Fall of Mazari Sharif

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Fall of Mazar-e-Sharif
Part of the War in Afghanistan
Special Forces at the Fall of Mazar i Sharif.PNG
U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers with Northern Alliance fighters at Mazar-e-Sharif on 10 November 2001.
Date 9 November 2001 – 10 November 2001
(1 day)
Location Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province, Afghanistan
Result Northern Alliance and American victory
Northern Alliance
 United States
Foreign fighters
Commanders and leaders
Abdul Rashid Dostum
Afghanistan Atta Muhammad Nur
Mohammad Mohaqiq
United States Tommy Franks[1]

Jumma Kasimov 

Fazil Mazloom (Taliban army commander, captured)

Nurullah Nuri (Taliban governor, captured)

Abdul-Razzaq Nafiz (Taliban field commander, injured)

Abdul-Qahir Usmani (Taliban second-in-command, injured and captured)
Casualties and losses
8 Junbish-i-Milli Islami[2] and 30 Jamiat-e Islami[3] fighters killed 300+ killed,[4]~500 captured and ~1,000 defected[5][6]

The fall of Mazari Sharif (or Mazar-e-Sharif) that took place on November 2001 resulted from the first major offense for the Afghanistan War after American intervention. A push into the city of Mazari Sharif in 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 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 the first major defeat for the Taliban.


Photo showing U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Air Force Combat Controllers in "the first American cavalry charge of the 21st century"[7] with General Dostum and his forces

The Taliban recaptured the city in 1997 and controlled it thereafter.[8]

The decision to launch the war's first major strike against Mazari Sharif came following a meeting between U.S. Army General Tommy Franks and Northern Alliance commander Mohammed Fahim in Tajikistan on October 30, 2001.[6]

In the days leading up to the battle, Northern Alliance troops advanced on population centers near the city, such as Shol Ghar, which is 25 kilometers from Mazari Sharif. Phonelines into the city were severed,[9] and American officials began reporting accounts of anti-Taliban forces charging Afghan tanks on horseback.[10] 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.[11] Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces set up laser designators to serve as beacons for guided munitions, highlighting targets around the city.[6]

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 southwest of the city on November 4, seizing it with his horse-mounted troops.[6] General Noor, meanwhile, led 2,000 men of the 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[clarification needed] who directed bombing from behind Taliban lines north of the city. It was seized two days later.[6] Ethnic Hazara forces of Mohammad Mohaqiq's Hezbe Wahdat took part in the offensive.[3]

On November 7, the New York University's Director of Studies on International Cooperation, Barnett Rubin, appeared before a hearing of the American House Committee on International Relations on "The Future of Afghanistan". He claimed that with Mazari Sharif on the brink of invasion, the US was responsible to ensure that there were no reprisal killings of Taliban members by the Northern Alliance. He noted that when the city had been overrun (in 1997 and 1998), thousands had been murdered by both sides.[12]

Bombing campaign[edit]

A Special Forces officer directs aerial bombardments from the ground in 2001

On November 7 and 8, as the Taliban were moving 4,000 fighters across the countryside towards Mazari Sharif in preparation for battle, American.[1][11] B-52 bombers bombed Taliban defenders concentrated in the Chesmay-e-Safa gorge that marked the southern entrance to the city,[13] as well as the Haji Gak pass, which was the only Taliban-controlled entrance to the city.[14] This was one of the heaviest campaigns up to that point.[14] Nevertheless, the Taliban claimed they had infiltrated 500 fighters into the city to prepare for the coming battle.[11]


Initial rumors claimed that the Afghan fighters were unimpressed by the American bombardment and believed that their opponents refused to advance on the city.[9] At 2 p.m. Northern Alliance forces, under the command of Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor, swept across the Pul-i-Imam Bukhri bridge[9] and seized the city's main military base and the Mazari Sharif Airport.[13][14] The "ragtag" non-uniformed Northern Alliance forces entered the city from the Balk Valley on "begged, borrowed and confiscated transportation",[15] and met only light resistance.[16][17]

