If the Northern Alliance opposition fighters in Afghanistan are to overthrow, with U.S. help, the ruling Taliban, a controversial Uzbek warlord named Abdul Rashid Dostum is expected to play a significant role.
Yet in a sign of how little the Northern Alliance has accomplished since the United States began bombing Afghanistan, Dostum remains far from Mazar-e Sharif, the strategic northern city he has sworn to retake.
Interviewed by satellite telephone Thursday at a base in northern Afghanistan, Dostum acknowledged that he is at least 30 miles from Mazar-e Sharif. His allies in the fight to take the prize have been pushed back. And Taliban forces have resupplied and reinforced their front lines there.
The opposition's failures at Mazar-e Sharif may be only temporary. Dostum and other Northern Alliance leaders say they still expect to take the city in coming weeks. But the rebels' inability to finish the job last week when they had reported puncturing the city limits shows they have overestimated their prospects and underestimated those of the Taliban.
In that miscalculation they can join with their U.S. allies. A senior Pentagon official acknowledged this week being impressed by the Taliban's toughness and "a bit surprised at how doggedly they are holding on to their power."
Taliban shows toughness
But Taliban grit shouldn't be surprising. In seizing about 90 percent of Afghanistan during the civil war that raged after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Taliban fighters proved to be dedicated, resilient and relentless.
They suffered heavy losses to Dostum when he controlled Mazar-e Sharif. They lost the city once in a humiliating turnabout. But they kept coming back, finally seizing Mazar-e Sharif in 1998.
Now Dostum, facing strong Taliban opposition as he tries to move north toward Mazar-e Sharif from the crossroads town of Keshende, is running up against the same troops who once chased him out of Afghanistan.
"The fighting was heavy for Keshende," Dostum said Thursday. "We killed about 80 Taliban troops. There were many Arabs and Pakistanis among them."
Dostum said he took Keshende, about 35 miles southwest of Mazar-e Sharif, a few days ago. He said U.S. troops were bombing Taliban positions in the area. But he dismissed reports that he and his lieutenants were directing the American bombers where to strike.
"They know themselves the targets," the general said. "We don't have to tell them anything. They are very accurate."
Dostum said his forces would try to push through the Taliban lines, circle up around Mazar-e Sharif from the west and northwest and join other Northern Alliance commanders for an assault on the city.
"I think they need some time," said Mohammad Hasham Saad, the top official for Afghanistan's government-in-exile in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. "We are not in a hurry to capture Mazar. The time will arrive when maybe we capture all the provinces.
"Our forces are not ready in one week to capture Mazar-e Sharif," Saad said. "In one month, maybe."
The strategy, Northern Alliance officials say, is aimed at isolating the Taliban in Mazar-e Sharif and preventing the troops from pulling off the kind of reinforcement that saved their position last week.
"If we take over the areas surrounding Mazar-e Sharif, the city itself will be easier to take," Dostum said.
The plan depends on improved cooperation among Northern Alliance commanders. Rebel leaders acknowledged this week that their forces had botched last week's assault on the city in part because they failed to coordinate their actions. They vow not to make the same mistake again.
But history, especially where Dostum is concerned, suggests otherwise.
Dostum's main partner in an assault on Mazar-e Sharif is expected to be Gen. Ata Mohammed. The two were fierce enemies a decade ago. Dostum was loyal to the Soviet-installed government that followed Moscow's troop withdrawal in 1989. Mohammed was a resistance fighter attacking Dostum's forces.
Dostum abandoned the communists in 1992. He joined up with the government that eventually lost Kabul to the Taliban in 1996 and is now Afghanistan's exile government. The Northern Alliance draws its leadership from survivors of that government.
When Dostum ran the Afghan army's 53rd division, and later when he was regional head for the pre-Taliban government, he was linked to numerous human-rights abuses.
Accusations of atrocities
His forces were accused of raping, killing and looting around Kabul. Dostum also is accused of mounting indiscriminate rocket attacks on Kabul that killed thousands. He and his men allegedly committed atrocities against Islamic fundamentalists, ethnic rivals and Taliban supporters from 1992 to 1997 when he controlled Mazar-e Sharif.
To his supporters, though, Abdul Rashid Dostum is unmatched as a leader. Many people in Mazar-e Sharif called him Pasha, a title historically used for royalty.
The Afghan refugees who fled to Uzbekistan from Mazar-e Sharif recall him as a friend of the common people. The general drove a bulletproof Cadillac and made enough money in government to start his own private airline, but the refugees do not begrudge Dostum his wealth.
Nor, they say, do they hold it against Dostum that he fled Afghanistan after his city fell.
"The general has been preparing for this since the time he left Mazar-e Sharif," said a senior aide to the general. "He has planned it all out, and he is an excellent strategist. But beyond strategy, what makes him great is his ability to lead. He makes all his men want to fight for him."
Dostum said Thursday that he has 15,000 to 18,000 troops spread out across northern Afghanistan. But if so many men are behind Dostum, they must be backing him with their hearts and hands, not with rifles and bullets and mortars.
Dostum has acknowledged that he is short of everything needed to wage a war. That includes horses in a place where narrow paths across mountains and valleys can be the only way to advance.