The Battle for Mazar

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If bombs of differing lethal value were not falling on Afghanistan with increasing frequency, the “war on terrorism” could well be a phony war. Despite the urgency of the air campaign, thirty days into the war there is no ground battle worth the name except around Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province. Literally meaning the “tomb of the saint,” the Balkh River makes this city a part of Afghanistan’s most fertile regions, producing cotton, grain and fruit. Once the Soviet Union’s chief transit point for trade, Mazar (for short) is 35 miles south of Termez, a major river port of Uzbekistan on the Amu Darya (Amu River), the border with Afghanistan. Mazar-i-Sharif’s chief claim to fame is the purported discovery in the 12th (or was it the 15th?) century of the tomb of Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Whatever the truth, the shrine next to the blue-tiled mosque is venerated by all muslims, in particular the Shia sect. 200 miles away to the south-east, Kabul is connected by road through the Salang Tunnel, Herat is about 300 miles away to the south-west near the border with Iran.

An extensive and difficult mountain territory, the Alborz Range, lies south and south-west, with a flat desert terrain to the north, east and south of the city. Populated mainly by the Uzbeks, Mazar’s nearly quarter million population has a fair percentage of Tajiks and Hazaras, Pashtuns make up about 10%. The surrounding population is also mainly Uzbek, with a sprinkling of Tajiks to the east and Hazaras (Shias) in strength to the south in Bamiyan Province. Mostly Uzbeks populate the provinces of Samangam and Baghlan due east, as well to the west in Jozejan and Faryab. Through Kholm a road goes east to Kunduz, Takhar and Badakshan Provinces. A road passes south through Ap Kupruk to Bamiyan Province. Once the capital of Afghan Turkmenistan, the loss of this crossroads city of Mazar-i-Sharif will be a grievous blow to the Talibaan, maybe not a fatal one. Without occupying Kabul as a capital city in its grasp, the Opposition can only claim some legitimacy if they have physical possession of Mazar-i-Sharif. Its capture may invite wholesale Uzbek and Tajik defections from the Talibaan ranks. More importantly, on “the domino theory” the Provinces of Balkh, Samangan, Faryab, Jozejan and Ghowr would link up with the Alliance territories of Kunduz, Baghlan, Takhar, Badahshan, Parvan and Kapisa, in effect providing the Northern Alliance not only with continuous real estate but its government legitimacy of sorts.

The carpet bombing by B-52s notwithstanding, the Northern Alliance will need close air support to capture Mazar, before Ramazan this is most unlikely unless the Talibaan decide to abandon the city voluntarily. A school of thought recommends the US bombing not to stop during Ramazan, the hiatus giving the Talibaan breathing space to rejuvenate militarily. This premise may be correct but rendering justification by examples of conflict among muslims during Ramazan as quoted by some muslim commentators is ludicrous. Giving “Jang-e-Badar” as an example misses the entire point. The fact is one of images of bombs raining down on civilians (with deaths and damage thereof) beamed by the electronic media into muslim homes (and sensibilities), inflaming passions of those who have uptil now refrained from being provoked by religious activists. In battles of yesteryear, deaths and injuries were mostly confined to combatants, non-combatants only suffering “collateral damage” unless they had to face what Changez Khan did to Bamiyan in slaughtering 150000 just because his favourite grandson was killed in battle. Incidentally he also had an unsuccessful go at the famous Bamiyan statues. “Public Relation” (PR) types are inclined to drawing room intrigues, confidently telling their patrons what they want to hear instead of correct advice excelling in making profit out of conflict. Prone to gossip on the cocktail circuit, Americans can be hugely misguided by such scum of this earth. As it is, anti-Americanism is rampant, a travesty of fact (and fairplay) when one considers that they can be the most generous people on this earth, very deeply affected by human suffering. Civilian casualties during Ramazan will combine anti-Americanism with misguided religious fervour to spill out into the streets, overwhelming those of us who genuinely like Americans. This will certainly de-stabilise Pakistan, maybe that is what this good non-Pakistani muslim really wants.

