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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

FATEFUL VICTORY

An exclusive report from the front lines of the Taliban's rout of their enemies

By Anthony Davis / Taloqan


WARY, WEAPONS AT THE ready, the first Taliban moved into Taloqan in the cool of early morning. Advancing in single file into the main bazaar, the troops could hardly believe their good fortune. Instead of the rifle and rocket fire they had faced for more than a year, they were met only by the curious stares of locals. Their enemies, the forces of northern opposition chief Ahmadshah Massoud, had fled in the night. They had abandoned the town of 60,000 - and the closest thing they had had to a capital since they ran from Kabul two years ago.

The fall of Massoud's Taloqan headquarters on Aug. 11 climaxed a blitzkrieg campaign in which Afghanistan's Taliban completed their seizure of well over 90% of the country's territory. Three days earlier they had captured the north's biggest city, Mazar-i-Sharif, scattering the forces of the tripartite alliance that had opposed them since their September 1996 takeover of Kabul. "Mazar and Taloqan were the heart and head of the opposition," says Abdul Maqsud, a Taloqan shopkeeper. "Without a heart or a head, how can a body continue to function?"

The dramatic successes of the Taliban's five-week campaign raise the possibility that for the first time in nearly 20 years, Afghanistan may be reunited under a strong, central government, once more dominated by the nation's Pushtun majority. That could mean a long-awaited return of peace and security - along with the imposition of unbending laws and social strictures mandated by the Taliban's ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. But a more ominous outcome may be continued guerrilla warfare, coupled with dangerously escalating tensions between the Taliban and an angry Iran.

The Taliban's northern offensive opened unexpectedly on July 10. Aided by the paid defection of two opposition commanders, they seized Maimana, capital of Faryab province, two days later. There, the campaign stalled for two weeks as the forces of Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam, backed by allies Massoud and the Shia Hizb-i-Wahdat faction, launched frantic counter-offensives. By the end of July, they had retaken Maimana's airstrip and were fighting in the city itself.

But the tide turned decisively on Aug. 2. After the defection of Pushtun troops of the Hizb-i-Islami, a minor member of the northern alliance but ethnic cousins of the Taliban, the Islamist militia once again surged forward. They fought their way into Dostam's military headquarters in Shiberghan, seizing its vital airbase. From Shiberghan, a highway stretches for 90 km to Mazar. "If you break the lines between Maimana and Shiberghan, you are effectively in Mazar," says one diplomat.

Bitter clashes erupted outside Mazar, home to more than half a million people. But on Aug. 8, the Taliban entered the dusty, sprawling prize, which they tried in vain to take in May last year. The defection of a Dostam commander allowed one Taliban column to enter the city from the west, while a second seized the airport, 10 km to its east. Mazar's fate was sealed. The civilian population remained under effective house arrest for several days as the Taliban cleared the city, quarter by quarter. "Bodies [were] everywhere," says an independent source. Some were "unburied and being eaten by dogs."

Pakistan-based analysts have focused on two salient elements behind the Taliban's most successful campaign since their emergence four years ago. Once again, Pakistani support seems to have played a key role in terms of logistics, strategic direction and even manpower. According to diplomatic sources, over the two weeks before the fall of Shiberghan, hundreds of Pakistani volunteers were airlifted into the western city of Herat and then trucked to the front to bolster the Taliban push.

Western aid workers in Maimana when it fell estimated that 25% to 50% of some Taliban units were composed of Urdu-speaking Pakistanis. On Aug. 6, Massoud told Asiaweek that 1,700 Pakistanis were fighting in a Taliban force of 8,000, with both numbers rising rapidly. Military sources say the reinforcements are part of a multi-faceted involvement by Pakistan with the Taliban that began with the movement itself in late 1994 and has since grown dramatically. The northern campaign, the sources add, was marked by impressive logistics support and command-and-control - in sharp contrast with the disastrous Taliban foray into the north last year. "This has been very professionally organized," says one military analyst. As many as 400 new pick-up trucks, imported from Pakistan, were apparently used to spearhead the Taliban advance.

The military analysts say that the Pakistani contingent in Afghanistan has two distinct categories. The overwhelming majority are youths from religious colleges, sympathetic to the Taliban jihad (holy war) and receiving no pay. A far smaller number of Pakistanis are believed to be trained and paid ex-military personnel, technically "retired" and now serving in key specialist and liaison roles.

