LAHORE, Pakistan, August 5, 1999 — Since the failed peace talks, the Taliban have been massing their forces along a wide east-west arc 20 kilometres north of Kabul. They are launching what they hope will be a final offensive against the Northern Alliance, the last force standing between them and complete control of Afghanistan.
The Taliban planned to launch their summer offensive against their sole remaining opposition, the Northern Alliance, in mid-July. But they held off while the United Nations made a last, desperate attempt to bring the two sides to the negotiating table at Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Senior diplomats from Afghanistan’s six neighbouring countries—China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—as well as Russia and the United States attended the meeting on July 19-20. But it ended in failure when the Taliban refused to agree to a ceasefire.
Now the Taliban are massing their forces along a wide east-west arc 20 kilometres north of Kabul. Since the Taliban—drawn from the majority Pashtun ethnic group—captured Kabul in 1996, they have repeatedly tried to finish off the Northern Alliance made up of Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen minorities. They hope this will be the final offensive. Iran and Russia have stepped up arms supplies to the Alliance while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan provide supply bases. Everyone is seeking to secure some strategic advantage in the heart of Central Asia.
In Kabul, the Taliban have ordered Western relief agencies and Afghan doctors to empty hospital wards of patients in readiness for expected wounded soldiers. Transport planes from Pakistan fly in military supplies at night to the ramshackle Kabul airport. “We are ready to attack the enemy, which will be destroyed, God willing,” says Taliban Information Minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi.
At Faizabad in the far northeast of the country, tucked in a deep valley in the Hindu Kush mountains close to the Chinese border, the Alliance leader, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, knows what’s coming. “We are preparing to defend ourselves against a massive Taliban offensive on many fronts,” says Rabbani. “They want to conquer the country with the help of Pakistan.” His best hope may be that divisions within the Taliban movement and growing international pressure on Pakistan to halt arms supplies will allow them to survive for another year.