U.S. warplanes target retreating Taliban, uprisings against militia reported by alliance
KABUL, Afghanistan — The rout of the Taliban accelerated Wednesday with the Islamic militia losing control of Jalalabad in the east, once-loyal Pashtun tribesmen joining in the revolt in the south and many of their fighters fleeing into the mountains to evade U.S. airstrikes.
The Taliban is “in retreat virtually all over the country,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in Washington.
A day after seizing the capital, Kabul, elements of the northern alliance consolidated their power by taking over the defense and interior ministries — temporary measures, the alliance insisted, until a U.N.-supervised political settlement representing all ethnic groups.
In the south, there were reports — although impossible to confirm — of fighting in the streets of Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.
Many of Afghanistan’s 23 or more Pashtun groups appeared to have risen up against the Taliban, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said. “Whether or not they’re working in concert, we don’t know,” he told reporters in Washington.
The tribal leaders were Pashtuns — members of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, which served as the backbone of the Taliban’s harsh five-year regime.
“It is time for the rest of Afghanistan — particularly the ethnic groups in the south — to join the uprising against the Taliban and throw off their oppressive rule,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London. “The sooner they act, the greater the benefit for all the people of Afghanistan.”
Cheney said the Taliban’s retreat was “a very good beginning to what’s likely to be a long struggle” which will end only with the capture of Osama bin Laden and the destruction of his al-Qaida terrorist network.
President Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to surrender bin Laden, sought in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Taliban officials insisted the Islamic movement remained intact in its southern strongholds despite its losses. A Taliban official, Mullah Abdullah, told the Afghan Islamic Press the movement’s supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his “guest,” bin Laden, were “safe and well.”
But by other accounts, the news was not good for the Taliban.
A U.S. official in Washington — speaking on condition of anonymity — said there was fighting in the streets of Kandahar between Pashtun tribesmen and the Taliban. The official asserted that the city would fall to anti-Taliban forces within days if not hours.
Many Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan were fleeing to rural, mountainous province of Helmand southwest of Kandahar, the official said.
Yunus Khalis, a Pashtun mullah in Jalalabad, between Kabul and the Pakistan border, negotiated a deal under which the Taliban left the city in return for safe passage with their weapons, according to sources there.
Khalis, who is anti-Western, deeply conservative and a friend to Arab militants, declared himself independent of both the Taliban and the northern alliance.
Witnesses said Khalis’ followers also took control of the Torkham border station to the east of the city and were preventing anyone — including Afghans — from entering Pakistan or leaving Afghanistan.
U.S. jets reportedly pounded targets south of Jalalabad early Wednesday. The area is suspected to contain al-Qaida hideouts.
Khalis’ return to power fit into the larger trend: Afghanistan seemed to be reverting to the patchwork quilt of fiefdoms that controlled the country before the Taliban ascended in 1996. Already, warlords who previously ruled Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat have taken control of those cities.
Afghan sources in Pakistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the airport outside of Kandahar was held by about 200 fighters loyal to Arif Khan, a Pashtun tribal leader. The Taliban denied it, and officials in Washington said the situation was unclear.
There were other advances. Tribal elders took control Wednesday of the town of Gardez, in Paktia province about 60 miles south of Kabul. And an alliance official in Kabul said there were reports of anti-Taliban uprisings in the southern provinces of Ghazni and Wardak.
Reporters were unable to travel south of the Afghan capital, and the reports could not be confirmed independently.
Haron Amin, a U.S.-based envoy for the northern alliance, said some Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan were working with the alliance. He described Mullah Naqib near Kandahar and Qari Baba in Ghazni province as alliance supporters.
“People have revolted against the Taliban,” said Saeed Hussain Anwari, a Shiite Muslim commander.
U.S. special forces were watching key roads in southern Afghanistan, hunting for Taliban leaders, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. “They have been interdicting the main roads that connect the north to the south to see what’s going on and to stop people that they think ought to be stopped,” he said.
At the Pentagon, senior defense officials speaking on condition of anonymity said a new military plan was being prepared to hunt down bin Laden and other leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan approached, authorities said there would be limited U.S. bombing aimed at pockets of Taliban resistance in northern areas like Kunduz, as well as caves and other mountain redoubts in the south where al-Qaida leaders were believed to be hiding.
Both alliance and U.S. officials say the Taliban were holding out at Kunduz, which is between the alliance-held cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Taloqan in northern Afghanistan. Many of the Arab, Chechen and Pakistani volunteers fighting alongside the Taliban appeared to be making a stand at Kunduz.
In other developments:
— In Pakistan, military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said hundreds of heavily armed Pakistani troops were dispatched Wednesday night to the border with Afghanistan to prevent Taliban fighters and their al-Qaida allies from escaping into Pakistan. The Defense Ministry refused to comment on the report.
— The United Nations sent its first delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, 55 tons of winter supplies via a barge across the Amu Darya River that forms the border with Uzbekistan. At the same time, UNICEF and the World Food Program halted shipments amid reports of looting and lawlessness.
— Britain ordered thousands of troops to prepare for possible duty in Afghanistan. Indonesia and New Zealand offered troops for peacekeeping.
— Afghanistan’s former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, urged the Afghan people to unite and choose their destiny in a statement made public Wednesday to be broadcast by radio in his homeland. The ex-king, who has lived in exile in Italy since his ouster in 1973, intended to return to Afghanistan soon to serve as a symbol of national unity, though Zaher Shah has said he does not seek to regain the throne.
The Taliban abandoned Kabul and headed south early Tuesday, when the northern alliance, backed by intensive American bombing, approached the city’s edge. Taliban officials suggested this and other withdrawals from urban areas was a tactical move, and they would now wage a guerrilla action from the mountains and caves of the south.
Regardless of the strategy, residents of Kabul were enjoying a respite from bombing and from the strictures enforced by the Taliban.
Mohammed Alam Ezdediar, who headed a northern alliance radio station before Kabul fell, took control of Radio Afghanistan and resumed airing music, forbidden by the Taliban.
He hired three women as news readers, and aired statements from the alliance defense ministry urging people to remain calm and return to work.
In Karte Nau, a largely Pashtun neighborhood in southern Kabul, children flew kites, teen-agers listened to music and men started shaving their beards, though most women continued to wear their veils.
“We haven’t heard any music for six years. We are crazy about music!” said Omar, a 20-year-old Pashtun mechanic.
Added Aminullah, a 19-year-old blacksmith who shaved his beard: “Today is a day for happiness, for feeling free.”
It is not clear whether Pashtuns elsewhere in the south share these sentiments. Officials in Washington said the Alizai, Panshpai, Barakzai and Ishaqzai tribes in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces — all of them Pashtun — were known to be dissatisfied with the Taliban’s rule and interference in tribal affairs.
The Barakzai tribe is led by a former governor of Kandahar who was ousted when the Taliban gained power.
Some of this discontent may not be high minded. Some in the south came to oppose the Taliban because of its ban on the cultivation of opium.