ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The ultra-orthodox army of the Taliban, known for its draconian interpretations of Islamic law, appears headed for decisive victory in its four-year battle for control of Afghanistan.
In the past two weeks, Taliban fighters have rolled over the last strongholds of rebel forces in the northern reaches of the country. The Taliban now have all but a few pockets in northeastern and central Afghanistan that the rebels, known as the Northern Alliance, still control. On Friday, the Taliban seemed poised to take those last redoubts too.
"Surrender or face retaliation," Noorullah Zadran, spokesman for the Taliban, said Friday.
If the Taliban can consolidate its latest conquests--which is by no means certain--it will represent the first time that the fundamentalist movement has gained sway over all the major cities of Afghanistan. Even if their fighters impose a harsh peace, it will be the first the country has known since the years before the invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979.
And two decades after they confronted each other over Afghanistan, Washington and Moscow share a growing alarm over the outcome of an uncommonly nasty war that threatens to destabilize the country's Central Asian neighbors. An estimated 100,000 people have died and about 1 million Afghans have been forced into exile during a war that has left the nation impoverished and destroyed.
The latest chapter of the conflict, begun after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989, has pitted ethnic Pushtuns, who make up the majority of the Taliban, against ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras. Taliban fighters took the Afghan capital, Kabul, in 1996 and imposed a strict form of Islamic rule that touches nearly every aspect of daily life.
Meanwhile, the battle-hardened warlords of the Northern Alliance, a motley collection of former Communists, anti-Communists and moderate Muslims, vowed to continue the struggle.
"The occupation of certain parts of Afghanistan will by no means imply that the independence of Afghanistan has been destroyed," said Haroun Amin, a spokesman for the Northern Alliance at the United Nations. "We will continue the struggle even if it calls for guerrilla war."
Seeking Recognition From the West
The remnants of their armies, thought to total about 40,000 fighters, were concentrated in the Panjsher Valley northeast of the Afghan capital and in the mountains of central Afghanistan. There were unconfirmed reports that large numbers of rebel troops had defected to the Taliban and that the rebel leaders--former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmed Shah Masoud, and Abdul Rashid Dostum--had fled the country.
Taliban representatives said Friday that their victories demonstrated their mastery over Afghanistan and entitled them to diplomatic recognition from the West, regardless of their poor record on human rights.
"We now control 95% of Afghanistan," said Zadran, spokesman for the Taliban in New York. "We control all the major cities in the country. Where is the justice and fairness?"
The Taliban have been accorded diplomatic recognition by only three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Other nations, including the United States, have refused to grant such distinction, citing the Taliban's record on human rights.
The bearded mullahs who run Afghanistan bar women from working, studying, driving or walking alone. They regularly stage public amputations and executions in the Kabul Sports Stadium. The Taliban also provide a haven to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi national who is linked to an array of anti-American attacks on four continents since 1990 and is now under suspicion in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Indeed, the Taliban triumph represents a major setback for U.S. interests in the former Cold War battleground. April's last-ditch U.S. effort by U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson to reach a political settlement that would give Afghanistan's disparate opposition a political voice has now formally failed. And along with it, hopes that Washington could persuade the Taliban to stop harboring Bin Laden have been dashed,
"Before, we had a bit of leverage," said a senior administration official. "Now we have virtually none."
The Taliban began their remarkable military run two weeks ago, when they swept across Afghanistan's northern steppes and into the Northern Alliance cities of Andkhvoy and Sheberghan. From there, with a force estimated to number as many as 20,000, they rolled through the main rebel stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif. Then they fanned out, capturing Taloqan, Pol-i-Khomri and Hairatan, where they stopped at the border with Uzbekistan.
There were unconfirmed reports that the Taliban had committed atrocities against the civilian population there. On Thursday, Russian officials charged the Taliban with committing an "ethnic massacre."
Taliban officials deny the charge but have so far refused to let any Western journalists into newly occupied areas.
Sweeping Advances Alarm the Region