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Saturday, 10 November, 2001, 09:23 GMT
Upping the stakes in Afghanistan
Horsemen and tanks
The Northern Alliance fights on horseback and with tanks
Jonathan Marcus

The crossroads at Mazar-e-Sharif makes it a vital communication centre in Afghanistan, a country with little in the way of formal transport infrastructure.

Its loss is a serious blow for the Taleban. The Northern Alliance's drive northwards towards the Uzbek border would enable the opening up of a land bridge into the country, potentially not just for additional US troops and military supplies, but also for much-needed humanitarian aid.

Taleban soldiers
Taleban fighters have withdrawn from Mazar-e-Sharif
Of course, the Taleban may seek to try to recapture the city, but to do so they would have to regroup their forces, making them especially vulnerable to the decisive factor in the battle so far - US air power.

The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif is also a vital propaganda victory for the Americans.

They want to persuade various tribal groupings to abandon the Taleban, but clearly have little hope of doing so as long as there is no fundamental change in circumstances on the ground.

All this significantly increases the pressure on the Taleban, putting their capacity for command and control to a severe test.

Nuclear deterrent

Not surprisingly then, Osama Bin Laden has chosen this moment to claim that he has access to both chemical and nuclear weapons.

Puzzlingly, though, he says that he would only use them if the Americans use such weapons against him which is, of course, highly unlikely.

Osama Bin Laden's claims will be taken seriously.

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden's interview is carefully timed
His al-Qaeda organisation is believed to have carried out tests using chemical weapons, but experts doubt that he would have access to a fully- fledged nuclear weapon.

What is a possibility is that he could manufacture a so-called dirty bomb, using smuggled radioactive material packed around a conventional high explosive charge.

This spreads the radioactivity over a large area, though Osama Bin Laden's claims are impossible to verify.

See also:

10 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition gain key city
10 Nov 01 | Middle East
Al-Qaeda says its war continues
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
UN prepares for major Afghan crisis
12 Sep 01 | South Asia
Taleban tense as US seeks targets
14 Sep 01 | Americas
Bin Laden's command structure
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
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