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Fall of Mazari Sharif

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Fall of Mazari Sharif

For other uses, see Battles of Mazar-e-Sharif
Fall of Mazar-e-Sharif
Part of the War in Afghanistan

U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers with Northern Alliance fighters at Mazar-e-Sharif on 10 November 2001.
Date 9 November 2001 – 10 November 2001
(1 day)
Location Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province, Afghanistan
Result Northern Alliance and American victory
Northern Alliance
 United States
Foreign fighters
Commanders and leaders
Abdul Rashid Dostum
Atta Muhammad Nur
Mohammad Mohaqiq
Tommy Franks[1]
Jumma Kasimov 
Casualties and losses
8 Junbish-i-Milli Islami[2] and 30 Jamiat-e Islami[3] fighters killed 300+ killed,[4]~500 captured and ~1,000 defected[5][6]

The fall of Mazari Sharif (or Mazar-e-Sharif) in November 2001 was the result of the first major offensive of the Afghanistan War after American intervention. A push into the city of Mazari Sharif in Balkh Province by the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Northern Alliance), combined with U.S. Army Special Forces aerial bombardment, resulted in the withdrawal of Taliban forces who had held the city since 1998. After the fall of outlying villages, and an intensive aerial bombardment, the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces withdrew from the city. Several hundred pro-Taliban fighters, including many Pakistani volunteers, were killed. Approximately 500 were captured, and approximately 1,000 reportedly defected. The capture of Mazari Sharif was considered the first major defeat for the Taliban.


Photo showing U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Air Force Combat Controllers in "the first American cavalry charge of the 21st century"[7] with General Dostum and his forces

The Taliban had controlled the city since their recapture of it in 1997.[8] The decision to launch the first major strike of the war against Mazari Sharif came following a meeting between U.S. Army General Tommy Franks and Northern Alliance commander Mohammed Fahim in Tajikstan on October 30, 2001.[6] In the days leading up to the battle, Northern Alliance troops advanced on population centers near the city, such as Shol Ghar, which is 25 kilometers from Mazari Sharif. In addition, phonelines into the city were severed,[9] and American officials began reporting accounts of anti-Taliban forces charging Afghan tanks on horseback.[10] Propaganda leaflets were dropped from airplanes, showing a woman being struck by a man and asking if this was how the Afghans wanted to live, and listing the radio frequencies over which Americans would be broadcasting their own version of events.[11] Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces set up laser designators to serve as beacons for guided munitions, highlighting targets around the city.[6]

General Abdul Rashid Dostum led the ethnic-Uzbek-dominated faction of the Northern Alliance, the Junbish-i-Milli Islami Afghanistan, in an attack on the village of Keshendeh southwest of the city on November 4, seizing it with his horse-mounted troops.[6] General Noor, meanwhile, led 2,000 men of the ethnic-Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e Islami forces against the village of Ag Kupruk directly south of the city, along with six Special Forces soldiers, and seven others who directed bombing from behind Taliban lines north of the city. It was seized two days later.[6] Ethnic Hazara forces of Mohammad Mohaqiq's Hezbe Wahdat also took part in the offensive.[3] On November 7, New York University's Director of Studies on International Cooperation, Barnett Rubin, appeared before a hearing of the American House Committee on International Relations on "The Future of Afghanistan", and warned that with Mazari Sharif clearly on the brink of invasion, there was a responsibility to ensure that there were no reprisal killings of Taliban members by the Northern Alliance. He noted that the last two times the city had been overrun (in 1997 and 1998), thousands had been murdered by both sides.[12]

Bombing campaign

A Special Forces officer directs aerial bombardments from the ground in 2001

On November 7th and 8th, as the Taliban were moving 4,000 fighters across the countryside towards Mazari Sharif in preparation for battle, American forces launched a bombing campaign.[1][11] [13] as well as the Haji Gak pass, which was the only Taliban-controlled entrance to the city.[14] This was one of the heaviest bombings of the war up to that point.[14] Nevertheless, the Taliban stated they were still able to bring 500 fighters into the city to prepare for the coming battle.[11]


