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RESPONSE TO TERROR | IN THE BATTLE ZONE

Taliban Leader Plays Risky Endgame

Resistance: Alliance seems in no mood to dicker with a holdout who reneged on earlier deals. Nation's troubles appear far from over.

November 16, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — In the bare brown mountains of the Pushtun heartland, a top Taliban leader was holding out with hundreds of his fighters Thursday, waiting to see how much his enemies are willing to offer for his surrender.

Taliban commander Haji Ghulam Mohammed, who once lorded it over the fertile plains on the front north of Kabul, the Afghan capital, is making his last stand in the mountains overlooking this desert village, about 18 miles southwest of the Afghan capital.

Opposition Northern Alliance troops hoping to clear out the last pockets of Taliban resistance were running out of patience Thursday afternoon. Mohammed, it seems, has a habit of demanding large sums of money for defecting--and then reneging on the deal.

Over the last several years, Mohammed received at least $300,000 from the late Northern Alliance military chief Ahmed Shah Masoud, claimed the local alliance commander, Tawakal Shah, as he waited for the order to attack Taliban troops less than a mile away.

Mohammed took the cash but stayed with the Taliban until the bitter end. Now he's holed up with as many as 2,500 soldiers, looking for a deal sweetener, Shah said.

Final Demand for Commander's Surrender

But in what appeared to be the final days of the Taliban's rout on the battlefield, the alliance is no longer in the mood to dicker. It has demanded Mohammed's surrender three times in two days since its forces arrived here, and although the alliance doesn't particularly want to fight the commander, there won't be any more offers if he misses this one, insisted the 24-year-old Shah.

"On the one hand, he has committed atrocities, and on the other, he wants his personal benefit," Shah said, eating sugar-sprinkled thick cream from a tin bowl with a piece of flat bread. "We're trying to solve things peacefully. He should just save himself.

"He has some moujahedeen [holy warriors] with him, so it is dangerous for him. He'll be killed. We will start attacking him, and so will others from his own ranks."

Officially, Shah said that the only deal the commander can expect is to walk out alive. But given his past and the history of Afghan conflicts, Mohammed is probably demanding a small share of post-Taliban spoils in this region that is an important smuggling route.

Shah is a Pushtun, the main Afghan ethnic group that gave birth to the Taliban, but he belongs to the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by minority Tajiks and Uzbeks. Today, he thinks that the end of almost 23 years of continuous fighting is near.

"The war will end soon, I think, on condition that foreigners let it," he said.

But even as the Taliban regime appeared to be on the run, there were disturbing hints in this land of shifting alliances and ethnic hatreds that Afghanistan's troubles are far from over--and that fiercely independent Pushtuns led by tribal chiefs would be difficult to control even in peacetime.

Hazara Troops Reported to Be Headed for Kabul

Although Kabul remained calm Thursday as Northern Alliance troops and police patrolled the capital, there were reports that about 1,000 Hazara troops were headed for the city from Bamian province to protect their ethnic kin.

The Hazaras, who have been the victims of some of the worst massacres in a generation of Afghan war, are also accused of ruthless killings, such as torture deaths when some of the factions now in charge in Kabul fought for control of the capital in the early 1990s.

If Hazara troops do set up positions in Kabul, it would trigger a danger signal that the capital is dividing along factional lines. The Northern Alliance's political and military commanders insist that won't happen and say they want a broad-based government. But as negotiations drag on, the risks mount.

Before Kabul fell, the alliance said it wasn't planning to move into the capital, and then it swiftly did. And before Taliban forces fled into their Pushtun power base south and east of Kabul, the opposition said it wouldn't pursue them. It has.

At the last Kabul checkpoint on the road to the eastern city of Jalalabad, Northern Alliance troops said Thursday morning that the road was clear all the way and that Jalalabad was firmly in opposition control.

But several miles farther along the Jalalabad road, a pickup truck full of Northern Alliance troops, several of whom looked like Taliban defectors with their long beards and turbans, flagged down a journalist's car. There was still fighting in the town of Sarowbi, about 40 miles east of Kabul, they warned.

Here on the road to the Taliban's spiritual capital, Kandahar, the Northern Alliance wasn't firmly in control in the area surrounding Maidan Shahr either.

Welayat Khan, 70, said Taliban troops fired down from a ridge overlooking his desolate farm Thursday morning.

Taliban forces on the closest side of the ridge had all come over to the Northern Alliance side, but those on the far side were still holding out with Mohammed, according to Khan and nearby alliance soldiers.

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