Taliban deserts Kabul as northern alliance moves into the capital
Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Taliban military forces deserted the capital of Kabul at dawn Tuesday, after a series of stunning military victories by opposition forces over the past four days.
Sporadic small arms fire could be heard from the hills overlooking the city, but the streets were empty of the Taliban soldiers, who had been there hours earlier. All Taliban military compounds were abandoned.
As they left, the Taliban took eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, accused of spreading Christianity in Muslim Afghanistan, witnesses said.
As the sun rose over the Hindu Kush mountains, residents of Kabul could be heard shouting out congratulations to one another, honking car horns and ring bells on their bicycles.
From the rooftop of the Intercontinental Hotel on a hill overlooking Kabul columns of Taliban vehicles could be seen heading south beginning Monday night. The exodus continued after sun rise.
Northern alliance forces began moving into the capital in pickup trucks loaded with soldiers armed with rifles and rocket launchers. There was no shooting as the opposition forces took over a military barracks that only hours before had been in Taliban hands.
“I think it is great news. It means the initial phase of the campaign is going well,” Army Secretary Thomas White said.
White said he thought “a combination of well-targeted air power along with movement on the ground by northern alliance forces” prompted the Taliban to flee Kabul. He spoke on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”
Weeks of bombing by the United States weakened the Taliban sufficiently for the northern alliance to move across enemy lines. President Bush launched the air campaign on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden, prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Taliban forces, which took control of Kabul in 1996, were heading south toward the town of Maidan Shahr, about 25 miles south of Kabul. As they had in the north of the country, the Islamic militia appeared to have decided to surrender territory rather than fight. By moving south, the fighters seemed ready to fall back toward the last major Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
The area around the Taliban spiritual capital is rugged, mountainous terrain littered with caves that are believed to provide hideouts for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist organization.
The opposition had broken through Taliban front lines Monday and taken the hills above Kabul after a string of victories that started Friday with the taking of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Before abandoning the capital, the Islamic militia circled the mile-high city with tanks to defend against an all-out assault and had vowed to defend the city.
“We have decided to defend Kabul,” the Taliban ambassador to neighboring Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said in Islamabad. “It is true that the opposition breached our front line near Kabul, but we have erected another one and are strengthening our position.”
Shouting “God is great,” anti-Taliban troops had rolled within 12 miles of Kabul Monday on trucks carrying the green, white and black Afghan flag and displaying pictures of their slain commander, Ahmed Shah Massood.
The anti-Taliban forces, a coalition of factions and ethnic groups, capped their four-day dash across the north by overrunning western Afghanistan’s biggest city, Herat. Commanders said they were pushing toward Kunduz, the last Taliban-held city in the north.
Haron Amin, a Washington-based envoy for the northern alliance, had said earlier Monday that the anti-Taliban forces would surround Kabul, which sits in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, to prevent the Taliban from reinforcing or resupplying their troops inside.
“We have no intention of going into Kabul,” Amin said. The United Nations must first come up with a plan for dividing power in Afghanistan after the Taliban falls, he said.
At the United Nations, the United States, Russia and six nations that border Afghanistan pledged “to establish a broad-based Afghan administration on an urgent basis.”
The aim is to put together a transitional leadership that is broadly acceptable, possibly including Taliban defectors. The United Nations might take interim control of the capital, and Muslim and non-Muslim nations are likely to join with Turkey in providing peacekeepers, U.S. officials said.
Likely participants with Turkey in a combined peacekeeping force from Muslim and non-Muslim countries include Indonesia, Bangladesh and Jordan, U.S. officials said.
In a television interview, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose government was once a strong supporter of the Taliban, said a broad-based transitional government was essential.
“Some progress being made by Northern Alliance toward Kabul is dangerous to an extent, dangerous because we are now getting information that there are certain atrocities being perpetrated in Mazar-e Sharif. And that is exactly my apprehension that we have seen a lot of atrocities, a lot of killings between the various ethnic groups in Kabul after the Soviets left, and that’s why we are of the opinion that Kabul should be maintained as a de-militarized city. That is very important,” Musharraf said on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Gen. Rashid Dostum, a northern alliance commander, said 15,000 former Taliban troops and some Taliban commanders had crossed over to the alliance during recent fighting.
Opposition fighters punched through Taliban defenses about noon Monday after a punishing attack by U.S. B-52 bombers. Taliban positions began to fall one by one along the main road into Kabul.
Bush had urged the opposition to avoid entering the city until a broad-based government can be organized to replace the Taliban, which has ruled most of Afghanistan since 1996.
However, little progress has been made in bringing together the disparate groups in Afghanistan’s fractious, multiethnic society.
And the temptation to grab the capital proved too great for the opposition, which in four days has expanded its control from some 10 percent of the country to nearly half.
In other developments:
– Two French radio reporters and a German magazine journalist were killed when they came under Taliban fire while traveling with opposition troops, their employers and colleagues said Monday.
Since the opposition captured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday after intense American bombing, province after province in the north has fallen into alliance hands.
Dramatic turns in the war’s balance are a traditional feature in Afghan fighting. Rival armies sometimes battle for months without a change – until one side retreats, often because of a commander switching sides, and a large-scale rout ensues.
By Monday night, the Taliban appeared to have lost nearly all of the north except the province of Kunduz.
It will likely be tougher for the opposition – made up of Uzbeks, Tajiks and other ethnic minorities that dominate the north – to maintain its momentum in the south, the Pashtun heartland.
Early Monday, alliance forces entered Herat, the major city in western Afghanistan. Iranian TV, broadcasting from Herat, said in the evening that the opposition had control of the city.
Shiite Muslim Herat sits along a main road to Kandahar – more than 300 miles to the southeast – which is the birthplace of the Taliban and home of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
In areas cleared of the Taliban, Afghans began adjusting to life without the harsh rules imposed by the Islamic militia.
In Mazar-e-Sharif, men lined up at barber shops to have their Taliban-mandated beards shaved, and music – banned by the Taliban – could be heard from stores, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.
Opposition spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said about half the city’s women had discarded the all-covering burqas required by the Taliban. Some retained traditional scarves covering their hair, while others went bareheaded, he said.
It was clear, however, that the alliance was having trouble maintaining order. The United Nations said gunmen looted a U.N. food warehouse in Mazar-e-Sharif, and there were unconfirmed reports of “summary executions” after the city’s fall.
The U.N. Children’s Fund said an opposition commander seized a 10-truck convoy of aid that arrived in the city Saturday.
Elsewhere, returning refugees streamed back into villages that they had not seen in months or years in a day of celebration across northern Afghanistan.
After more than a year living in a tent, one refugee, Habib Allah, headed home to Khoja Ghaar, which fell Sunday – accompanied by four little nephews.
“We will be home for Ramadan,” he said, referring to the Muslim month of fasting that begins this weekend.
EDITOR’S NOTE – AP correspondents Steven Gutkin in Jabal Saraj, Afghanistan and Ellen Knickmeyer in Khoja Ghaar, Afghanistan contributed to this report.