Pentagon officials: Taliban foes make gains
By Jamie McIntyre
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Forces opposing the Taliban are making gains on the battlefield in wake of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, two senior Pentagon officials told CNN on Friday.
Northern Alliance forces loyal to Afghan warlord Ismail Khan claimed Thursday to have captured Chaghcharan, the provincial capital of Ghowr province. The captured city includes a key supply route used by the Taliban, as well as an airport. Chaghcharan lies on the main road from the capital, Kabul, to the western city of Herat.
The Pentagon officials, citing U.S. intelligence, said they believe that claim to be true.
In addition, the officials said there is some reason to believe claims that some 400 Taliban troops, including commanders, have defected to the Northern Alliance. The officials said the numbers could be exaggerated.
The officials, who have access to the latest U.S. intelligence, said there are four main areas where fighting is under way between the Taliban and al Qaeda forces, and the disparate forces opposing them.
Those areas include: The mountains just north of Kabul; Taloquan, about 180 miles north of Kabul; areas near Mazar-e-Sharif, a Taliban stronghold in northeast Afghanistan, about 200 miles north of the capital; and Chaghcharan, about 225 miles west of Kabul.
The Northern Alliance has claimed a series of advances over the past week -- advances made since the beginning of the U.S.-led airstrikes on Taliban and terrorist targets throughout Afghanistan.
Yet Northern Alliance commanders have complained that the U.S. airstrikes have yet to focus on the frontlines where they are faced off against Taliban forces. One of those fronts is in the mountains north of Kabul. An attack on Taliban troops standing in their way could allow those Northern Alliance troops to retake the capital.
There are indications that the U.S. and the international community want to avoid a Northern Alliance rush to Kabul. There is concern that the Alliance, which is made up mainly of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, may not adequately represent the Pashtun, who make up Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.
Northern Alliance officials say they are open to a political settlement. But for now, the main objective is defeating the Taliban.
"I think achieving the objective of the international alliance in Afghanistan is the priority," said Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. "And of course in the long term...a political settlement in Afghanistan, which will prevent further conflicts in the future, is of course suitable, and we are working on both fronts."
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. forces have received information on potential targets from the Northern Alliance. But U.S. officials have denied any coordination of target selection with Alliance forces.
Rumsfeld said the U.S. supports the Alliance and others within Afghanistan that are opposed to the Taliban.
"To my knowledge, no one has been withholding any assistance from anybody," Rumsfeld said Friday. "We have been trying to, and, in fact, successful in a modest number of instances, to work with a variety of elements within the country, including the Northern Alliance."
-- CNN Correspondent Chris Burns in Afghanistan contributed to this report.
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