There were initially rumors that the Afghan fighters were unimpressed by the American bombardment and refused to advance on the city,[9] but at 2 p.m. Northern Alliance forces, under the command of Generals Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor, swept across the Pul-i-Imam Bukhri bridge[9] and seized the city's main military base and the Mazari Sharif Airport.[13] They had originally been holding a position 22 kilometres outside the city.[14] The "ragtag" non-uniformed Northern Alliance forces entered the city from the Balk Valley on "begged, borrowed and confiscated transportation",[15] and met only light resistance.[16][17]

After outlying villages fell to precision air strikes on key command and control centers, approximately 5,000-12,000 Taliban combatants as well as members of al-Qaeda[18] and other foreign fighters began their withdrawal from the city towards Kunduz to regroup, travelling in pickup trucks, SUVs and flatbed trucks fitted with ZU-23-2's (anti-aircraft guns modified for ground combat).[5][19][20] By sunset, the Taliban forces had retreated to the north and east.[13] There were fears that they were massing for a counter-offensive.[21] It was later estimated that 400-600 people had died in the battle, although it was not possible to separate the numbers of civilians from combatants.[22] Approximately 1,500 Taliban were captured or defected to the U.S.-backed opposition.[5][6]

Damage to the Sultan Razia Girls' School

Upholding the claim by Taliban officials that they would be able to move 500 fresh fighters into the city, as many as 900 Pakistani volunteers reached Mazari Sharif in the following days while the majority of the Taliban were evacuating. It was determined later that many of these fighters were recruited by a Pakistani Mullah, [4][17][25][26][27] but following the battle, United States Air Force Sgt. Stephen E. Tomat was awarded the Silver Star for calling in the air strike on six vehicles and a school.[28][29][30][31][32][33]


The Airfield was rehabilitated and operational by December 2001[34]
Students at the 2002 reopening of the Sultan Razia school after its destruction

The fall of the city proved to be a "major shock",[28] since the United States Central Command had originally believed that the city would remain in Taliban hands well into the following year,[35] and any potential battle would be "a very slow advance". Mazari Sharif had significant strategic importance, as its capture opened supply routes and provided an airstrip inside the country for American aircraft.[21] The battle was considered the first major defeat for the Taliban, and to have precipitated a rapid loss of territory in northern Afghanistan.[9][36][37] Following rumors that Mullah Dadullah might be headed to recapture the city with as many as 8,000 Taliban fighters, a thousand U.S. Army Rangers were airlifted into the city, which provided the first solid foothold from which Kabul and Kandahar could be reached.[1][38]

After the fall of the city, there were reports of jubilant excitement among locals,[39] followed by reports of summary executions and the kidnapping of civilians by the Northern Alliance.[40] The Pakistani prisoners who were captured fleeing the school were held as "slaves" and often sexually abused by their Northern Alliance captors, who demanded a ransom from their families for their return.[23] The American-backed forces now controlling the city immediately began broadcasting from Radio Mazar-e-Sharif, the former Taliban Voice of Sharia channel, on 1584 kHz,[41] including an address from former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.[11] The foreign media outlets were still prohibited access to American troops or to battlesites at this time, meaning that the only information about Mazari Sharif that was broadcast by Western outlets was the version of events dictated by the American military.[42]

The airfield, the city's main prize for the Americans, had been badly damaged by their own bombardment of the city, and had been boobytrapped with explosives planted by the Taliban in and around the property as they left.[16] This created a rift in the NATO alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States, as the former charged that the aerial bombardment had been ill-advised, and that the United States had failed to pay sufficient attention to humanitarian concerns and had refused to consult with its allies.[43] The destroyed runways on the airfield were patched by local Afghans hired to fill bomb craters with asphalt and tar by hand, and the first cargo plane was able to land ten days after the battle.[16] The airbase was not declared operational until December 11.[34] While prior military flights had had to be launched from Uzbekistan or aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, the Americans now held their own airport in the country, which allowed them to fly more frequent sorties against the Taliban frontlines, carrying heavier payloads.[20]


