Maj. Gen. David Grange: Bearing down on Mazar-e Sharif
Update: Mazar-e Sharif is a key objective for the Northern Alliance and also to the international coalition. It's hard to tell from here, but looking at the map and hearing reports, it seems opposition forces are chipping away at it, and I believe they are going to be successful.
It just takes a little bit of time. A Taliban soldier has probably been told that he cannot retreat, and if he disobeys and retreats anyway, then he's in the open to our airstrikes. So it's almost better if he hangs tough right there and takes on these attacks.
The Taliban also have the advantage of defending where the ground is good, using valleys, ravines, defiles, ridge lines, and hills on the outskirts. That's why the fighting is tough -- you have to break through this outer ring of defenses to get into the inner ring. Then when you get into city fighting, the Taliban will control structures that are easier to defend and possibly use civilians as "human shields," and it will be harder to conduct airstrikes.
Impact: Mazar-e Sharif is strategically located in northern Afghanistan and serves as a connection from Uzbekistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan. It's a historical crossroads, even from Alexander the Great's days. It connects Afghanistan towards Kabul and also towards Iran and Herat. It gives you a chance to dominate the north and, if you get Kabul, to isolate the Taliban in Kandahar, ideally before winter sets in. You'd also have an airfield, which gives you more operational reach.
Taking Mazar-e Sharif is critical not only for strategic reasons, but also for its psychological impact. It would be a blow to the Taliban, and I think that's why they are fighting so hard. And once the word gets out to locals that, hey, the Northern Alliance kicked some butt here, that has a major effect. They need to get one of these under their belt, not only for their own confidence, but to show the world that this thing could happen.
Tactics: People have been asking why the Northern Alliance hasn't been successful to date. Well, it takes a while to give them the equipment, to train them to some level of proficiency, and to get them to grasp the idea of a combined arms attack. Also, the Northern Alliance was basically in a defensive role during their civil war, and now we're asking them to switch to an offensive mind-set and organizations. These aren't easy transitions to make.
Plus, some terrain is harder to defend than others. In some places, you can't get a good shot at the bad guy. The use of different direct and indirect weapons, low- and high-angle artillery, are key when your enemy is using terrain to his advantage. Then there's going to be some spots where there's civilians around and the Taliban won't let them go. What military action you take then depends. When we fight, we try to care. How the Northern Alliance handles that is hard to say, but they don't want to turn the people against them.
Once you bring forces close together in face-to-face trench line, house-to-house fighting, it negates the use of much air support, especially as both sides have a lot of the same gear and it's very difficult to tell between friend and foe. The kind of air support you want in a fight like that is helicopter gunships or the old "warthog," the A-10.
Strategy: The U.S. special forces are gathering intelligence to report to allied command, assessing the capabilities and positions of the Northern Alliance and Taliban. Second, they're helping to integrate ... new ammunition and equipment that the friendly forces receive. They're also doing "liaison coordination" with the different leaders of these Afghan tribal units, establishing relationships and trying to understand the need for food, ammo, communications, air support, those types of things. The other thing is giving moral support -- showing that, hey, we're here with you and we want you to succeed. They're establishing the trust and confidence that's required and acting as de facto ambassadors to the U.S.
I would think there's also planning underway that acknowledges Mazar-e Sharif is a critical objective, and that we may have to use allied ground forces to take this town. It's not close to the turmoil in Pakistan or the political implications of Kabul, and it has definite strategic advantages.
U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.), a former NATO supreme commander, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Grange (ret.) and Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd (ret.) are serving as CNN military analysts during the war against terror. Their briefings will appear daily on CNN.com.
EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN is sensitive to reporting any information that could endanger lives or operations.
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