections and clearing the way to Kabul.
The Taliban are thought to have around 40,000 fighters including around 10,000 from the ranks of Osama bin Laden”s al-Qaida terror network. Opposition forces are thought to number around 15,000 to 20,000.
President Bush launched the airstrikes Oct. 7 after the ruling Taliban refused to hand over Laden, suspected in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Efforts to put together resistance to Taliban rule were dealt a major setback with Friday”s hanging of Abdul Haq, a former Afghan guerrilla leader who sneaked into Taliban-held territory to rally Afghan tribal leaders and others to a new government.
Haq was a member of Afghanistan”s majority Pashtun tribe and did not belong to the northern alliance. He was seen as key to U.S. efforts to persuade Pashtun leaders to abandon the Taliban.
“Haq”s death makes the northern alliance that much more important as the only military force that can push the Taliban from power without the large scale intervention of foreign ground forces, which nobody wants,” said Anthony Davis, an Afghan expert who writes for Jane”s Defense Weekly.
In Islamabad, capital of neighboring Pakistan, Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the first phase of the American military campaign “had achieved no significant achievement that the Pentagon wished to achieve, except the genocide of Afghanistan people.”
The Pentagon has accused the Taliban of inflating civilian casualties, though it has expressed regret for any accidental civilian casualties in the bombing. The campaign targets Taliban and al-Qaida, accused in last month”s terror attacks in the United States.