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[18] and other foreign fighters began to withdraw 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).[5][19][20] By sunset, the Taliban forces had retreated to the north and east.[13] Some feared that they were massing for a counter-offensive.[21] It was later estimated that 400-600 people died in the battle, although it was not possible to separate civilian and combatant deaths.[22] Approximately 1,500 Taliban were captured or defected.[5][6]

Pakistani volunteers[edit]

Damage to the Sultan Razia Girls' School

As many as 900 Pakistani volunteers reached Mazari Sharif in the following days while the majority of the Taliban were evacuating. Many of these fighters were recruited by a Pakistani Mullah, Sufi Mohammed, who used a loudspeaker riveted onto a pickup truck which blared, "Those who die fighting for God don't die! Those who go on jihad live forever, in paradise!"[3][23][24]

When these volunteers reached the city in the days when the Taliban were evacuating, many of them were alone and confused. The group, chiefly consisting of teenage boys,[23] gathered in the Sultan Razia Girls' School, where they began negotiating their surrender, but hundreds of them were ultimately killed.[3][24] For almost two days as the group gathered in the abandoned Sultan Razia Girls' School and built 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 whot moved within the vicinity of the building, including civilian bystanders.

After the envoys' murder, the Northern Alliance began returning fire on the school with machine guns. This gun battle went on for hours. Inside the battered school, someone scrawled on the walls the words of their mullah, "Die for Pakistan", "Never surrender" and "Our philosophy has been surrender or die."[4][17][25][26][27]

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.

Officials from the United Nations and other organisations claimed that a massacre by Northern Alliance troops had followed after the defenders surrendered in the school, moments before an American warplane dropped two, or four, 1000-pound bombs. The fighters scattered quickly to escape, and the Northern Alliance shot at 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,[4][17][25][26][27] 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 the school.[28][29][30][31][32][33]


The Airfield was rehabilitated and operational by December 2001[34]
Students at the 2002 reopening of the Sultan Razia school after its destruction

The fall of the city proved to be a "major shock",[28] since the United States Central Command had originally believed that the city would remain in Taliban hands well into the following year[35] and that any battle would be "a very slow advance". Mazari Sharif was strategically important. Its capture opened supply routes and provided an airstrip inside the country for American aircraft.[21] The battle was the Taliban's first major defeat and precipitated a rapid transfer of territory in northern Afghanistan.[9][36][37] 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.[1][38]

The fall of the city generated reports of jubilant excitement among locals,[39] followed by reports of summary executions and the kidnapping of civilians by the Northern Alliance.[40] 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.[23] The American-backed forces now controlling the city immediately began broadcasting from Radio Mazar-e-Sharif, the former Taliban Voice of Sharia channel, on 1584 kHz,[41] including an address from former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.[11] Foreign media outlets were denied access to American troops or to battle sites at this time.[42]

The airfield, the city's main prize for the Americans, had been badly damaged by their bombardment and had been boobytrapped with explosives planted by the Taliban in and around the property as they left.[16] This created a rift between the United Kingdom and the United States. The former charged that the aerial bombardment had been ill-advised, that the United States had failed to pay sufficient attention to humanitarian concerns and had refused to consult with its allies.[43] The destroyed runways were patched by Afghans. The first cargo plane landed ten days after the battle.[16] The airbase was not declared operational until December 11.[34] While prior military flights had had to be launched from Uzbekistan or aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, the Americans now could fly more frequent sorties against the Taliban frontlines, carrying heavier payloads that replace the fuel necessary for the longer flights.[20]


