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Northern Alliance Medical Units Prepare for Offensive - 2001-10-22

Northern Alliance military leaders in Afghanistan say their soldiers are ready to launch mass attacks against Taleban units across the country. But despite two weeks of U.S.-led bombings of Taleban positions and command structures, military analysts say there is still a risk that Northern Alliance fighters could take heavy casualties. The Taleban has been strengthening some positions and is believed to have superior weaponry and supplies.

Just behind the deep trenches that mark the first line of the Northern Alliance defense, the dusty mud brick town of Dasht-e-Qhaleh exemplifies the stalemate that has characterized the war here. Despite occasional fierce fighting between Taleban forces and Northern Alliance troops and militias, the frontlines have barely moved in over a year.

No one flinches when an artillery round explodes in nearby hills. But soldiers say the entry of the United States into the conflict is the turning point they have been waiting for in the long-running battle against the fundamentalist Taleban.

In Dasht-e-Qhaleh, troops are preparing to pay the potentially bloody cost of finally ending the war.

In a mud compound in the outskirts of town, the Northern Alliance has set up a mobile surgical hospital to receive casualties. Inside a large tent, a team of army doctors in white lab coats is checking equipment and supplies. They proudly point to a small but well-stocked medical cabinet. The colonel in charge, Atiq Shamin, says his team has plenty of experience in handling all types of battlefield injury. He says medics here treated casualties from the battle in nearby Paloqan last year. The city fell to the Taleban after days of intense fighting. Of 1,200 Northern Alliance soldiers who were injured in the fight, Doctor Shamin says the medics were able to save all but 20 men. He says that even the harsh terrain, considered formidable by virtually every army in the world, is not an obstacle for the medical team.

Doctor Shamin says the army has three ambulances with drivers who have intimate knowledge of the surrounding high rugged hills and wide plains. When fighting takes place in an area inaccessible to vehicles, the team uses donkeys and horses to move the injured down to a waiting ambulance. Still, transporting injured troops is a time-consuming, laborious process that could easily turn relatively minor injuries into life threatening emergencies.

It is also clear that the medics here could be quickly overwhelmed in the event of a large-scale, drawn-out showdown with Taleban forces. The hospital has only several dozen beds and a handful of doctors available in any one time.

Northern Alliance troops strength around Dasht-e-Qhaleh is said to be five thousand, facing a similar number of enemy fighters.

There are few trained doctors and nurses in the area who could help the doctors treat mass numbers of casualties. Only a few tables are available to perform surgeries and not enough surgical instruments to go around. A crude-looking saw is all that is available for emergency amputations and the hospital has no blood supplies for transfusion.

But Doctor Shamin and his colleagues remain convinced that they can handle any situation. With a smile, Doctor Shamin says the people of Afghanistan are used to fighting and making do with what little they have. They have come to accept pain and death, he says.