Afghan Front Likely to Follow U.S. Ground Troops North, West

The Americans are bombing the nearby hills, the roads are being repaired for use by heavy vehicles and the rumor mill about U.S. troops is running at full tilt.

All this has led military and civilians here to the inescapable conclusion that a major military action is on the way in northern and western Afghanistan, areas once considered the backwater of the Alliance-Taliban battle lines.

The action may be weeks away, the thinking goes, but it is bound to happen.

Not everyone agrees. Alliance commanders have offered little specific information about their plans. There is also a theory they are content to wait out the winter, while the U.S. continues to pound away at Taliban targets.

But many commanders and soldiers interviewed by Fox News in recent days believe the fight will shift from cities like Kabul and Jalalabad to less-fortified targets.

"If we advance in any direction, it should be toward Mazar-e-Sharif," said Gen. Sayyed Yusuf, who commands a garrison of about 1,000 men near the Afghan-Tajik border. "We take Mazar, we choke off the roads that supply the Taliban."

"You must understand, it's all about these other provinces," he said, eagerly jabbing away at the hand-drawn map he had scrawled in a reporter's notebook. "Many of these places will fall without even a fight. Sarangan will fall. Taleqan will fall. Kunduz will fall. And Kabul is on the way."

Others said the fight would not be nearly so easy. And American planes are still pounding positions around Kabul, with more than 100 blasts on Wednesday alone, reports said.

But there's no question Yusuf's views are shared by a number of his counterparts.

"He's right about Mazar. Take that and the enemy is split in two," said a general who asked not to be named. "Forget the talk about Kabul."

There's no doubt that U.S. forces are more interested in northern Afghanistan, a natural staging base for operations aimed at Mazar to the west. Taliban forces along the lines here were bombed on Sunday and more heavily on Tuesday, at least 20 times by local witness accounts.

That's still far less than the number of bombs falling on Bagram, but Alliance officers said the number of attacks in the north will rise.

Yusuf and others expressed hope the Americans would recognize a need for a more substantive ground effort before the winter set in.

"There needs to be more artillery, and we need to bring in more heavy guns," said Yusuf. "Up until today, the Americans have not taken any territory.

"They must take the land, with our help," he said. "It is the key to all Afghan wars."

Locals said Alliance trucks have been busily preparing the roads in recent weeks, in a hurried effort to make them suitable for heavier military vehicles. Reporters traveling the front-line roads have seen a number of the truck convoys at work, busily filling in some of the roadway's most impassable areas.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed Tuesday that American troops were on the ground in northern Afghanistan in "liaison" roles with the Alliance. But the ground roles may be more involved. Alliance soldiers reported this week that they had seen a group of between 10 and 20 U.S. troops land in the nearby Taliban-controlled hills on Sunday, the first day of U.S. bombing.

Three different Alliance commanders who said they might be expected to know about the U.S. forces discounted the soldiers' reports, but they did welcome the news that the U.S. might be ramping up the role of its advisors on the ground.

"It is easy to get here, and we are ready to work with them," said Gen. Mohammed Isaq, another regional commander.

Several local reports have said the U.S. troops are working in the Mazar area with Gen. Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek who has led the campaign in the west.

Whether Dostum has the military or human resources to take Mazar is an open question. He was quoted in an interview on Wednesday as saying that he does not yet have the proper level of support. Commanders have privately said that while Dostum is a strong personal figure, "he lacks the kind of strong leadership among his officers that he really needs."

It is simply impossible to verify what is happening in Mazar, and both the Alliance and the United States seem to want it that way. Alliance commanders have discouraged journalists from trying to travel there, leading to even more speculation that the bulk of U.S. ground activity is in that area.