The August 1998 U.S. cruise missile attack on alleged terrorist targets in Afghanistan (and Sudan) captured the headlines, but it was not the most important story to come out of Afghanistan that month, or even that week. As the cruise missiles flew, Afghanistan itself was being transformed by the Taliban movement’s consolidation of control over most of the country’s territory. After a fierce four-year struggle, the major stronghold of the Afghan opposition, the town of Mazar-i-Sharif, fell on August 8, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani’s headquarters at Taloqan on August 11. By the twentieth, the coalition of opposition leaders-Rabbani, Ahmed Shah Masoud, and Rashid Dostam-had fled to the remote Afghan hinterland or across the border to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.
Having overrun six of the nine remaining rebel provinces in their August offensive, the Taliban controlled more than 90 percent of the country. It also broke communication between the remaining holdouts-a Hazara redoubt in the central highlands, a piece of the Panjshir valley to the east, and a rebel zone in the far northeast centered on Faizabad, the capital of Badakhstan province. With the fall of Bamiyan on September 13, the Taliban seemed well positioned to complete its consolidation-although nothing save a generous quota of mayhem is for certain in this part of the world. Indeed, by early December 1998, Masoud’s forces appeared to be on a slight rebound, taking advantage of what seemed to be emerging internal Taliban difficulties.