But Pakistani backing for the Taliban could never have had the impact it did without the incompetence and feuding of the northern alliance. Cobbled together after the Taliban seizure of Kabul, the coalition brought together the mainly Tajik forces of Massoud and ousted president Burhannudin Rabbani, the chronically divided Jombesh-i-Milli Islami (National Islamic Movement) of ex-communist Dostam, and the ethnic-Hazara Wahdat faction. Backed by Iran and Russia, this already querulous mix was further divided by the return from exile early this year of Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a longtime Massoud rival.

Tensions had mounted steadily following the return from a four-month exile in Turkey of Dostam and his bid to reassert himself as the most powerful partner. Indeed, Dostam spent far more time maneuvering around his rivals than fighting the Taliban. In March, armed clashes erupted between his forces and the Shias. In June, his fighters clashed with Massoud's men. Virtually forgotten was a crucial joint offensive against the Taliban-controlled province of Kunduz. Dostam had been "fixated with Mazar," Massoud told Asiaweek. "On Kunduz he delayed, delayed, delayed."

In Mazar, meanwhile, where the Hizb-i-Wahdat was entrenched, all the old evils of mujahideen misrule in Kabul reasserted themselves - extortion, lawlessness and rape. "Mazar did not just fall because of the Pakistanis," says moderate Pushtun politician Hamid Karzai. "The locals were sick of what was going on."

Beyond the northern allies' squabbling lay a far broader bankruptcy - their failure to present any viable political alternative to the Taliban. Within 24 hours of Taloqan's fall, citizens were commenting favorably on Taliban discipline, ease of movement and trade, and falling prices. "For me, the main change is that I can now travel freely and quickly between here and Kunduz," says merchant Abdul Wahid.

That relatively easy transition is unlikely to be reprised in Mazar and the northwest. There, ethnic tensions between the Hazaras and Uzbeks on the one hand, and the Pushtun Taliban on the other, run far deeper than those between Tajiks and Pushtuns in the northeast. And Mazar and Shiberghan have long seen women at work and girls in school - Taliban proscriptions.

What of the opposition's remnants? Dostam's forces, 30,000-strong before July, have been scattered and many of his top commanders have fled or disappeared. "We estimate 30% to 40% have retreated into the mountains and are still active," says a Taliban commander in Kunduz. Dostam himself has been seen both in northern Samanagan province and talking with Wahdat chief Karim Khalil in central Bamiyan province. "He's wandering around in the hills with a couple of helicopters and a satellite phone," says one observer.

Massoud and the Shias have fared better. Neither took significant casualties in the recent battles, and both have mountain strongholds to retreat to. For Massoud that means his native Panjshir Valley, where nearly two decades ago he began his war against Kabul's communist government. "We will fight the Taliban like we fought the Russians," vows Massoud. "We'll harass them, stretch them and bleed them." Bamiyan remains in the hands of the Wahdat, along with parts of neighboring provinces. Says a diplomat after talks with a Shia leader: "They say they're ready to fight because they know the only Taliban condition will be complete surrender."

Gradually encircling the defeated is a growing Taliban army now intoxicated with victory. "If we capture their leaders, Rabbani or Hekmatyar, they can expect the same fate as Najibullah," says a Taliban commander. The former communist president was tortured, castrated and publicly hanged in Kabul. While the holdouts may be able to fight on until winter, the lack of external supplies may eventually prove their undoing.

The position adopted by Shia-dominated Iran will be critical, say analysts. Along with Russia and the Central Asian states, Tehran has been at the forefront of international protests against the Taliban campaign. Having poured in munitions and supplies to back the northern allies in recent months, Tehran, like Moscow, has lashed out angrily at Pakistan. Last week parliamentary speaker Hasan Ruhani warned Islamabad of "the start of misery" if the Taliban tried to control all Afghanistan. "Pakistan," he said, "is playing a very dangerous game." Iran's Revolutionary Guards plan to conduct maneuvers near the border before year's end "because of the problems posed by the Taliban," as their commander put it.

If Iran intends to go beyond rhetoric, it has various options. All are likely to escalate tensions sharply. One course might be to provide fighter escort for Wahdat military transports flying supplies to Bamiyan from Iran - if necessary shooting down any Taliban MiGs that get in the way. Another option: limited incursions across the already tense border, where Iran accuses the Taliban of aiding drug traffickers. Yet again, Tehran might train Afghan guerrillas to fight the Taliban - something it has already done.

"If Iran's main interest is protecting the Shias and they want them to fight, it will need to assure them of its total support," says a diplomat. In the face of such factors, the Taliban's victories may portend less peace than further turmoil both in Afghanistan and the increasingly unstable region around it.


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