City on Edge as Warlords


By Rory McCarthy

November 19, 2001

Past the two battered shipping containers guarding the road south of Kabul, the wide stretches of Afghanistan's tense Pashtun heartland open up.

For the first few miles Northern Alliance troops control the quiet road. Around them hundreds of Taliban, Arab and Pakistani fighters are hiding in the hills, still armed with tanks and rocket launchers.

Yesterday Bismillah Khan, one of the top Northern Alliance commanders, made his first trip south of Kabul since his forces strode into the capital unchallenged last week.

From the town of Maidanshah he ordered his troops to prepare an attack to flush out around 1,200 Taliban fighters, including Pakistanis, holed up on the hillside overlooking the small village of Jalrez.

"There is a problem in Jalrez. We will give them an amnesty if they surrender. If they do not and they are captured they will face trial," said Commander Khan. "Their commander, Ghulam Ahmed, has committed a lot of crimes."

As he stepped out of meetings in what should have been the provincial central bank he was surrounded by villagers begging him not to fight.

"I have visited the area where the Taliban are and they have six or seven tanks and heavy weapons," said Haji Zahir, the local tribal elder. The Taliban had come from Baghlan in the north and Kabul itself and there were Uzbek Islamists among them, he said.

"When the Taliban ruled it was like judgment day. Everyone was wondering what was going to happen to them. Now we have got rid of their tyranny but we do not want more fighting here. We want them to solve this problem peacefully."

When they fled Kabul, most of the Taliban headed directly south, making for their stronghold in Kandahar, around 300 miles away.

At the last Northern Alliance frontline south of Kabul the soldiers are nervous.

The smooth tarmac surface, built under the Taliban, soon runs out and the rocky track cuts through wide plains bordered on each side by mountains. The dun-coloured landscape is bleak and barren, broken only by the occasional mud brick compound.

For days since the fall of Kabul Taliban troops have been retreating this way. On Thursday they pulled out of Ghazni, the once-beautiful capital of the 10th century Ghaznavid empire which stretched from Iran through central Asia into India.

Now a swarm of mojahedin commanders has taken over, each leader with his own armed men and each controlling a different sector of the city. Most are Pashtun and many are loyal to Commander Qaribabar, who has tentative allegiances with the Northern Alliance but is yet to return to Ghazni.

Bismillah Khan insisted the city was free of the Taliban and held by groups loyal to the Northern Alliance.

"Qaribabar has taken Ghazni and he is the representative of our government," said Cmdr Khan. Many of his men talked about chasing the Taliban right down through the Pashtun tribal areas into Kandahar. The commander himself was reticent. "If it is needed we will send our help," he said.

Yet the tense reality in Ghazni is very different. Many of the mojahedin who were last night carrying Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers through the city streets were Taliban soldiers last week.

Commander Bashir, a large, bearded fighter, openly admitted he fought for the Taliban. Now he sides with Cmdr Qaribabar. "Many of the local Taliban men are still here in the city," he said. "When the Taliban were here there was peace but now the situation is not so good."

Above him, hanging on the wall of the small tea house, was a Pakistani flag - a symbol of the country that was once the Taliban's greatest ally and which remains the sworn enemy of the Northern Alliance.

The Pashtun provinces of the south are virtually a different country from the north. Here the writ of the Northern Alliance does not run and there is little talk of a UN-sponsored peace, or the return of the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah.

Some, like Farid Ahmad, speak of the brutality of Taliban rule and their relief at the regime's stunning collapse. Mr Ahmad, a mojahedin soldier, was held by Taliban commanders in Ghazni for 45 days and tortured.

"I was beaten like I cannot explain," he said. "There were all kinds of restrictions against the people and that is why the people of Ghazni have risen up against the Taliban," he said.

Yet although the Taliban left the city without a bullet being fired there is little sense of liberation or security.

"The problem now is that there is no authority," said Cmdr Bashir. "Every commander is their own ruler."

More Information on Afghanistan

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C íŸ 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.