Unlike the ragtags parading daily in new gladrags north of Kabul, the Northern Alliance’s best military commanders and troops are arrayed against Mazar-i-Sharif. From the northwest and west (Doulatabad and Chantal), mercenary Gen Rashid Dostum, long-time ruler of Mazar is on the outer reaches of the city. Dostum remained allied to the Soviets during the entire length of the Afghan War but shifted alliances to Najibullah when they Soviets left, supporting him with a large contingent of his Jumbish Militia in Kabul. His troopers misbehaved badly, indulging in widespread rape and pillage. Before Najibullah fell, he conveniently switched sides to Ahmad Shah Masood so that despite being a Tajik and in minority, Masood became the power behind the throne in Afghanistan’s interim government. Dostum soon fell out with Masood, maintaining an uneasy alliance from the safety of his Mazar stronghold. His luck and timing in crossing over to the winner lost out when the Talibaan spurned him for his double-dealing No 2, Gen Malek. Even then Uzbek Dostum still evokes deep ethnic loyalties despite his horrific baggage. Unlike the other Afghan races, Uzbeks are not divided along sub-tribes. Dostum has today only a shadow (1000-1200 troops) of the well-trained force he once commanded.

Driving north from his base at Yakaolong in Bamiyan Province, Ustad Mahikak, who has strong long-time support from Iran, has been attacking Ap Kupruk with some success. Ap Kupruk has changed hands a couple of times. Spearheaded by tanks, and helped by Ustad Atta Mohammad’s Tajiks, Mahikak’s Hazaras drove the Talibaan out last Saturday but were driven out 24 hours later. Taking control again last tuesday, the alliance have reportedly moved through Shulgerah towards Mazar. Showing remarkable resilience, the Talibaan have kept the road to Herat open despite ex-Governor Herat Ismail Khan’s threatening presence west of Herat.

To hold Mazar-i-Sharif at all costs, the Talibaan have their second largest concentration after Kabul (about 10000-12000 hardened troops), mainly Uzbeks and Tajiks but with 1000-1500 each of Pashtun and Arabs. Since Uzbeks hate being led by Pashtuns, the Talibaan commanders are mainly of Uzbek and Tajik, their morale stiffened by well trained and motivated Arab fighters. Osama Bin Laden is not physically present but former Soveit paratrooper Uzbek Juma Namangani (hailing from where Babar is buried in Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan) coordinates with the local commanders.

North of Termez are assembled the best part of two US Mountain Brigades. Possibly the safest area for committing ground troops is the flat desert land between Termez and Mazar-i-Sharif. In fact an armoured push towards Mazar on the Termez axis could happen, with ground attack aircraft and AC-130s clearing a broad swath of all opposition. Whether the Talibaan elect to fight a pitched urban battle within Mazar or pull their best troops out (while they can) to live to fight another day, will be known in the next few days. Do the Northern Alliance have any more soldiers with the same motivation as those presently besieging Mazar-i-Sharif? Instead of fighting in built-up areas, they would likely besiege Mazar and work for defections. The Talibaan will likely to keep on fighting unless Mullah Umar (or rather Osama Bin Laden) decides that their loss does not justify a prolonged fight to the death in Mazar. The stage has been set for a crucial battle. The famous muslim battle slogans, “Ya Ali Madad” (ie. “Great Ali, help”) will probably be used by both sides. What one fears is that the ferocity of the Mazar battle may well claim the finest from both the sides, leaving the constantly parading “doing nothing” TV commanders north of Kabul as the undeserving victors (in part at least) of an increasingly confusing war.

Haji Yaseen, now a businessman in Dubai, was the Mujhahideen military commander from 1988 to 1995 (with about 9000-10000 men) in Jozejan Province, operating with his Uzbeks in and around Sar-i-Pol. Fed up with internecine warfare and boxed into a no-win position in having to choose between the Talibaan or an ethnic solidarity with Uzbek Rashid Dostum (against whom he had fought during the Soviet occupation), he bid “a farewell to arms” in 1995. A law graduate, Yaseen did his Master of Arts (MA) in Islamiat from Punjab University Lahore in 1983. His geo-political analysis is extremely telling, the Afghans don’t want to be ruled by the Pakhtuns but he acknowledges the Pashtun right not to be ruled by the minority Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras. His solution, “leave the Afghans alone”, he says, “and we will work it out”.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

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