  1. ^ a b c Khan, M. Ismail. DAWN, Mazar falls to Alliance: Taliban says they're regrouping, November 10, 2001
  2. ^ Wolfowitz, Paul, Speech on November 14, 2001
  3. ^ a b c d Gall, Carlotta New York Times, A deadly siege at last won, November 19, 2001
  4. ^ a b c Gall, Carlotta. New York Times, Conflicting tales paint blurry picture of siege, November 20, 2001
  5. ^ a b c Topeka Capital Journal, Taliban: Key city has fallen, November 10, 2001
  6. ^ a b c d e f Chipman, Don. "Air power and the Battle for Mazar e Sharif", Spring 2003
  7. ^ Rumsfeld, Donald. "Annual Report to the President and the Congress", 2002. Chapter 3.
  8. ^ Opposition troops closing in on Mazari Sharif
  9. ^ a b c d The Guardian, Taliban fall in Mazar-e-Sharif, November 9, 2001
  10. ^ Independent Online, US, Taliban both claim success in offensives, November 8, 2001
  11. ^ a b c d The Guardian, Taliban lose grip on Mazar i Sharif, November 7, 2001
  12. ^ United States House of Representatives, The Future of Afghanistan, November 7, 2001
  13. ^ a b c Rebels: Mazari Sharif is Ours - TIME
  14. ^ a b c Independent Online, Taliban braces for battle over Mazar-e-Sharif, November 9, 2001
  15. ^ Hess, Pamela UPI, "US forces on horseback fighting Taliban", November 16, 2001
  16. ^ a b c Cahlink, George. Building a Presence, December 15, 2002
  17. ^ a b c "Special Warfare journal", "The Liberation of Mazar e Sharif: 5th SF group conducts UW in Afghanistan", June 1, 2002
  18. ^ Chronology | Campaign Against Terror | FRONTLINE | PBS
  19. ^ Harding, Luke. The Guardian, Fear of Bloodbath as Alliance advances on Kunduz, November 23, 2001
  20. ^ a b Dolan, Chris J. "In War We Trust", 2005. p. 150
  21. ^ a b New York Times, The Battle for Mazar-e-Sharif, November 10, 2001
  22. ^ Los Angeles Times, Mazar i Sharif yields 400 to 600 bodies, November 23, 2001
  23. ^ a b c Seattle Times, Boy lured by Taliban, now held as slave, July 29, 2002
  24. ^ a b Washington Post, "Taliban's Allies Lost in Strange City", November 11, 2001
  25. ^ a b The Telegraph, 600 bodies found in Mazar-e-Sharif, November 22, 2001
  26. ^ a b Department of State, Afghanistan: Country Reports on Human Rights, 2001
  27. ^ a b Stern, Marcus. Copley News Service, Once, it was a girls school
  28. ^ a b Call, Steve. "Danger Close", ISBN 1-58544-624-6, 2007. pp. 24-25
  29. ^ Silver Star Citation: Tomat, Stephen E.
  30. ^ Struck, Doug. Washington Post, Fleeing Taliban left Pakistanis in Mazar-e-Sharif, November 12, 2001
  31. ^ Neal, A1C Jason A. 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs, "Silver cross awarded to three airmen", 2002
  32. ^ Military Times, Medal of Honor Citations for Stephen Tomat
  33. ^ Call, Steve. "Danger Close: Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq", 2007. p. 22-23
  34. ^ a b Department of Defence Defend America: Photo Essay, December 26, 2001
  35. ^ Maloney, Sean M. Afghanistan: From here to eternity?, Spring 2004
  36. ^  
  37. ^ Feinberg, Cara. The American Prospect, Opportunity and Danger, November 15, 2001
  38. ^ Crane, Conrad. Facing the Hydra: Maintaining Strategic Balance while Pursuing a Global War Against Terrorism, May 2002
  39. ^ Karon, Tony. TIME, Mazar-i Sharif is ours, November 9, 2001
  40. ^ Zia, Amir. Associated Press, "UN Reports Mazar-e-Sharif executions], November 12, 2001
  41. ^ Clandestine Radio Watch, Afghan Balkh radio from Balkh Province, Mazar-e Sharif, inDari 10 Nov 01 (via BBCM via DXLD 1-169)
  42. ^ Rich, Frank. "The Greatest Story Ever Sold", 2006. p. 30
  43. ^ Kellner, Douglas. "From 9/11 to Terror War", 2003. p. 112

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