Fall of Mazar-i-Sharif

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Fall of Mazar-i-Sharif
Part of the War in Afghanistan (2001–present)
Destroyed Sultan Razia school.PNG
The bombed-out ruins of the Sultan Razia school
DateNovember 9, 2001
LocationMazar-i-Sharif, Balkh, Afghanistan
Result Northern Alliance victory.
Afghanistan Northern Alliance
United States United States
Afghanistan Taliban
Commanders and leaders
(Uzbek) Afghanistan Abdul Rashid Dostum,
(Tajik) Afghanistan Ustad Atta Mohammed
(Hazara) Afghanistan Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq
United States Tommy Franks[1]
Casualties and losses
8 Uzbek Northern Alliance killed[2]
30 Tajik Northern Alliance killed[3]
90[1]-150[4] killed in battle,
~150 killed in uncertain circumstances[4]
~500 captured[5][6]
Example of the propaganda leaflets

The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif was the result of the first major offensive of the 2001 war in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces and aerial bombardment accompanied a push into the city of Mazari Sharif in the Balkh Province by the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan ("Northern Alliance"), resulting in the withdrawal of Taliban forces who had held the city since 1998.[7] The fall of the city proved to be a "major shock",[8] since the United States Central Command had originally believed that the city would remain in Taliban hands well into the following year,[9] and any potential battle would be "a very slow advance".[6]

After outlying villages fell,[10] and an intensive aerial bombardment around the city,[11][1][12] the Taliban withdrew from the city.[6][13][14] As the city fell to the Northern Alliance, several hundred Taliban fighters were killed, and approximately 500 were captured or defected to the U.S. backed opposition.[10][13][6]

Some media sources outside the United States were hesitant to label the fall of the city a military "victory", claiming there had been no clear battle, and the Taliban had largely withdrawn to other cities in advance of the invading force.[15]

Mazar-i-Sharif had significant strategic import, as its capture opened supply routes and provided an airstrip inside the country for American aircraft.[7][16] It was considered the first major defeat for the Taliban, and to have precipitated a rapid loss of territory in Northern Afghanistan.[17][18]


Photo showing "the first American cavalry charge of the 21st century"[19] with General Dostum and his Northern Alliance forces.

The decision to launch the first major strike of the war against Mazar-i-Sharif came following a meeting between U.S. Army General Tommy Franks with Northern Alliance commander Mohammed Fahim in Tajikstan on October 30.[10]

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-i-Sharif. In addition, phonelines into the city were severed,[17] and American officials began reporting tales of anti-Taliban forces charging Afghan tanks on horseback.[20] 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.[12] Meanwhile, American Special Forces were setting up Laser designators to serve as a beacon for guided munitions highlighting targets around the city.[10]

General Dostum led the Uzbek faction in an attack on the village of Keshendeh south-west of the city on November 4, seizing it with his horse-mounted troops.[10] General Noor, meanwhile, led 2000 Tajik forces against 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, and it was seized two days later.[10]

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-i-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, thousands had been killed.[21]

Bombing campaign

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

As Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami began moving 4,000 fighters across the countryside towards Mazar-i-Sharif in preparation for battle, American forces launched a bombing campaign through November 7–8,[1][12] as B-52 bombers carpetbombed Taliban defenders concentrated in the Chesmay-e-Safa gorge that marked the southern entrance to the city,[22] as well as the Haji Gak pass which was the only Taliban-controlled entrance to the city.[11] Nevertheless, the Taliban stated they were still able to bring 500 fighters into the city to prepare for the coming battle.[12] Taliban forces fired anti-aircraft guns at the planes, but none were shot down.[17]

It was one of the heaviest bombings of the war to that point.[11]


American Special Forces on November 10, after arriving in the city with Northern Alliance fighters
File:Rawa photo of dead Taliban in Sultan Razia school.PNG
Two dead Taliban fighters inside the Sultan Razia schoolyard
Damage to the Sultan Razia Girls' School

