Is this the end of the Taliban?
Local warlords desert a movement that never won a real popular base
Luke Harding in Islamabad, Julian Borger in New York and Owen Bowcott
Wednesday November 14, 2001
The Taliban's extinction within their own southern heartland seemed imminent last night after local Pashtun tribal leaders began their long awaited revolt and started attacking Taliban positions in and around the Afghan city of Kandahar.
Anti-Taliban fighters seized the airport north of Kandahar, where Osama bin Laden had a large base. There was also fighting inside the city. Most Taliban troops had already left. Only uniformed militia police were visible on the streets, residents were reported as saying.
One anti-Taliban leader, Hamid Karzai, said he could confirm that the Kandahar airport had fallen to opposition forces. Along the Pakistani border at Chaman, a Taliban official, Mullah Najibullah, said that 200 former guerrillas had mutinied against the Taliban in Kandahar. The claim could not be independently confirmed. Taliban guards at the border town of Torkham had also abandoned their posts.
Mohammed Yusuf Pashtun, spokesman for Kandahar's former governor, Gul Agha, said: "I would not be surprised if tomorrow you hear that Kandahar is no longer in the hands of the Taliban. I don't know how much longer they can keep their morale. The smallest incursion there and they will collapse."
The anti-Taliban insurrection in southern Afghanistan is not being carried out by troops of the Northern Alliance that has taken Kabul 300 miles away, but by local tribal leaders who have decided that the Taliban are an exhausted force, sources say. "They can't be Northern Alliance. They could be anybody," one source pointed out.
Various leaders in the south - who were loosely allied with the Taliban but have a local tribal following - have now taken control of large swaths of the countryside. Most of the Taliban fighters have retreated to the hills and mountains surrounding Kandahar where they are pondering what to do next. "We are now returning to pre-Taliban times when local warlords ran the show," one source said.
The Taliban's dramatic implosion across a large part of Afghanistan has taken everyone by surprise, both in its speed and scale. It appears to vindicate a key part of the Pentagon's military strategy - that extensive US aerial bombing would lead to a successful Northern Alliance offensive against the Taliban in the north, and incite a Pashtun revolt in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.
After last month's execution of an important anti-Taliban commander, Abdul Haq, it appeared the strategy might not work. But it now appears to be going with textbook success.
While most observers predicted that the Taliban would eventually crumble under American bombardment, few expected the regime to disintegrate so quickly. The turning point was the fall of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif five days ago. The Taliban hoped this would rally support among non-allied Pashtun tribal leaders in the south, but it did not.
The reasons for the Taliban's sudden demise lie in the movement's artificial origins. Without the help of Pakistan's powerful ISI intelligence agency it is likely that the Taliban would have remained little more than a small group of zealous religious students. Instead, with the ISI's active, covert support, they managed to sweep across 95% of Afghanistan.
"The Taliban as a movement never had a political base. They were the creation of intelligence agencies. They were a fiction told us by intelligence agencies and the western media, and of the circumstances that prevailed a few years ago," one aid worker who has worked extensively in Afghanistan said last night.
Even so, this "fiction" had sufficient sponsorship to keep much of the country in thrall for most of the 1990s before its leaders were undone by the same tactic they used against opposition forces five years ago: encouraging defections.
Since the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, dozens of local commanders have shifted their support away from the Taliban and to the opposition, rather than run the risk of being killed. During Afghanistan's messy civil war, many mojahedin changed sides.
"In Afghanistan people like to be on the winning side, not the losing side. Once momentum builds up in a certain direction, it is very difficult to stop," one source said.
Last night the Taliban's remaining forces were corralled in Afghanistan's southern and eastern provinces. The Taliban still control the strategic eastern city of Jalalabad, which links Kabul with Pakistan by way of the Khyber Pass. Taliban fighters are also dangerously encamped on the high ground at Sarobi, 40 miles to the south-east of Kabul, on the Jalalabad road, sources said.
As many as 8,000 Taliban fighters appear to have fled south towards Kandahar after evacuating Kabul on Monday night. Taliban forces occupy the historic city of Ghazni and have dispersed into the neighbouring province of Paktika. The western Afghan city of Herat is now in the hands of the veteran mojahedin commander Ismail Khan, who entered the city at dawn yesterday with 4,000 fighters.
It is unclear whether the Taliban's withdrawals from Kabul and elsewhere are actually part of a reasoned strategy. They could make a defiant final stand in the south - or give up and try to melt into surrounding villages. "They could easily do what they did in Kabul, shave off their beards," one Kandahar-based aid worker pointed out.
Several known pockets of Taliban fighters remained surrounded by rival forces last night, and there was growing international concern for their fate, and for the fate of those they are choosing to hide among.
Taliban soldiers armed with heavy artillery, who fled from the south-western town of Zaranj early yesterday having come under attack from fighters loyal to the Northern Alliance, are thought to have sought sanctuary in the Makaki refugee camp close to the Iranian border. The 6,000 refugees in the camp are in danger of being used as a human shield, the United Nations refugee agency warned.
The camp, just inside Afghanistan, is now said to be to be surrounded by the pro-Alliance fighters.
In the north, there were similar fears about the fate of the defeated forces. A Russian envoy, Sergey Lavrov, said that a group of 10,000 Taliban fighters and their foreign allies were encircled near Kunduz. He appealed to the Alliance to spare the lives of the men if they agreed to surrender. Mr Lavrov said arrangements could be made to deport the non-Afghans.
Unlike Osama bin Laden's beleaguered Arab fighters, who have nowhere to flee to, many Taliban recruits are now expected to resume civilian life in the countryside.
The Taliban's failure to fight back against the Northern Alliance is also the result of the movement's vertical structure, which has proved incapable of dealing with the enfolding military crisis.
In the past the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has made all the decisions. He has even been asked to weigh frivolous disputes including, for example, whether women should be allowed to go on picnics.
With Mullah Omar now in hiding, local Taliban leaders are finding they have no one to ask what to do next.
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