Northern Afghan city braces for decisive battle

Northern Afghan city braces for decisive battle
The loss of Mazar-i-Sharif would be a signal that Afghanistan's north - the former heartland of the anti-Taliban resistance - has fallen out of government control and into the hands of the insurgents.
3 min read
11 August, 2021
The city's name Mazar-i-Sharif, or Tomb of the Prince, is a reference to the sanctuary at its center - the Blue Mosque [Getty - file photo]

The entire capture of Afghanistan's north - a former heartland of the anti-Taliban resistance - could be sealed if the insurgents succeed in an offensive against the prized city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

In dramatic scenes that unfolded on social media, General Abdul Rashid Dostum – a notorious Soviet-era warlord from the Uzbek ethnic group - flew out from Kabul to the airport in the capital of historic Balkh.

Later joined by President Ashraf Ghani, General Dostum's entrance to the alleged birthplace of Persian poet Rumi follows his return to Afghanistan after months in Turkey receiving medical treatment. Days ago, Taliban fighters reportedly ransacked his house in the Khwaja Do Koh district of Jawzjan, another province to fall under their control.

But the highly contentious Uzbek militia commander - who is accused of raping a political rival - had a chilling warning for the Taliban as he spoke from Mazar-i-Sharif. With the deployment of his forces to the city alongside the Afghan army, he said they should prepare themselves for a "repeat" of the 2001 Dasht-i-Leili massacre.

Up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners are believed to have suffocated in shipping containers during a transfer between Kunduz and Sheberghan prison under the supervision of the Junbish-e-Milli forces, loyal to Dostum, during the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.

Some of the prisoners who died in the massacre were survivors of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, a prison revolt in a fortress in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Two decades on and amid an attempt to breach the city's security belt, heavy fighting is underway in the district of Dehdadi, on the western outskirts of the city and a few kilometres away from the fortress.

Despite Dostum's threat of a repeat of history, even after having denied ordering the massacre, his forces have been stretched thin in recent battles in the provinces of Jowzjan and Faryab, Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary tells The New Arab.

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Local uprising forces loyal to Marshal Dostum, and those allied to ethnic Tajik leader Atta Noor and Hazara warlord Mohammad Mohaqiq, face a serious challenge in Mazar-i-Sharif amid fears they are now as war-weary as regular government troops, whose wholesale surrenders have proved pivotal to the Taliban's northern advance.

On Wednesday, President Ghani - who had for years side-lined the warlords in an attempt to boost the national army - held crisis talks with Dostum and Noor in Mazar-i-Sharif, the BBC reported. It came after Ghani agreed earlier this week to arm pro-government militias.

The Taliban is growing stronger as they rake in lucrative custom duties from the border crossing under their control and seize key military equipment and vehicles from government troops.  Nine of Afghanistan 34 provincial capital are in Taliban control - three of them in the past 24 hours.

"Despite having sustained so many fatalities, the Taliban appear to be coming back in numbers," Sarwary told TNA.  

Much of the hope for Mazar-i-Sharif, like the rest of the country, appears to rest on the Afghan army's current strategy – the deployment of special forces in tandem with air support. Washington’s far superior airstrikes - which one US general claimed were "having an effect" on the Taliban - amount to a few a day and are carried out from Qatar's Al-Udeid Air Base and the US navy's carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf.

In a sign of the anticipated severity of the battle lies ahead for the city - which lies near the border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - Sarwary mentioned reports that Taliban fighters are allowing residents to leave for Kabul via the road that links Mazar-i-Sharif to the capital.

Ten of thousands of internally displaced Afghans from the north have already sought refuge in parks Kabul’s and green spaces. An even bigger humanitarian crisis may be looming for Mazar-i-Sharif.