There were initially rumors that the Afghan fighters were unimpressed by the American bombardment and refused to advance on the city,[17] but at 2 p.m., Northern Alliance forces, under the command of generals Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor, swept across the Pul-i-Imam Bukhri bridge,[17] and seized the city's main military base and airport.[22] They had originally been holding a position 22 kilometres outside the city.[11]

The "ragtag" non-uniformed Northern Alliance forces entered the city from the Balk Valley on "begged, borrowed and confiscated transportation,"[23] and met only light resistance.[24][25]

After a short battle, most of the Taliban fighters withdrew from the city in pickup trucks and SUVs.[6] By sunset, the Taliban forces had retreated to the north and east,[22] while there were fears that they were massing for a counter-offensive.[16] 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.[26]

Tomat (second from left) receives the Silver Star citation.

By sunset, the vast majority of the Taliban forces had retreated to the north and east, in an attempt to mass for a counter-offensive.[16] It was later estimated that 400-600 people had died in the battle.[26] Approximately 1,500 Taliban were captured or defected to the U.S. backed opposition.[10][6][13]

Upholding the claim by Taliban officials that they would be able to move 500 fresh fighters into the city, as many as 900 Pakistani fighters reached Mazar-i-sharif in the following days as the majority of the Taliban were evacuating. It was determined later that many of these young 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!"[27][3][28]

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 underage boys,[27] gathered in the Sultan Razia Girls' School, where they began negotiating their surrender, but hundreds of them were ultimately killed.[3][29]

For almost two days as the group, led by a large number of Chechen and Arab hardliners, 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."[25][4][30][31][32] At mid-afternoon, U.S. military advisers approved the building for a bombing run. "We had determined the school was an appropriate target," said Army Col. Rick Thomas of the U.S. Central Command. "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,[4][25][33][34][35] but following the battle, American Special Forces Sgt. Stephen E. Tomat was awarded the Silver Star for calling in the air strike on six vehicles and a school.[36][8][37][38][39][40]


Students at the 2002 reopening of the Sultan Razia school after its destruction.
The Airfield was rehabilitated and operational by December 2001.[41]

After the fall of the city, there were reports of jubilant excitement among locals,[42] followed by reports of summary executions and the kidnapping of civilians by the Northern Alliance.[43] The boys 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.[27]

It was also revealed that 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 by the Taliban as they left, with explosives planted around the property.[24]

Following rumors that Mullah Dadullah may be headed to recapture the city with as many as 8,000 Taliban fighters, a thousand American 10th Mountain Rangers were airlifted into the city, which provided the first solid foothold from which Kabul and Kandahar could be reached.[44][1] While prior military flights had to be launched from Uzbekistan or Aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, now the Americans held their own airport in the country which allowed them to fly more frequent sorties against the Taliban frontlines, carrying heavier payloads.[14]

The American-backed forces now controlling the city began immediately broadcasting from Radio Mazar-i-Sharif, the former Taliban Voice of Sharia channel on 1584 kHz,[45] including an address from former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.[12] 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-i-Sharif that was broadcast by Western outlets was the version of events dictated by the American military.[46]

The battle 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.[47]

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.[24] The airbase wasn't declared operational until December 11.[41]

A British newspaper, The Times, claimed "The seizure of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday [November 9] represented the first substantial victory of the campaign…It made it possible, at last, to draw a cross on a map to show where the Taliban had been pushed back."[48]


