Alliance invites Afghan factions to Kabul for talks
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The flag of Afghanistan's former government returned to the capital, Kabul, on Tuesday as Taliban forces withdrew toward Kandahar, opposition leaders said.
The Northern Alliance -- the remnants of Afghanistan's pre-Taliban government -- moved into Kabul early Tuesday after four days of dramatic advances aided by U.S. air power. Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah offered to host a conference of Afghan factions and U.N. representatives in Kabul to form a new government for the war-ravaged country.
"We invite all Afghan groups at this stage to come to Kabul and to speed up negotiations on the future of Afghanistan," said Abdullah, adding "Taliban excluded."
The city was placed under the control of a committee led by Gen. Mohammad Fahim, the opposition's defense minister, Abdullah said. He said the Northern Alliance had about 6,000 troops in and around Kabul.
Abdullah estimated that as many as 8,000 Taliban troops withdrew from the city, completing their pullout by midnight Monday.
Leaders of the international coalition against the Taliban, including President Bush, had urged the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul until an agreement was in place for a broad-based government representing all of the country's ethnic groups.
Despite international pressure, "There was no choice but to send in security forces" after the Taliban withdrew, Abdullah said. But as they retreated, Abdullah said the Taliban took with them eight Western aid workers -- four Germans, two Australians and two Americans -- accused of spreading Christianity.
Outside Kabul, he said, Taliban forces were collapsing "very quickly and in a dramatic manner." He said the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban's political base, "is a chaotic situation."
"It was like [Monday's] situation in Kabul," Abdullah said. "By that I mean the Taliban authorities were not seen in Kandahar. There was no responsible authority to respond to the needs of the pople."
Following the withdrawal from Kabul, U.S. officials confirmed reports of massive defections on the part of Taliban fighters. Hamid Karzai, a leader of Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtun, said the Taliban forces were "in very visible disarray."
Karzai, who has been trying to convince Pashtun leaders to turn against the Taliban with U.S. assistance, told CNN that Taliban soldiers who are abandoning their units should be allowed to return home without harassment.
As Northern Alliance forces drove into Kabul, the mood along the road was a festive one.
But many Afghans said they fear the vacuum created by the retreat of the Taliban forces could lead to anarchy. And before the U.S.-led air campaign began, the Taliban warned it would wage a guerrilla campaign from the Afghan mountains and the country's vast wilderness.
The opposition's drive toward Kabul has followed the capture of four northern cities -- Mazar-e Sharif, Bamian, Taloqan and Herat -- since Friday.
The developments of the past few days mark a dramatic turn in the campaign that began October 7, when U.S. forces launched airstrikes on Afghanistan in retaliation for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. U.S. officials blame those attacks on Osama bin Laden, the suspected terrorist leader who has lived in Afghanistan as a Taliban guest since 1996.
The White House said the president is "very pleased" with military developments, but the administration said the Northern Alliance has been told to respect human rights as well as to await the efforts under way to build a broad-based coalition for a post-Taliban government.
There were reports that tribal leaders were massing anti-Taliban forces near Kandahar.
Evidence of fierce fighting -- bodies strewn along the road, devastated buildings, twisted metal and burned-out trees -- was visible Tuesday along the road into Kabul from the north. But there was a festive mood along the roads and in the city as opposition troops arrived.
Crowds chanted anti-Pakistan slogans and shouts of death to the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan had supported the Taliban until the September 11 attacks.
Given the swift pace of the opposition advance in recent days, diplomats at the United Nations in New York are speeding up efforts to bring together members of the various Afghan groups for discussions on a post-Taliban government.
"We have to be nimble," said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "We have to move quickly, and we have to be flexible."