Hopes for a potentially decisive ground victory against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban government suffered an apparent setback Wednesday as Taliban forces held off rebels in the battle for the strategically important city of Mazar-e Sharif.
The Northern Alliance launched its attack early in the day, confident it could take the city within days and bolstered by the Pentagon's assertion that the Taliban is less able to respond to the barrage from U.S. warplanes, now concentrating on the capital, Kabul, and Kandahar, the Taliban's home base.
As President Bush left the U.S. for a meeting in China, he warned that the struggle against terrorism likely will last beyond the campaign against Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 suicide hijacking attacks, and the Taliban regime sheltering him.
"People are going to get tired of the war on terrorism," Bush said at Travis Air Force Base in California. "And by the way, it may take more than two years."
Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to maintain the delicate coalition against terrorism, assuring India officials that the U.S.' critical alliance with Pakistan will not come at India's expense. Tensions between Pakistan and India flared this week with the two nuclear powers exchanging artillery fire in the disputed Kashmir region.
Later in Shanghai, Powell said the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan might lead to a political vacuum, requiring United Nations peacekeepers to stabilize the country.
"This isn't the United States going in and nation-building with troops," Powell said. "This is helping the international community, helping the people of Afghanistan to create hopeful conditions within the country."
In Washington, Pentagon officials said special operations troops were ready for search-and-destroy missions against terrorists and their supporters in Afghanistan.
Military officials said helicopter-borne special forces were put aboard the carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Indian Ocean several days ago, but the officials would not discuss their possible deployment. The Pentagon has not acknowledged the presence of any ground forces in Afghanistan but has said ground forces will be needed to uproot bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
Bush said the U.S.-led air assaults were "paving the way for friendly troops on the ground" to rout the terrorists. But aides said the president was referring to anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan, not American or British troops.
One indication of the situation in Afghanistan came from reports that Taliban soldiers had seized the two main UN food storehouses near Kabul, taking more than half of the food relief set aside to feed an estimated 2 million Afghans during the coming winter.
In the key city of Kandahar, residents said by telephone that Taliban fighters were handing out weapons to civilians.
About 150 men armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles were guarding the Kandahar compound of the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The compound has been struck repeatedly during the campaign.
Omar called on Afghans to rally in what he described as a holy war. "It is jihad against the infidel like the one we waged against the Soviets," the Pakistan-based AIP news service quoted him as saying Wednesday. "I am confident that, with the grace of Allah, we will force to his knees and defeat the great infidel."
Battle for Mazar-e Sharif
In Mazar-e Sharif, scene of frenetic street fighting and large-scale massacres three years ago when the Taliban wrested the city from the Northern Alliance, hopes for a quick rebel victory dimmed.
A rebel victory could allow the United States and its partners in the anti-terrorism coalition to use the city's airport as a launch pad for air strikes and other operations against the Afghan capital and other Taliban fortifications.
Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the fighting at Mazar-e Sharif as "back and forth."
That assessment from the Pentagon raised fears that fierce street battles are ahead as Taliban fighters dig in, and deepened concerns that Northern Alliance leaders may be too optimistic about their abilities.
There were no reports of any new U.S. bombing attacks on Mazar-e Sharif, though U.S. air support had helped the rebels move to within a few miles of the city's limits.
Opposition officials complained that the U.S. had not struck in the region since Monday, even though Taliban forces have come out in the open and left themselves vulnerable to warplanes.
"If tonight they started [bombing] it would be good," said Mohammad Hasham Saad, the senior Northern Alliance official in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. "If they started even today, it would be good."
Saad said Taliban forces control a plain between the southern edge of Mazar-e Sharif and the foothills of one of Afghanistan's many mountainous regions. He said the Taliban forces have about 10 tanks, artillery and dozens of assorted military vehicles lined up along an arc as long as 10 miles across.
The opposition controls the hills above, responding to Taliban shelling with their own mortars and light artillery. But the anti-Taliban forces cannot move tanks or heavy guns to the region because they do not control the main supply roads. They must also leave some troops behind to guard bases south and east of Mazar-e Sharif.
As a result, Northern Alliance forces are outgunned and outnumbered. Opposition officials said they plan to hold their ground and try to persuade Taliban forces from the northern regions of Afghanistan to defect
The opposition also is awaiting another anti-Taliban group making its way north in an attempt to circle Mazar-e Sharif and attack from the northeast. The arrival of forces led by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum could take a week, however.
This scenario laid out by Saad and others is a sharp change from the optimism that dominated their accounts Tuesday. Some officials reported that Northern Alliance troops already had penetrated Mazar-e Sharif's city limits and that street fighting had begun.
By Wednesday it was unclear whether the situation had changed dramatically or merely the accounts of it.
The Joint Chiefs' Stufflebeem was non-committal when asked what U.S. forces might do to support the Northern Alliance in Mazar-e Sharif. "When and where that comes ... will be determined by our national command authorities."
Stufflebeem said he believes Taliban air defenses have been neutralized. "I have not seen any reports that they are returning fire on our aircraft. ... Their ability to respond is falling away," he said.
`Will pay with their blood'
Meanwhile, the U.S. propaganda broadcasts warned that terrorists in Afghanistan "will pay with their blood" for their actions, according to transcripts released by the Pentagon. Another message, transmitted by Air Force ED-130 aircraft flying over the country, warns the Taliban: "You have guaranteed your own demise."
In New Delhi, Powell sought to ease Indian concerns about the U.S. alliance with Pakistan. He said the U.S. and India are "natural allies" because of shared values.
"The prospects have never been better for cooperation across a whole range of issues," Powell said.
Pakistan, the only nation to maintain diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime, shares a border with Afghanistan. Despite widespread protests, President Musharraf has allowed the U.S. to base troops and aircraft in his country.
Tribune staff reporter Tim Jones in Chicago and Tribune news services contributed to this report.