  1. ^ a b c Khan, M. Ismail. DAWN, Mazar falls to Alliance: Taliban says they're regrouping, November 10, 2001
  2. ^ Wolfowitz, Paul, Speech on November 14, 2001
  3. ^ a b c d Gall, Carlotta New York Times, A deadly siege at last won, November 19, 2001
  4. ^ a b c Gall, Carlotta. New York Times, Conflicting tales paint blurry picture of siege, November 20, 2001
  5. ^ a b c Topeka Capital Journal, Taliban: Key city has fallen, November 10, 2001
  6. ^ a b c d e f Chipman, Don. "Air power and the Battle for Mazar e Sharif", Spring 2003
  7. ^ Rumsfeld, Donald. "Annual Report to the President and the Congress", 2002. Chapter 3.
  8. ^ Opposition troops closing in on Mazari Sharif
  9. ^ a b c d The Guardian, Taliban fall in Mazar-e-Sharif, November 9, 2001
  10. ^ Independent Online, US, Taliban both claim success in offensives, November 8, 2001
  11. ^ a b c d The Guardian, Taliban lose grip on Mazar i Sharif, November 7, 2001
  12. ^ United States House of Representatives, The Future of Afghanistan, November 7, 2001
  13. ^ a b c Rebels: Mazari Sharif is Ours - TIME
  14. ^ a b c Independent Online, Taliban braces for battle over Mazar-e-Sharif, November 9, 2001
  15. ^ Hess, Pamela UPI, "US forces on horseback fighting Taliban", November 16, 2001
  16. ^ a b c Cahlink, George. Building a Presence, December 15, 2002
  17. ^ a b c "Special Warfare journal", "The Liberation of Mazar e Sharif: 5th SF group conducts UW in Afghanistan", June 1, 2002
  18. ^ Chronology | Campaign Against Terror | FRONTLINE | PBS
  19. ^ Harding, Luke. The Guardian, Fear of Bloodbath as Alliance advances on Kunduz, November 23, 2001
  20. ^ a b Dolan, Chris J. "In War We Trust", 2005. p. 150
  21. ^ a b New York Times, The Battle for Mazar-e-Sharif, November 10, 2001
  22. ^ Los Angeles Times, Mazar i Sharif yields 400 to 600 bodies, November 23, 2001
  23. ^ a b c Seattle Times, Boy lured by Taliban, now held as slave, July 29, 2002
  24. ^ a b Washington Post, "Taliban's Allies Lost in Strange City", November 11, 2001
  25. ^ a b The Telegraph, 600 bodies found in Mazar-e-Sharif, November 22, 2001
  26. ^ a b Department of State, Afghanistan: Country Reports on Human Rights, 2001
  27. ^ a b Stern, Marcus. Copley News Service, Once, it was a girls school
  28. ^ a b Call, Steve. "Danger Close", ISBN 1-58544-624-6, 2007. pp. 24-25
  29. ^ Silver Star Citation: Tomat, Stephen E.
  30. ^ Struck, Doug. Washington Post, Fleeing Taliban left Pakistanis in Mazar-e-Sharif, November 12, 2001
  31. ^ Neal, A1C Jason A. 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs, "Silver cross awarded to three airmen", 2002
  32. ^ Military Times, Medal of Honor Citations for Stephen Tomat
  33. ^ Call, Steve. "Danger Close: Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq", 2007. p. 22-23
  34. ^ a b Department of Defence Defend America: Photo Essay, December 26, 2001
  35. ^ Maloney, Sean M. Afghanistan: From here to eternity?, Spring 2004
  36. ^ Scott Peterson (December 4, 2001). "A view from behind the lines in the US air war: Special operatives are key to the success of American airstrikes in Afghanistan". Christian Science Monitor. 
  37. ^ Feinberg, Cara. The American Prospect, Opportunity and Danger, November 15, 2001
  38. ^ Crane, Conrad. Facing the Hydra: Maintaining Strategic Balance while Pursuing a Global War Against Terrorism, May 2002
  39. ^ Karon, Tony. TIME, Mazar-i Sharif is ours, November 9, 2001
  40. ^ Zia, Amir. Associated Press, "UN Reports Mazar-e-Sharif executions], November 12, 2001
  41. ^ Clandestine Radio Watch, Afghan Balkh radio from Balkh Province, Mazar-e Sharif, inDari 10 Nov 01 (via BBCM via DXLD 1-169)
  42. ^ Rich, Frank. "The Greatest Story Ever Sold", 2006. p. 30
  43. ^ Kellner, Douglas. "From 9/11 to Terror War", 2003. p. 112