Tracking Taliban's last stand

In 10 days, Taliban lose two-thirds of their territory

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Huge plumes of smoke billowed into the air above the hilly battle lines, and commanders' radios crackled with urgent messages. It was another day on the northern front outside Mazar-e-Sharif, a Taliban-held city on the windy steppes of northern Afghanistan.

Over weeks, months, even years, opposition forces had repeatedly claimed they were on the verge of seizing the city, a vital crossroads and strategic prize. They said so again on that day -- Thursday, Nov. 8.

''We will take Mazar-e-Sharif, maybe tomorrow,'' declared a rebel spokesman, Ashraf Nadeem. Familiar words -- but this time, they were true.

The chain of events about to be set in motion would irrevocably alter the course of the U.S.-led military campaign launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Up until then, a month of relentless aerial bombardment -- much of it directed against Taliban air defenses around the cities -- had failed to loosen the Taliban grip on power. Battle lines in the north had barely budged. And American airstrikes had failed to inflict serious injury on the tight inner circle of Osama bin Laden, whose terror network was believed to be behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

All that was about to change.

In 10 tumultuous days, the Taliban lost two-thirds of their territory and saw many of the trappings of government fall into the hands of their bitterest enemies, the opposition northern alliance.

Forced to flee city after city, Taliban troops and bin Laden fighters abandoned the capital Kabul in the dead of night, harried by strikes from the air and U.S. special forces on the ground.

Ordinary Afghans, furious over five years of repressive rule, mutilated the corpses of unlucky Taliban stragglers left behind. One of bin Laden's most trusted lieutenants was killed in a U.S. raid. The Taliban were reported to be haggling with tribal leaders over terms of a possible surrender of their home base and spiritual center, Kandahar.

Even by the standards of a regime that had made brutal intimidation its byword, this was a hard, fast fall.

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From Kandahar they came, and to there the Taliban returned. As more and more territory slipped from their grasp, the desert city -- together with remote mountain hide-outs and the northern city of Kunduz -- became their last real stronghold.

Five years ago, Kandahar was the wellspring of the austere Islamic movement whose name simply meant ''students.''

At first, the Taliban appeared to some to be a welcome contrast to corrupt warlords whose infighting had left the capital in ruins -- this on the heels of a bloody decade-long struggle against Soviet occupation.

But as the Taliban hold on the country tightened, the brand of Islam it imposed became more and more severe -- for many Afghans, unbearably so.

Women could not work or leave their homes unless swathed in face- and body-covering veils. Men were forced to wear beards as long as a fist and go to prayers five times a day. Television and music were banned.

The religious edicts mounted: No kite-flying. No chess-playing. No pigeon-keeping. Drought, hunger and isolation from the outside world added to the misery.

It was the Taliban's sheltering of bin Laden, though, that triggered the confrontation with the United States.

With camps scattered across Afghanistan, bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers -- euphemistically referred to as ''guests'' -- entrenched themselves not only in the landscape, but in the power structure, becoming closely intertwined with the Taliban leadership.

Al-Qaida means ''base,'' and investigators believed Afghanistan was just that for bin Laden's far-flung, loosely linked terror network.

The U.S.-led air war was launched Oct. 7, after the Taliban ignored an American ultimatum to hand over bin Laden or face destruction. By week's end, the latter appeared to be suddenly staring them in the face.

The turning point in the campaign for Mazar-e-Sharif was a change in U.S. tactics: devastating airstrikes on Taliban front lines, directed by U.S. special forces on the ground and including the largest non-nuclear bombs in the American arsenal.

Waves of B-52 bombers, visible only as jet trails in the sky, transformed the hills into vast infernos, with smoke and fire covering the landscape. Dreams of holy war vanished in the flames.

Mazar-e-Sharif's defenses crumbled as the first alliance troops crossed the Pul-i-Imam Bukhri bridge leading into the heart of the city.

Despite the drama of the moment, few imagined that events would move so swiftly in the aftermath.

By last weekend, opposition troops were already marching south toward Kabul after seizing large swaths of northern territory, including four provincial capitals.

Nervous Taliban troops set up checkpoints at key intersections in the capital, stopping vehicles, searching passengers, looking for possible infiltrators.

Punishing American airstrikes on Taliban positions north of the capital helped alliance forces break through outer Taliban defenses -- even as President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed hopes that the alliance would stop short of entering Kabul.

In territory that had changed hands earlier, grim reports of reprisal killings emerged, fueling international concern. In Mazar-e-Sharif, the United Nations said, more than 100 Taliban fighters trapped in the city after its fall were killed by northern alliance fighters after they sought refuge in a school.

Many ordinary people in Kabul -- even those who longed to throw off the Taliban yoke -- feared that the arrival of the northern alliance would signal the start of infighting among various warlords, reminiscent of the savage civil war of the early 1990s.

By Monday night, though, the momentum was unstoppable. With shouts of ''God is great!'' opposition forces pushed their way to the gates of the capital. Before dawn, under cover of darkness, the bulk of the Taliban fled, heading south toward Kandahar.

As day broke and Kabul's people ventured outdoors, word of the Taliban retreat spread like wildfire. People shouted congratulations to one another, honking car horns and ringing the bells of bicycles. Bands of northern alliance troops roamed the city, hunting down stragglers.

Some of those captured escaped with only a beating, but others suffered a worse fate. The bodies of several dozen Taliban fighters lay in ditches, battered where they lay by sticks and stones.

Some corpses, in a final insult, had nearly worthless Afghani bank notes stuffed into their noses -- an Afghan way of implying an enemy is corrupt.

By week's end, the focus had shifted back to Kandahar, where complex negotiations were said to be under way among tribal factions and Taliban leaders for a Taliban retreat from the city of their movement's birth.

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, was at one point reported to have struck a deal to abandon the city and head for the mountains. But that later appeared to break down amid differences not only between the two sides, but between the two sides' competing factions.

Pakistani authorities tightened border controls, fearing an influx of Taliban if the fighters were forced out of Kandahar.

In Kabul, people were still savoring newfound freedoms -- even though fears for the future had dampened initial euphoria.

Barber shops were still crowded with men having their beards cut off. The Taliban's Radio Shariat -- named for Islamic law that the Taliban so rigorously upheld -- had been renamed Radio Afghanistan. Once-forbidden music wafted from loudspeakers and tinny-sounding cassette players.

A 40-year-old janitor named Abdul Shukur stroked the beard he was about to shave off.

''We're being reborn in the world,'' he declared.



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