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Deepening diplomatic rift between Washington and Islamabad. Battle of Kabul delayed by US row with Pakistan

g and compass

Sunday Times

WAR STRATEGY: Battle of Kabul delayed by US row with Pakistan

Tony Allen-Mills, Stephen Grey, Washington, Michael Sheridan, Islamabad

October 14, 2001

A DEEPENING diplomatic rift between Washington and Islamabad has threatened to weaken the American-led campaign against Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

American use of Pakistani military bases and airspace is in jeopardy after President Pervez Musharraf objected to any decisive US military support for the Northern Alliance, the rebel group preparing to strike at Kabul.

Colin Powell, the American secretary of state, is to visit Islambad this week to address the Pakistani concerns, which threaten to limit the Pentagon's options in taking the war against the Taliban as far as possible before the onset of winter.

The setback emerged as Pentagon officials admitted that a precision-guided American "smart bomb" aimed at a military target at Kabul airport had gone astray and exploded in a poor residential area. Up to four people were killed.

Instead of launching a ground offensive after a week of American airstrikes, the Northern Alliance remains stuck on its front lines because Taliban positions guarding the approaches to Kabul have not been targeted by the Pentagon. "The battle of Kabul is on hold," said a diplomatic source in Islamabad.

Pakistan has made an implicit threat to cut off intelligence and airspace clearance for the campaign in an effort to prevent the Northern Alliance, which it regards as a security threat, seizing Kabul.

"The last thing Pakistan wants is a hostile alliance sitting on its borders," said a senior diplomat in Washington.

President George W Bush nevertheless declared the first phase of the campaign a success. "American forces dominate the skies over Afghanistan," he said. "We will use that dominance to make sure terrorists can no longer freely use Afghanistan as a base of operations."

His remarks were recorded before it was confirmed that a bomb aimed by a carrier-based aircraft at a helicopter on the ground in Kabul had missed by about a mile. It was the third time in seven days of airstrikes that off-target bombs were reported to have caused civilian casualties.

Residents dug through the rubble of a damaged row of houses as US warplanes continued their attacks on the Afghan capital and on Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual headquarters. "We regret any loss of innocent life," said a US defence official.

Four workers died last week when a missile hit the offices of a United Nations mine-clearing operation. The Taliban said 100 more were killed by a bomb near the eastern town of Jalalabad.

After weeks of preparations, several thousand special force commandos are poised to strike across Afghanistan's borders in a second phase of the campaign with Blackhawk helicopter gunships. "We have destroyed their ability to respond. Now we will begin to capture and kill people," said one US intelligence source.

Northern Alliance commanders claimed a march on Kabul was imminent, with or without direct American support. Other rebel units were preparing a new offensive on Mazar-i-Sharif, an isolated northern Taliban stronghold with an airport that could eventually be used by US forces.

Nigerian authorities imposed an overnight curfew on the city of Kano and issued a shoot on sight order after at least 16 people were killed in anti-American riots yesterday

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