Afghan opposition claims Taliban in full retreat in much of north
JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan (AP) — Opposition forces claimed to have the Taliban on the run across much of northern Afghanistan on Sunday, as the ruling Islamic militia abandoned stronghold after stronghold in a withdrawal south toward the capital, Kabul.
The foreign minister of the northern alliance, Abdullah, claimed the opposition had seized half the country in the past two days and dealt the Taliban a severe blow as a fighting force. U.S. officials warned that a counterattack was possible.
As Taliban fighters fled south, President Bush urged the opposition not to take Kabul before a new, broad-based government could be formed.
However, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged Sunday that “we don’t have enough forces on the ground to stand in their way” if the northern alliance tried to seize the capital.
At a press conference here, Abdullah said the opposition had recaptured its former headquarters, Taloqan, and three other northern provincial capitals since Mazar-e-Sharif, linchpin of the Taliban defenses in the north, fell to the alliance on Friday.
In Washington, however, Rumsfeld said that while the opposition had “effective control” of Mazar-e-Sharif, “there are pockets of resistance within the city.”
“There could always be a counterattack,” he said. The city’s airport had not yet been secured, he added, though he thought it would be soon.
Taliban officials acknowledged their forces were in a “strategic withdrawal,” apparently toward Kabul and the ethnic Pashtun strongholds to the south. The alliance is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, while Pashtuns — the nation’s largest ethnic group — form the core of Taliban support.
Abdul Hanan Hemat, chief of the Taliban’s Bakhtar news agency, denied claims that Taloqan had fallen.
The reports could not be independently confirmed. Foreign journalists do not have access to many of the front lines and have been speaking to opposition commanders by satellite phone.
The opposition’s Abdullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said some 200 Taliban fighters were killed in fighting for Taloqan and other towns. Both sides have exaggerated claims in the past.
U.S. aircraft, including B-52 bombers, roamed the skies, blasting Taliban positions on the front line about 30 miles north of Kabul and seeking out retreating bands of Taliban fighters.
Bush launched the military campaign against the Taliban on Oct. 7 after they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, suspected in the September terrorist attacks in the United States.
In other developments:
— Bin Laden likely has some chemical or biological weapons, and U.S. forces have bombed some sites in Afghanistan that could have been involved in producing them, Rumsfeld said.
— Two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists have acknowledged that they met bin Laden at least twice this year, Pakistani investigators said. The scientists said the meetings concerned construction of a flour mill.
— Britain confirmed for the first time that it has troops in Afghanistan, providing assistance to the opposition.
Jubilant opposition spokesmen claimed the Taliban had been routed across the north, except in the provinces of Kunduz and Badghis.
Abdullah said the opposition would strike Monday in Kunduz — a province bordering Tajikistan — although the area’s Pashtun population could provide stiffer resistance than elsewhere in the north. Abdullah said the Taliban in Kunduz were “fully encircled.”
Opposition official Noor Ahmad said anti-Taliban troops seized Qala-i-Nau, capital of Badghis province west of Mazar-e-Sharif. The opposition column was advancing toward the western city of Herat, spokesmen said.
Rumsfeld said the opposition was “putting pressure” on Taloqan and Herat but did not elaborate.
The opposition also claimed to have seized Pul-e-Khumri, a key junction on the road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, though they said Taliban units were still operating in Baghlan province, where the town is located.
Opposition spokesman Mohammed Abil said a Taliban commander in Bamiyan province, west of Kabul, switched sides to join the opposition.
The seizure of Mazar-e-Sharif, 45 miles south of the Uzbek border, after days of intensive U.S. bombing marked a turnaround in the opposition’s fortunes.
Echoing Rumsfeld’s comments about enclaves of resistance, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said pro-Taliban fighters were still holding out in the city — including about 100 armed Pakistanis and Arabs holed up in a former girls’ school.
Meanwhile, residents flouted rules imposed by the Taliban, the agency said: Men shaved their beards, and music could be heard in the streets.
Mazar-e-Sharif could serve as a staging area for the U.S.-led coalition to rush humanitarian supplies and weapons into the country. The airport could be used to launch attacks on Taliban positions.
Along the Kabul front, opposition forces were eager to advance, said Gen. Alim Khan, a senior commander. “If we want to enter Kabul, we won’t care about U.S. willingness or unwillingness,” he said.
Bush wants the opposition to hold off on assaulting Kabul to avoid a repeat of factional fighting that destroyed the capital and killed 50,000 people from 1992 to 1996, when the opposition governed.
“We will encourage our friends to head south … but not into the city of Kabul itself,” Bush said at a news conference in New York with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan, a key ally in the campaign, opposes an alliance takeover of Kabul.