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Afghan Student Militia Suffers Key Defeat : Asia: Taliban fighters driven from stronghold near Kabul. President now unlikely to resign as required by peace plan.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Retreating as quickly as it advanced, Afghanistan's Taliban militia of Muslim students has been routed from its stronghold near Kabul, ensuring that President Burhanuddin Rabbani will not resign today as required by a U.N. peace plan.

As a result of the most decisive victory by pro-Rabbani forces in Afghanistan's 3-year-old civil war, the president now controls all of Kabul and its outskirts for the first time since the Communist government was overthrown in 1992.

When Mahmoud Mestiri, the U.N. special envoy, announced the peace proposal last month, he said he had a firm pledge from Rabbani to leave office by March 21. But Mestiri's political adviser said Monday there is no chance of that happening now.

"We are trying to re-engage the political process," Charles Santos said here in Islamabad, capital of neighboring Pakistan.

The "recent unexpected fighting" in Afghanistan also prevented the national council--to which Rabbani was supposed to cede power--from being constituted, it was announced by a group of prominent Afghan exiles helping to form the new government.

In a statement released in Islamabad, the exiles and Mestiri appealed Monday to each of the 32 Afghan provinces to delegate two representatives to the council by the end of March.

Rabbani, who was quick to make it known that he did not feel bound by the U.N.-brokered deadline, has said he will not quit office until a new power structure is ready.

Sunday's victory by fighters loyal to Afghanistan's nominal president also cast grave doubts on the Taliban's effectiveness as a fighting force and factor in Afghan affairs. Since October, the Taliban had taken possession of 10 provinces in eastern and southern Afghanistan, the latest, Nimroz in the southwest, as recently as Saturday.

The Muslim religious students, who were joined by disgruntled fighters from rival Afghan militias and veterans who had battled the old pro-Moscow regime in the name of Islam, capitalized on people's weariness of more than 1 1/2 decades of warfare and the extortion and thuggery of many moujahedeen commanders.

On Feb. 14, the Taliban took control of Charasyab, a dusty market town astride the southern road into Kabul and only 10 miles from the lines of pro-government forces. But observers noted that the Taliban militia members were largely untested in battle and that they seemed to owe their quick advance largely to persuasion and to the reluctance of other combatants to fire on students from Muslim religious schools.

Sunday's attack on the Charasyab base was the biggest the Taliban had ever faced. It followed defeats for the force the previous day, when the Taliban was driven from positions in southwestern Kabul that it had taken over from an anti-government Shiite militia.

At 4 a.m., the Defense Ministry said, government troops started pummeling Taliban positions with mortars, heavy artillery, tanks and machine guns. An hour later, the Taliban reportedly fled from Charasyab.

Radio Kabul said that 150 Taliban fighters had been killed in the battle and another 200 captured.

The rout was so total that government forces occupying Charasyab were able to fill 15 flatbed trucks with weapons and ammunition left by the fleeing Taliban militia, reports said.

The scale of the defeat indicated that the idealistic students were no match for battle-hardened troops like those of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the government's top military commander.

"The Taliban, mostly religious students, are not trained in conventional warfare. As against government troops, they face numerous disadvantages, in logistics and weapons strength," Rasul B. Rais, author of a recent book on warfare in Afghanistan, commented to the Pakistani newspaper the Nation.

It had been the spellbinding successes of the Taliban that doomed a previous U.N. plan for the transfer of power that was supposed to take effect Feb. 19.

Hospitals reported that more than 1,000 people were wounded, and hundreds are believed to have been killed, in fighting over the last two weeks.

The new situation might spell relief for residents of Kabul; the Afghan capital had been fought over since the Islamic factions that fought the Communist government that collapsed in April, 1992, began warring among themselves. But the development brought Afghanistan as a whole no closer to peace.

Since the Communists' fall, Afghanistan has been carved up by 10 rival militias. The rump government that Rabbani heads--dominated by Tajiks, one of the country's four large ethnic groups--can claim control of no more than one-third of the territory.

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