Commander Supporting Taliban Defects
By Doug Struck - Washington Post Foreign Service, Sunday, November 4, 2001
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, Nov. 3 -- The American bombardment began to show some results Friday when a commander fighting with the Taliban defected, bringing with him 1,350 fighters and control of several towns in northern Afghanistan, according to the commander and other rebel officers.
"I didn't want the fighting to destroy the country. I wanted to surrender in peace," the commander, Mohammed Hasham Habib Gorzovani, also known as Hasham Khan, said by telephone today.
Habib said through an interpreter that some villagers are turning against the Taliban, capturing or killing them. That assertion could not be verified.
Another commander of the Afghan rebel forces said today their fighters had captured 200 Taliban soldiers and that 800 local residents had joined the forces of the Northern Alliance following a four-hour fight Friday in the village of Aq Kopruk, about 18 miles south of Mazar-e Sharif. Territorial gains appeared minimal, however.
"The Taliban counterattacked five times, and failed each time. But the fighting is continuing," said Kurdratulla Umar, an officer with the forces of Attah Mohammad, whose line extends to within five miles of the key northern city.
These accounts suggest cracks in the defenses, but the Taliban remains a formidable force that has not crumbled under the U.S. bombing nor the attacks by the Northern Alliance.
"The Taliban's front line is increasing," said Mukhammad Unus Konuni, an official of the Northern Alliance reached by telephone in Afghanistan. "The number of Pakistanis who are coming to help the Taliban is increasing every day. They come with new equipment to fight.
"It's good the Americans are bombing, otherwise they could attack us," Konuni said. "The American planes have been massively bombing their front lines, with obvious results."
American strategists hoped that the steady building of pressure on the Taliban would result in wholesale defections by local commanders, renowned for their fast-changing loyalties.
Habib, who switched sides Friday, has done so before. He was a top commander with Abdurrashid Dostum, a local warlord now fighting with the Northern Alliance, until Dostum fled to Turkey in 1999. Habib and his men continued fighting in the mountains for about six months, and then, fearing Dostum's enemies within the Northern Alliance, elected to join the Taliban.
"I had to join the Taliban," he said. "My men were starving in the mountains."
But Friday, with a lull in the fighting, he negotiated by radio with Dostum, his old general who returned to Afghanistan six months ago to take up the fight. Habib defected with about 1,000 men, the bulk of what is called the 35th Army.
They surrendered to Attah Mohammad's Northern Alliance forces in the town of Meymaneh, midway on the road between the western city of Herat and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. They turned over several surrounding villages, including Belcheragh, Kata Kala' and Pastun Kut.
At the same time, another contingent of Habib's army, consisting of 350 men near the Panj River border with Tajikistan, defected, turning over the village of Emam Saheb just north of Kunduz. The area recently had been bombed heavily by U.S. planes, Habib said.
"It is a great success to have Hasham Khan [Habib] on the government side," said Konuni. "He has a lot of people in a lot of places, so he is a great asset. We hope he can carry the invasion to other spots."
Already, his forces had been put back on the lines to fight the Taliban, their allies of two days ago, according to Umar. "Since he's been with us, he's been busy," Umar said late this evening.
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