Snowfall in Hindukush, Kabul may elude US

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KHWAJA BAHAUDDIN, Afghanistan: The United States warplanes carried out intensive bombing of Taliban positions in northeast Afghanistan near the frontier with Tajikistan early on Sunday, witnesses said.

However, speculation that Kabul could shortly be snatched from the Taliban is fading fast. The first snow has appeared on the Hindukush mountain range and Kabul looks set to elude the United States or Northern Alliance until 2002 at the earliest.

With peaks rising above 5,000 metres, the Hindukush is a formidable barrier between the Taliban and opposition forces and is almost impossible to cross once the winter snows set in.

The Taliban control the crucial heights that would prevent any attempt to advance south on the shattered Afghan capital and they outnumber the alliance with some 6,000 troops to 4,000 within the immediate theatre.

On Monday, bombing in the zone started at 7 am (0230 GMT) as US air strikes on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan entered a fifth week.

At least 20 bombs were dropped in the zone in a two hour zone from 7 am (0230 GMT), an AFP correspondent near the frontline said.

Abdul Wakil Omari, deputy head of the Taliban's Bakhter Information Agency, said just after midnight a US rocket hit a Taliban truck driving in Kabul, injuring nine militia fighters.

But as there is a strict curfew every night only Taliban fighters would have been driving in the streets in a truck at this time, residents said.

Omari said the rocket was fired from a US plane or helicopter that flew over the city. He said none of the injuries were serious.

For the first time, the US B-52s also targeted Taliban positions behind the frontlines, further to the south. American bombers have hit the Taliban frontlines in the northeast for five days over the last week.

The Northern Alliance, the Afghan opposition coalition fighting the Taliban, has most of its forces concentrated in the region.

The Taliban, meanwhile, retook part of Aq-Kupruk district early on Sunday after almost 12 hours of fierce fighting with the opposition Northern Alliance, an opposition spokesman said.

Qari Qudratullah, a spokesman for Northern Alliance Commander Atta Mohammad, said that the Taliban had taken back the eastern part of Aq-Kupruk district, 70 km south of the northern capital of Mazar-i-Sharif.

After hitting a flat spot, the US has ratcheted up its campaign over the Afghan skies, but Washington is still racing against time to get its logistics right ahead of the coming winter.

The US must ensure victories that can shore up support among anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan and help deliver the most sought-after trophy - terror suspect Osama Bin Laden - once the snow thaws.

Moves in that direction have finally kicked off along Afghan frontlines that have divided the puritanical Islamic militia from its long-time time foe, the Northern Alliance.

On frontlines north of Kabul, the US finally answered criticism from the alliance and carpet-bombed the Taliban.

Plumes of smoke mixed with dust drifted across Taliban positions as B-52s unleashed their deadly cargo, aimed at softening up the militia ranks for an eventual push into Kabul by anti-Taliban forces.

Throughout the week, lumbering B-52s dumped their payload on Taliban positions southwest of Bagram airbase.

A key base at Karabagh and the Old and New Roads that run parallel to each other, southwards from Bagram into Kabul, were hit as was the Taliban spiritual home of Kandahar.

Described as a "filthy mess", sources in the southern capital said that the US appeared to be more focused on military targets.

"Strikes are hitting the outskirts where the military bases are. They're not focusing on the city proper so less civilians are getting hit," one source said.

But the Taliban also claimed a series of kills. On its list are two crashed US helicopters, with at least one shot down, leaving up to 50 US troops killed.

The United States acknowledged one lost helicopter, with four servicemen wounded, due to bad weather. The White House consistently dismisses any militia claims of success, saying the Taliban leadership is prone to gross exaggerations.

But Washington has now conceded the loss of two helicopters since declaring war in response to the September 11 terrorist strikes on US soil, blamed on Bin Laden and his Afghan-based Al Qaeda network.

Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, the deputy director of operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed the United States was "tightening the noose" around Bin Laden with strategic bombing of tunnels and caves around Kandahar.

Taliban troops faced intensified US attacks in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif which could prove pivotal if Kabul is to be taken.

As the bombs fell, the Northern Alliance attacked and claimed 80 dead Talibs after a three-hour battle south of the town on Friday night.

Control of Mazar-i-Sharif has switched between both sides since 1996 and success for the alliance would spell a victory for the Americans if the city can be taken and held by anti-Taliban alliances over winter.

This would open up supply lines to river ports on the Amu River and into Uzbekistan from where Moscow can send its promised 45 million dollars worth of military hardware to the alliance.

The commitment includes 40 battle tanks and more than 100 armoured vehicles. Russia has also pledged 50 tonnes of humanitarian aid.

An alliance victory in Mazar-i-Sharif would also cut off Taliban supply links with troops battling a fresh front opened by the opposition forces over the last seven days near Taloqan.

Taloqan lies to the east of Mazar-i-Sharif and to the north of the Kabul frontline, straddling a second route into Tajikistan.

Control of Mazar-i-Sharif would enable the opposition to throttle Taloqan.

The Americans, with special forces already in northern Afghanistan, would substantially benefit from two open routes across the north.

The roads can provide a crucial transport link during a winter build-up, in preparation for a possible spring ground offensive.

However, while the United States embarks on an unorthodox war, military analysts warn that at least some textbook theories still apply.

These includes a maxim that an attacking force needs three times the opposition's strength for victory as an invading force.

With Taliban troop numbers at 50,000 and reinforcements arriving from Islamic militant camps around the world - more than 3,000 from Pakistan alone last week - the US-led coalition faces a long, busy winter.
( AFP )