Stop-and-go surrender: Handing over an Afghan city is often a messy affair

Posted: Friday, December 07, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- In Afghan warfare, giving up is never as simple as it sounds.

Over the past month, surrenders of cities and towns by the retreating Taliban have been marked by bitter infighting, unexplained delays and broken promises.

Now Kandahar, the militia's home base and last bastion, could be a case in point.

There were initial signs Friday that the surrender accord was taking hold, with Taliban fighters beginning to hand over their weapons.

But the terms of the pact left almost every key issue unresolved -- while laying bare the competing interests of those who have teamed up together against the Taliban.

Clear differences of opinion swiftly emerged between the United States and the tribal chieftains who negotiated the pact with the Taliban -- as well as among the always-fractious northern alliance factions.

As the handovers of other cities, one looming dispute is the fate of hardened foreign fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden. It's not known how many of them were still holed up in Kandahar as the surrender began.

In the northern city of Kunduz last month, these foreign fighters -- mainly Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens -- proved a fatally unpredictable element.

First, the foreign fighters repeatedly sabotaged efforts by their Taliban comrades-in-arms to hand over the city. To drive home that point, they killed hundreds of Taliban they caught trying to give themselves up.

Many of the foreign fighters surrendered to arriving northern alliance troops without a fight -- but once imprisoned in a fortress in nearby Mazar-e-Sharif, they staged an uprising so bloody it took days of ferocious battles, plus American airstrikes, to quell it. A CIA agent was among the dead.

The architects of the Kandahar surrender agreement haven't said what will happen to the foreign fighters. Hamid Karzai, the incoming interim prime minister, was vague: he said they had to go -- but didn't say where. He later told CNN they would be ''taken into custody and they will face justice.''

What happens to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, was also an open question. The Taliban demand his safety be guaranteed as part of the handover, but the United States says any deal allowing him to go free would be unacceptable. His whereabouts were unknown Friday.

As for bin Laden, whose status as key suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon set off the U.S.-led military onslaught -- he was not even mentioned. The Taliban have maintained for some time that he is in an area outside their control.

Then there are personal rivalries among anti-Taliban leaders -- and in the Pashtun tribal belt, grudges often become blood feuds.

Kandahar's former governor, Gul Agha, was said to be upset that he was not part of the negotiations between the Taliban, Karzai, and former commander Mullah Naqibullah, who would take over the city under the deal.

Agha's chief lieutenant, Gul-e-Lalai, told Pakistani reporters by radio that his fighters would take Kandahar by force, saying they reject Mullah Naqibullah because of his past ties to the Taliban.

Duplicity -- or at least a highly flexible interpretation of the terms of any accord -- is another common element in Afghan-style surrenders. Before Taliban fighters fled the capital, Kabul, last month, leaders of the northern alliance said they wouldn't enter the city.

But they did so anyway, saying their presence was necessary to prevent a descent into chaos.

The days, hours and weeks following a city's handover are generally volatile ones. In Kandahar, there were early reports of looting and unrest as the Taliban began turning themselves in.

In other cities abandoned by the Taliban, notably Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad, local warlords seized upon the departure of the Taliban to pick up their own mini-wars -- sometimes precisely where they left off.

Disagreement between the United States and the incoming Afghan administration over Kandahar could prove particularly awkward.

Few have a greater interest than the Bush administration in a peaceful transition to a post-Taliban government, but the conduct of the Kandahar negotiations underscored the traditional Afghan mistrust of outsiders.

Karzai said the United States had not been consulted about whether Omar would face some form of justice, and at whose hands. ''This is an Afghan question,'' he told the BBC.

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that ambiguities about what was happening in Kandahar simply could not be reconciled immediately.

After a day of mixed signals and conflicting reports, he said of the surrender terms: ''There's still a good deal of confusion.''

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