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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Taliban Appears Divided on How to Play Endgame

Negotiations: Outcome in Kandahar could determine whether tribal struggle follows hand-over of power.

November 18, 2001|ALISSA J. RUBIN and TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

QUETTA, Pakistan — After nearly a week of wholesale retreat across Afghanistan, Taliban leaders and their hard-core supporters holed up in the southern city of Kandahar appear divided over whether to negotiate a surrender or fight to the end.

The Taliban and southern tribal leaders reportedly are in tense negotiations over terms of a Taliban hand-over of power.

The outcome could determine whether the U.S.-led military campaign ends in a straightforward transition to post-Taliban rule or in jockeying for power among tribal groups.

Reports just 24 hours ago that the Taliban had handed over power in Kandahar to tribal leaders were premature, and the reality on the ground is far less clear.

In the last few days, many Taliban soldiers have fled to Kandahar from elsewhere in Afghanistan, raising the tough question of where they will go if forced to leave the city.

Some Afghan Taliban could return to their homes, but areas controlled by the Northern Alliance may bar others. And fighters from Arab countries have nowhere to go if the Taliban gives up Kandahar--they would be targets for both the Americans and anti-Taliban Pushtuns who have long wanted Arab fighters to leave the country.

And that means there are splits over strategy in the Taliban ranks.

Further complicating matters is that the proposed hand-over could give power to commanders with strong Taliban ties and questionable records.

Among the names that surfaced, Haji Basher is described as one of the biggest opium smugglers in Afghanistan and a financier of the Taliban regime; another figure, Hafiz Majid, was a former chief of security for the Taliban. A third proposed leader, Mullah Naquibullah, is a popular commander from the period when the Afghans were fighting the Soviets and is reported to be the most popular of the three.

It is far from clear that a broad base of Pushtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan and a large majority of the people in southern Afghanistan, support these leaders as anything more than an interim group. That raises questions about whether there would be skirmishing among the factions as soon as the Taliban leaves.

A senior United Nations official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a struggle for power over all the Pushtun areas will cause trouble for a long time.

In the short term, however, Pushtuns agree on one point: They want to free the country of the Taliban.

"I think this will settle quickly," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a regional specialist at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "These tribal leaders understand each other and the importance of staying together at this time."

Abdul Malik, a top lieutenant to Hamid Karzai, an anti-Taliban Pushtun leader who now controls a province north of Kandahar, agreed that at least the tribal leaders share the short-term goal of getting rid of the Taliban, and that is hard enough to achieve.

"The country is going through a really critical time, and the first thing is the survival of the people and ending the Taliban government, and this is one objective that we all have," he said.

"Later we can solve some of the other things, after a loya jirga," he added, referring to the traditional tribal council that chooses new leaders.

Taliban efforts to broker a deal with local Pushtun elders and tribal leaders about the turnover of Kandahar reportedly started five to six days ago as their forces began to retreat throughout much of northern Afghanistan.

The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, is said to have played an important role as an emissary in the negotiations.

"Zaeef went to Kandahar but stopped in Quetta and has met with these tribal leaders and [former moujahedeen] commanders," said Mohammed Tahir Khan, a senior Pakistani journalist who knows Zaeef well. "They all discussed the same thing: handing over power."

Others privy to the talks described them as "very tense."

The Taliban reportedly is ready to turn over the city if its many fighters now in Kandahar are spared.

Discussions about handing over Kandahar are especially difficult for the Taliban. At an emotional level, the city has served as a spiritual home for the movement since it first became a political force seven years ago. It is the home of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the religious leader of the Taliban and one of the figures who has rallied the movement's supporters to embrace the strictest form of Islam. He has also been the most vocal Afghan protector of Saudi militant Osama bin Laden.

People in touch with those in Kandahar say the Taliban has split into three factions: the Arabs, who oppose surrender because it means they would have nowhere to go; the Taliban members who are willing to raise the white flag; and a third group in the middle that is unenthusiastic about the prospect of withdrawal but not terribly eager about provoking a battle.

According to tribal sources, the negotiator for the Taliban is Osmani, a Taliban commander close to Omar. Like many Afghans, he uses just one name.

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