Masood says tide is turning against Taliban
KHWAJA BAHAUDDIN, Afghanistan, June 28 (AFP) - The Afghan opposition's veteran military commander Ahmad Shah Masood on Thursday voiced confidence that the tide was turning against the fundamentalist Taliban militia.
In an interview with AFP in one of his bases in northeastern Afghanistan, the 49-year-old leader of the armed resistance to the ruling Taliban said his forces were striking from several directions.
"The Taliban and Pakistan want to defeat us, take (the provinces of) Badakhshan and Takhar and crush the resistance," he said.
"But we are attacking them in different places, in the north, west, east and centre. They cannot concentrate their forces in one area. Everywhere the fighting is continuing," Masood added.
The Afghan opposition accuses Islamabad of giving military aid to the Taliban, which has managed to pacify most of the country since it seized Kabul in 1996 and drove former defence minister Masood into the hills.
After capturing Taloqan, the capital of the province of Takhar, last summer, the Islamic militia is hoping to push on towards Badaskhshan, in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan, the only province completely under Masood's control.
Interviewed in his private quarters inside a heavily-guarded compound, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the front line in the far north of Takhar, Masood spread out a map on the floor to explain his strategy.
Wearing his trademark brown Afghan woollen hat, the bearded commander said his Northern Alliance had assembled a coalition of forces capable of regaining the upper hand.
"At one point, the Taliban captured nearly all areas of Afghanistan. Pakistan thought the fighting would soon be over, but now you have Ismail Khan, General Dostum, Haji Qadir," he said.
The opposition commander, who lost a key base last September when the Taliban took Taloqan, persuaded two former allies, ex-communist general Abdul Rashid Dostam and Ismail Khan, former governor of the western Herat province, to return from exile and join his ranks.
"Pakistan will have to stop helping the Taliban because their economy is too weak to support such a strain, and then there will be no more Taliban," Masood added.
The ethnic Tajik commander became known as the "Lion of Panjsher" for doggedly resisting Soviet attempts during their 1979-89 invasion to take his stronghold of the Panjsher valley, north of Kabul, which he continues to control.
Given a hero's reception during a landmark visit to France earlier this year as the last bulwark against the Taliban onslaught, he voiced ambitions of leading his country one day.
"If it is to my country's benefit, this could happen," Masood said.
The ethnic Pushtun Taliban had alienated its supporters among Afghanistan's majority ethnic group through its extremism and brutality, according to the military strongman.
And many Pushtuns were flooding into the ranks of his mainly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Shiite Muslim Hazara opposition movement, including senior field commanders.
"It is not true that the Pushtun people support the Taliban and this will change even more," he said.
Masood said a peace settlement followed by elections was the only way to end more than two decades of war in Afghanistan, calling on the international community to put pressure on Islamabad to end support for the Taliban.
Although it has always denied backing the religious militia, whose government is only recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Islamabad is widely seen as the main force behind the Taliban.
Masood for his part denied widespread reports that he is receiving military aid from his former foe Russia, insisting that emeralds and rubies mined in opposition areas paid for all arms deliveries.
He also vowed to reverse the radical Islamic movement's harsh treatment of women if he dislodges them from power.
"The Taliban's treatment of women is very inhumane. Women should be educated, work and vote. From the human viewpoint, women are equal to men and should have equal rights," Masood said.
Under the fundamentalist militia's unique brand of Sharia law, women cannot receive education or work and are denied access to health care because unrelated men and women have to be segregated.
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