  1. ^ a b c d e 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 Gall, Carlotta New York Times, A deadly siege at last won, November 19, 2001
  4. ^ a b c d Gall, Carlotta. New York Times, Conflicting tales paint blurry picture of siege, November 20, 2001
  5. ^ November 2001 Timeline
  6. ^ a b c d e f Topeka Capital Journal, Taliban: Key city has fallen, November 10, 2001
  7. ^ a b Opposition troops closing in on Mazari Sharif
  8. ^ a b Call, Steve. "Danger Close", ISBN 1585446246 2007. pp. 24-25
  9. ^ Maloney, Sean M. Afghanistan: From here to eternity?, Spring 2004
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Chipman, Don. "Air power and the Battle for Mazar e Sharif", Spring 2003
  11. ^ a b c d Independent Online, Taliban braces for battle over Mazar-i-Sharif, November 9, 2001
  12. ^ a b c d e The Guardian, Taliban lose grip on Mazar i Sharif, November 7, 2001
  13. ^ a b c Harding, Luke. The Guardian, Fear of Bloodbath as Alliance advances on Kunduz, November 23, 2001
  14. ^ a b Dolan, Chris J. "In War We Trust", 2005. p. 150
  15. ^ Feinberg, Cara. The American Prospect, Opportunity and Danger, November 15, 2001
  16. ^ a b c New York Times, The Battle for Mazar-i-Sharif, November 10, 2001
  17. ^ a b c d e The Guardian, Taliban fall in Mazar-i-Sharif, November 9, 2001
  18. ^ 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. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  19. ^ Rumsfeld, Donald. "Annual Report to the President and the Congress", 2002. Chapter 3.
  20. ^ Independent Online, US, Taliban both claim success in offensives, November 8, 2001
  21. ^ United States House of Representatives, The Future of Afghanistan, November 7, 2001
  22. ^ a b c Rebels: Mazari Sharif is Ours - TIME
  23. ^ Hess, Pamela UPI, "US forces on horseback fighting Taliban", November 16, 2001
  24. ^ a b c Cahlink, George. Building a Presence, December 15, 2002
  25. ^ a b c "Special Warfare journal", "The Liberation of Mazar e Sharif: 5th SF group conducts UW in Afghanistan", June 1, 2002
  26. ^ a b Los Angeles Times, Mazar i Sharif yields 400 to 600 bodies, November 23, 2001
  27. ^ a b c Seattle Times, Boy lured by Taliban, now held as slave, July 29, 2002
  28. ^ Washington Post, "Taliban's Allies Lost in Strange City", November 11, 2001
  29. ^ Washington Post, "Taliban's Allies Lost in Strange City", November 11, 2001
  30. ^ The Telegraph, 600 bodies found in Mazar-i-Sharif, November 22, 2001
  31. ^ Department of State, Afghanistan: Country Reports on Human Rights, 2001
  32. ^ Stern, Marcus. Copley News Service, Once, it was a girls school
  33. ^ The Telegraph, 600 bodies found in Mazar-i-Sharif, November 22, 2001
  34. ^ Department of State, Afghanistan: Country Reports on Human Rights, 2001
  35. ^ Stern, Marcus. Copley News Service, Once, it was a girls school
  36. ^ Silver Star Citation: Tomat, Stephen E.
  37. ^ Struck, Doug. Washington Post, Fleeing Taliban left Pakistanis in Mazar-e-Sharif, November 12, 2001
  38. ^ Neal, A1C Jason A. 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs, "Silver cross awarded to three airmen", 2002
  39. ^ Military Times, Medal of Honor Citations for Stephen Tomat
  40. ^ Call, Steve. "Danger Close: Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq", 2007. p. 22-23
  41. ^ a b Department of Defence Defend America: Photo Essay, December 26, 2001
  42. ^ Karon, Tony. TIME, Mazar-i Sharif is ours, November 9, 2001
  43. ^ Zia, Amir. Associated Press, "UN Reports Mazar-e-Sharif executions], November 12, 2001
  44. ^ Crane, Conrad. Facing the Hydra: Maintaining Strategic Balance while Pursuing a Global War Against Terrorism, May 2002
  45. ^ Clandestine Radio Watch, Afghan Balkh radio from Balkh Province, Mazar-e Sharif, inDari 10 Nov 01 (via BBCM via DXLD 1-169)
  46. ^ Rich, Frank. "The Greatest Story Ever Sold", 2006. p. 30
  47. ^ Kellner, Douglas. "From 9/11 to Terror War", 2003. p. 112
  48. ^ Feinberg, Cara. The American Prospect, Opportunity and Danger, November 15, 2001
  • The Liberation of Mazar-E Sharif: 5th SF (Special Forces) Group Conducts UW (unconventional warfare) in Afghanistan. Special Warfare 15:34-41 June 2002.