U.S. Concerned About Alliance Push on Kandahar
Afghanistan: As Taliban forces remain defiant, Washington fears ethnic and tribal conflict in the Pushtun heartland.
By ALISSA J. RUBIN and RICHARD T. COOPER
Los Angels Times November 30 2001
CHAMAN, Pakistan -- Signs that Northern Alliance troops have begun to press toward the Taliban's remaining stronghold in Afghanistan, the southern city of Kandahar, focused new attention Thursday on the U.S. goal of bringing stability to the ethnically divided country.
Despite mounting pressure from anti-Taliban and U.S. forces in the area, leaders of the moribund regime continued to urge supporters to hold out.
"Until the situation in Kandahar is resolved, don't hand over your weapons or give up a single man," Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was quoted as saying by a local Taliban official in the southern town of Spin Buldak, near the border with Pakistan. What raised questions for U.S. policymakers, however, was not the defiance of the Taliban, but the possibility of ethnic and tribal confrontations if the Northern Alliance advances too far into the southern heartland of Afghanistan's dominant Pushtun group.
Doubts About Alliance Presence in Kandahar
In Washington, Pentagon officials expressed skepticism that alliance forces had reached the city of Kandahar.
"That could indicate the Kandahar province," Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Pentagon briefing. "We can't deny that, . . . but I could not confirm, and I've not seen any reports that any opposition groups have entered Kandahar city at this point."
Stufflebeem acknowledged that the Pushtun leaders whose forces have "ringed" Kandahar may well have concerns about any Northern Alliance surge southward toward the city, but he said the United States cannot dictate the fight on the ground by opposition forces.
Nonetheless, the developments appeared to point up the inherent tension between Washington's clear-cut focus on terrorism and the blurred political and historical realities of Afghanistan.
On another front Thursday, there was some dispute as to the location of an influential Al Qaeda suspect from Egypt whose recent capture by anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan was disclosed Thursday by The Times.
Family members in Cairo told the Al Hayat newspaper that Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman, son of a blind sheik who is serving a life sentence in the United States for plotting to blow up New York landmarks, had been handed over to U.S. officials in Afghanistan after his arrest.
But U.S. intelligence officials in Washington reiterated Thursday that Rahman is not in American custody.
Muntasir Zayyat, a Cairo attorney who represents Gamaa al Islamiya, the extremist group once headed by the blind cleric, said he believed that the Northern Alliance had taken Rahman to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Zayyat said in a telephone interview that the cleric's eldest son, Mohammed, had called the family from Kandahar to confirm his brother's arrest around Nov. 8. Mohammed said his brother was captured as he tried to flee Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Zayyat also said he recognized Rahman in a television report showing captured non-Afghan Taliban fighters in chains shortly after the Taliban abandoned the capital. "I know the family well and have known Ahmed since he was young, before he went to Afghanistan," Zayyat said.
Rahman had lived in Afghanistan for about 10 years and had become part of Osama bin Laden's inner circle, according to U.S. officials. They said he and his brother used their imprisoned father's apparent appeal to help Al Qaeda recruit and train terrorists.
Zayyat denied that charge. "I believe they have no organizational link to Bin Laden," he said. "They probably used to see Bin Laden often, but it does not mean they are members of Al Qaeda."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said a U.S. soldier was killed in Uzbekistan on Thursday in an incident that "was not the result of enemy action." Officials would not elaborate. The soldier's name was withheld pending notification of next of kin. A Pentagon official, requesting anonymity, said the soldier was from the Army's 10th Mountain Division.
It was the sixth known death of a U.S. service member in the Afghanistan campaign. Only one, that of CIA operative Johnny "Mike" Spann, who died in a prison uprising in Mazar-i-Sharif, occurred in combat.
Bombing of Afghan Targets Continues
U.S. warplanes continued bombing targets in Afghanistan. The forays have focused on the vicinity of Kandahar, where fighter jets Tuesday bombed a building complex and an aqueduct and tunnel system reportedly housing Taliban forces, and on Jalalabad in the east, where rumors persisted that Bin Laden was hiding in a cave system near the village of Tora Bora.
A U.S. defense official categorically denied reports that the Navy had begun patrolling the Indian Ocean off Somalia, looking for signs of Al Qaeda leaders fleeing Afghanistan.
The official said that there are no U.S. ships within 1,500 miles of Somalia--"Nothing, nada, zip."
Though reports filtering out of southern Afghanistan were confused and sometimes contradictory, the Associated Press quoted the Northern Alliance's deputy defense minister, Bismillah Khan, as claiming that his forces had "entered into Kandahar" on Thursday.
The report was immediately denied by an anti-Taliban Pushtun tribal chief, Hamid Karzai, whose forces have been operating northwest of the city.
Neither the report nor its denial could be verified independently.
At the same time, there were indications that indigenous anti-Taliban factions in the south were pressing their own attacks.
By some accounts, for example, the town of Takhtehpol, about 25 miles south of Kandahar on a road leading into Pakistan, has been the scene of a seesaw battle in recent days.
Sources on both sides agreed that the Taliban had been driven out of Takhtehpol several days ago.
A Taliban counterattack reportedly succeeded in recapturing the town, but anti-Taliban forces are fighting to regain it.
The anti-Taliban forces are led by Gul Agha Shirzai, a former governor of Kandahar province.
"The Taliban captured the town again, and now the Gul Agha forces are trying to take it back," said Haji Malek Jilani Khan, a tribal leader in Chaman, a Pakistani border town.
Adding to the uncertainty, another senior Shirzai aide, logistics chief Mohammed Yusef Pushtoon, described Takhtehpol as quiet during the course of a brief satellite telephone interview late Thursday. He said he was speaking from the town.
In any case, Shirzai still controls a town farther up the road and is reported to remain hopeful that the Taliban will agree to surrender.
The situation in Takhtehpol reflects the fact that, though Washington tends to see the Taliban as a monolithic supporter of terrorism, Afghan leaders here see things in less black-and-white terms.
They are more concerned with local ethnic interests and balances of power than with global terrorism.
In this area, both the Taliban and opposition forces are ethnic Pushtuns, so there has been a great reluctance to allow the situation to break down into unrestricted warfare.
Accordingly, members of the local shura, a traditional Afghan council, joined their counterparts in Spin Buldak on Thursday to talk with the Taliban.
Similar negotiations were going on in Kandahar, but there was little information about their status. Travelers arriving in Chaman from Kandahar reported that Taliban forces still held the city's airport.
Rubin reported from Chaman and Cooper from Washington. Times staff writers Tyler Marshall in Quetta, Pakistan; John Hendren and Bob Drogin in Washington; and researcher Ranwa Yehia in The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.
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