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Generals Order Rebel Troops to Halt March Towards Afghani Capital City

By Peter Baker

The civilian leadership of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance reasserted control over its restless military commanders Monday and promised to hold off attacking Kabul while trying to craft a political settlement for the future of Afghanistan.

The senior political officials in the alliance met with rebel commanders to tell them that larger political considerations dictate they wait to seize the capital, at least for now. However, alliance leaders said they may still assault the Taliban front lines north of Kabul without sending troops into the city, except perhaps for a security force to prevent disorder.

“The future of Kabul has emerged as a critical issue in recent days, one influenced more by political factors than military dynamics. The United States has discouraged the Northern Alliance from moving on the capital, in hopes of preserving its precarious alliance with Pakistan, which strongly opposes the Afghan rebels and any role for them in a post-Taliban government. The United States also wants to avoid creating a dangerous power vacuum in Kabul, which was reduced to rubble between 1992 and 1996 in a civil war among factions that now make up the Northern Alliance.

Within the Northern Alliance, though, military commanders are itching to march into Kabul, and have bridled at the tight reins.

The result has been a series of confusing and even conflicting statements in rebel-held territory over the past week. After commanders were told last week that they would have to wait until an interim government could be formed, some formulated a plan to attack Kabul in three days.

Whether the Northern Alliance actually could overcome the dug-in Taliban defenses north of the city without U.S. help is a serious question. The front lines around Bagram, about 25 miles north of Kabul, have remained stalemated for two years, with neither side building up enough advantage to dislodge the other.

The guerrillas had counted on the United States to change that equation by bombing troop formations on the hills overlooking the Bagram air base. But in more than a week of airstrikes, the United States has deliberately avoided such targets, focusing instead on antiaircraft batteries, airports and radar installations.

Rebel leaders have been reinforcing their troops in the area, in case of a drive against the capital, but the Taliban has also been adding reinforcements. Kanuni said Monday that Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, has sent his best fighters to the Taliban front outside Kabul in the week since the U.S. bombardment began. He estimated that, all told, there are 7,000 to 8,000 troops from Pakistan, or sent by bin Laden, assisting the Taliban there.