Mazar-e-Sharif Key for Capturing bin Laden

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JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan?At the crossroads of a dozen northern provinces, Mazar-e Sharif is the linchpin in the Taliban’s grip on northern Afghanistan. Seizing it would give the opposition and the U.S.-led coalition their first in country staging ground for the fight to capture Osama bin Laden and topple his Taliban protectors.

For the United States and the northern alliance, Mazar-e Sharif offers two key prizes: a working airport and a road link to Uzbekistan about 40 miles to the north.

That would enable the United States and its allies to rush in large quantities of ammunition, tanks, artillery and other supplies to bolster the ill equipped opposition forces. Uzbekistan supports the U.S. led campaign against terrorism and has allowed about 1,000 U.S. soldiers to be stationed on its soil.

U.S. officials stressed the corridor could also be used to truck in food and other humanitarian supplies to help Afghans survive the winter.

The city’s airport could be refurbished into a base not only for flying in supplies but also for mounting air attacks against Taliban forces elsewhere in the strategic north.

“This would give more facilities to the United States to get rid of terrorists,” said Mohammed Karim Khalili, leader of the Shiite Muslim opposition.

For the Taliban, losing Mazar e-Sharif, could threaten to isolate thousands of their troops elsewhere in northern and northwestern Afghanistan.

“Yes, we are interested in Mazar-e-Sharif,” Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Afghan conflict, told reporters in Washington. “We’re interested in it because it would provide a land bridge, as has been said, up to Uzbekistan, which provides us, among other things, a humanitarian pathway for us to move supplies out of Central Asia and down into Afghanistan.”

Taliban troops defending the front lines outside Mazar-e Sharif, a city with an estimated population of about 200,000, are being pummeled by U.S. warplanes, while opposition soldiers are waging a three-pronged attack from the south.

Most Taliban fighters are ethnic Pashtuns, the main ethnic group nationwide but a minority in the north. By contrast, the people of Mazar e-Sharif are mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks. One of the three columns attacking the city is led by Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek who ruled Mazar-e Sharif until it fell to the Taliban in 1998.

Pentagon officials say the situation on the battlefield is fluid, and Franks said, “It’s a bit early to characterize this as the success that will enable our establishment of the land bridge.”

Reporters have no access to the area and are relying on information from opposition spokesmen contacted by satellite telephones. Normal telephone links to the city have been cut.

As a result, it is difficult to determine conditions for civilians in the city, who have been largely cut off from the rest of the country for months.

There are 12 refugee camps in the Mazar-e-Sharif area where 42,400 people live, according to UNICEF, a moderate number compared with other parts of the country. Near Herat in western Afghanistan, for example, there are 210,000 refugees, according to U.N. figures. The total number of displaced within Afghanistan’s borders is 350,000, the U.N. says.

Losing Mazar-e-Sharif would be a disaster for the Taliban. Its military garrisons are loaded with ammunition and weapons. Mazar-e-Sharif and nearby Shebergan to the west are the two main resupply depots for Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan.