Fall of Mazari Sharif
- For other uses, see Battles of Mazar-e-Sharif
|Fall of Mazar-e-Sharif|
|Part of the War in Afghanistan (2001–present) and the Afghan Civil War|
U.S. Army Special Forces troops with Northern Alliance fighters in Mazar-e-Sharif on November 10
| Northern Alliance
|Commanders and leaders|
| Abdul Rashid Dostum
Atta Muhammad Nur
|Jumma Kasimov †|
|Casualties and losses|
|8 Junbish-i-Milli Islami and 30 Jamiat-e Islami fighters killed||300+ killed,~500 captured and ~1,000 defected|
The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif in November 2001 was the result of the first major offensive of the Afghanistan War. A push into the city of Mazari Sharif in the Balkh Province by the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Northern Alliance), combined with U.S. Army Special Forces aerial bombardment, resulted in the withdrawal of Taliban forces who had held the city since 1998. After the fall of outlying villages, and an intensive aerial bombardment, the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces withdrew from the city. Several hundred pro-Taliban fighters, including many Pakistani volunteers, were killed, approximately 500 were captured, and approximately 1,000 reportedly defected. The capture of Mazari Sharif was considered the first major defeat for the Taliban.
The Taliban had controlled the city since their recapture of it in 1997. The decision to launch the first major strike of the war against Mazar-e-Sharif came following a meeting between U.S. Army General Tommy Franks with Northern Alliance commander Mohammed Fahim in Tajikstan on October 30. In the days leading up to the battle, Northern Alliance troops advanced on population centers near the city such as Shol Ghar, 25 kilometers from Mazar-e-Sharif. In addition, phonelines into the city were severed, and American officials began reporting accounts of anti-Taliban forces charging Afghan tanks on horseback. Propaganda leaflets were dropped from airplanes, showing a woman being struck by a man and asking if this was how the Afghans wanted to live, and listing the radio frequencies over which Americans would be broadcasting their own version of events. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces were setting up laser designators to serve as a beacon for guided munitions highlighting targets around the city.
General Abdul Rashid Dostum led the ethnic-Uzbek dominated faction of the Northern Alliance, the Junbish-i-Milli Islami Afghanistan, in an attack on the village of Keshendeh south-west of the city on November 4, seizing it with his horse-mounted troops. General Noor, meanwhile, led 2,000 ethnic-Tajik dominated Jamiat-e Islami forces against the village of Ag Kupruk directly south of the city, along with six Special Forces soldiers, and seven others who directed bombing from behind Taliban lines north of the city. It was seized two days later. Ethnic Hazara forces of Mohammad Mohaqiq's Hezbe Wahdat also took part in the offensive. On November 7, New York University Director of Studies on International Cooperation Barnett Rubin appeared before the American Committee on International Relations hearing on "The Future of Afghanistan", and warned that with Mazar-e-Sharif clearly on the brink of invasion, there was a responsibility to ensure that there were no reprisal killings of Taliban members by the Northern Alliance; noting that the last two times the city had been overrun (in 1997 and 1998), thousands had been murdered by both sides.
As the Taliban began moving 4,000 fighters across the countryside towards Mazar-e-Sharif in preparation for battle, American forces launched a bombing campaign through November 7–8. B-52 bombers bombed Taliban defenders concentrated in the Chesmay-e-Safa gorge that marked the southern entrance to the city, as well as the Haji Gak pass which was the only Taliban-controlled entrance to the city. This was one of the heaviest bombings of the war up to that point. Nevertheless, the Taliban stated they were still able to bring 500 fighters into the city to prepare for the coming battle.
There were initially rumors that the Afghan fighters were unimpressed by the American bombardment and refused to advance on the city, but at 2 p.m. Northern Alliance forces, under the command of Generals Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor, swept across the Pul-i-Imam Bukhri bridge and seized the city's main military base and the Mazari Sharif Airport. They had originally been holding a position 22 kilometres outside the city. The "ragtag" non-uniformed Northern Alliance forces entered the city from the Balk Valley on "begged, borrowed and confiscated transportation", and met only light resistance.
After outlying villages fell to precision air strikes on key command and control centers, approximately 5,000-12,000 Taliban combatants as well as members of al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters began their withdrawal from the city towards Kunduz to regroup, travelling in pickup trucks, SUVs and flatbed trucks fitted with ZU-23-2's (anti-aircraft guns modified for ground combat). By sunset, the Taliban forces had retreated to the north and east. There were fears that they were massing for a counter-offensive. It was later estimated that 400-600 people had died in the battle, although it was not possible to separate the numbers of civilians from combatants. Approximately 1,500 Taliban were captured or defected to the U.S.-backed opposition.
Upholding the claim by Taliban officials that they would be able to move 500 fresh fighters into the city, as many as 900 Pakistani volunteers reached Mazar-e-sharif in the following days as the majority of the Taliban were evacuating. It was determined later that many of these fighters were recruited by a Pakistani Mullah, Sufi Mohammed, who used a loudspeaker riveted onto pickup trucks which blared, "Those who die fighting for God don't die! Those who go on jihad live forever, in paradise!" When these volunteers reached the city in the days as the Taliban were evacuating, many of them were alone and confused. The group, chiefly consisting of teenage boys, gathered in the Sultan Razia Girls' School, where they began negotiating their surrender, but hundreds of them were ultimately killed. For almost two days as the group gathered in the abandoned Sultan Razia Girls' School building up their fighting positions, the town officials and Northern Alliance attempted negotiations for their surrender, but the fighters vehemently refused, ultimately killing two peace envoys, one town mullah and a soldier escort. All the while they constantly fired at anyone that moved within the vicinity of the building, including civilian bystanders. After the murders of the envoys, the Northern Alliance began returning fire on the school with machine guns with little effect. This gun battle went on for hours. Inside the battered school, someone scrawled on the walls the words of their mullah: "Die for Pakistan" and "Never surrender." At mid-afternoon, U.S. military advisers approved the building for a bombing run. Army Col. Rick Thomas of the U.S. Central Command said they had determined the school was an appropriate target, as "Our philosophy has been surrender or die." Officials from the United Nations and other organisations suggested that it may have been a massacre by Northern Alliance troops after they surrendered in the school moments before an American warplane dropped two, or four, 1000-pound bombs, resulting in the Taliban members scattering quickly to escape, and the Northern Alliance shooting them as they fled, resulting in an alleged 800 fatalities. Later reports suggested instead that the Northern Alliance had shelled the school, rather than an American warplane dropping bombs on it, but following the battle, United States Air Force Sgt. Stephen E. Tomat was awarded the Silver Star for calling in the air strike on six vehicles and a school.
The fall of the city proved to be a "major shock", since the United States Central Command had originally believed that the city would remain in Taliban hands well into the following year, and any potential battle would be "a very slow advance". Mazar-e-Sharif had significant strategic importance, as its capture opened supply routes and provided an airstrip inside the country for American aircraft. The battle was considered the first major defeat for the Taliban, and to have precipitated a rapid loss of territory in northern Afghanistan. Following rumors that Mullah Dadullah might be headed to recapture the city with as many as 8,000 Taliban fighters, a thousand U.S. Army Rangers were airlifted into the city, which provided the first solid foothold from which Kabul and Kandahar could be reached.
After the fall of the city, there were reports of jubilant excitement among locals, followed by reports of summary executions and the kidnapping of civilians by the Northern Alliance. The Pakistani prisoners who were captured fleeing the school were held as "slaves" and often sexually abused by their Northern Alliance captors who demanded a ransom from their families for their return. The American-backed forces now controlling the city began immediately broadcasting from Radio Mazar-e-Sharif, the former Taliban Voice of Sharia channel on 1584 kHz, including an address from former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The foreign media outlets were still prohibited from access to American troops or access to battlesites at this time, meaning that the only information about Mazar-e-Sharif that was broadcast by Western outlets was the version of events dictated by the American military.
The airfield, the city's main prize for the Americans, had been badly damaged by their own bombardment of the city, and had been boobytrapped with explosives planted by the Taliban as they left in and around the property. This created a rift in the NATO alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States, as the former charged that the aerial bombardment had been ill-advised, and that the United States had failed to pay sufficient attention to humanitarian concerns and had refused to consult with its allies. The destroyed runways on the airfield were patched by local Afghans hired to fill bomb craters with asphalt and tar by hand, and the first cargo plane was able to land ten days after the battle. The airbase was not declared operational until December 11. While prior military flights had had to be launched from Uzbekistan or aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, the Americans now held their own airport in the country which allowed them to fly more frequent sorties against the Taliban frontlines, carrying heavier payloads.
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