The reported capture Friday of Mazar-e-Sharif, if the rebel gains prove sustainable, would give U.S. and anti-Taliban forces an important strategic foothold in northern Afghanistan and would open the way to a dramatically increased flow of military supplies to the poorly equipped Northern Alliance and food aid to starving Afghans.
The strategic crossroads city has served as a crucial link in the Taliban's ability to resupply its troops in northern Afghanistan. Its loss would enable the Northern Alliance to sever roads and mountain paths that connect Taliban front lines, effectively isolating thousands of Taliban forces in half a dozen northern provinces.
If other Taliban forces near Mazar-e-Sharif are destroyed and the supply lines disrupted, the Northern Alliance could end up extending its control over northern Afghanistan by punching through Taliban lines that run from the Tajik border to just north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Most immediately, however, the city's seizure would open a strategic road link into Afghanistan from Uzbekistan about 40 miles to the north.
Establishing what U.S. defense officials are calling a land bridge for humanitarian and military supplies presents a major logistics and security challenge. Pentagon spokesmen had no details Friday on preliminary plans, but Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, the deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said responsibility for securing the supply lines would involve more than just American forces.
From the start of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, Pentagon intelligence officials have argued that Northern Alliance forces should concentrate on seizing Mazar-e-Sharif, not only for the military advantages that would accrue but also the political ones. The city's fall, the argument went, would deliver a psychological blow to the Taliban. It would seriously destabilize its rule and spur disaffection among Pashtun tribal leaders in southern Afghanistan who have supported the Taliban.
Several alternate scenarios for the unfolding ground war between rebel and Taliban forces also were considered. These included a Northern Alliance assault on Kabul first, or a combined attack on Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.
But a takeover of Kabul by the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, has risked enraging the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. Such a move could spoil prospects for forming a coalition government to replace the Taliban. Pakistan, too, has opposed Kabul falling into Northern Alliance hands.
For these reasons, Pentagon analysts have favored taking Mazar-e-Sharif first. But aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the Afghan war, insist that American authorities have not dictated to the rebels which way to move first.
While acknowledging the presence of U.S. special forces teams on the ground in Afghanistan training and coordinating the rebels, American defense officials say decisions on where and when Northern Alliance units would attack have rested entirely with rebel leaders.
"We're not there to advise them how they should undertake their particular tactics," Stufflebeem said Friday. "We're there responding to their requests. We're there providing targeting for our aircraft."
At the start of the U.S. military campaign on Oct. 7, Taliban forces that were hunkered down in Mazar-e-Sharif ranked at the top of the bombing target list. In opening sorties, American warplanes virtually ignored Taliban front lines north of Kabul.
That changed in the past two weeks as U.S. fighter jets and B-52 bombers dropped tons of munitions on Taliban troops north of Kabul. Pentagon spokesmen said the increased bombing, which included dropping two giant "daisy cutter" 15,000-pounders on Sunday, was intended to "prepare the battlefield" for ground operations.
Defense officials said Friday that the ground fighting north of Kabul had not reached the same intensity as around Mazar-e-Sharif. And they suggested there might be value enough for the moment just in continuing to threaten an assault on Kabul.
The success or not of the rebel effort will have a direct bearing on the degree to which the Pentagon will need to pour more forces into the conflict, including the introduction of conventional American and European ground troops. If the rebels retain control of Mazar-e-Sharif, the Pentagon can continue to regard them as a proxy ground force. But Franks has left open the possibility of a sizable increase in the roughly 100 American commandos in the north.