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RESPONSE TO TERROR | IN THE BATTLE ZONE

Airstrikes, Negotiations Mix at Front

War: Fighting ebbs in Kunduz as talks with Taliban continue, but Alliance soldiers don't expect surrender.

November 21, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHOGHA, Afghanistan — The front line stretches across an oatmeal-brown mudscape, down one hill to the south and up another to the north. In the no man's land below lie the waffled foundations of what used to be the village of Chogha.

Above hangs a freezing fog that screens the city of Kunduz, about 20 miles away, where as many as 30,000 Taliban fighters are making their last stand in northern Afghanistan.

At least three times Tuesday,

B-52 airstrikes thundered behind the veil of fog, through which figures slowly appeared--turbaned men carrying babies, women in billowing burkas and the occasional overburdened donkey.

Some of the women were walking from Kunduz in high-heeled street shoes. Some of the children hobbled barefoot.

"This has been a front line many times," said platoon commander Taj Mohammed, squatting and clutching a radio as he and his Northern Alliance fighters watched the scene from atop a strategic hill. "I hope this is the last time."

Several days ago, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance opened negotiations with the Taliban holdouts, urging them to surrender or face Islamic justice.

Pentagon Willing to Halt Bombing for Talks

Gen. Mohammed Daud, commander of the Kunduz front, said Tuesday that he harbors little hope the hard-core Taliban fighters, most of them non-Afghans, will lay down their weapons without a fight. So he is preparing for one.

"If the foreign Taliban do not surrender, they should be killed," he told reporters. But for the moment, with negotiations underway, the pace of fighting has ebbed.

As the Northern Alliance spread across northern Afghanistan this month, Taliban fighters retreated to Kunduz, a province dominated by the ethnic Pushtun, from which the Taliban draws much of its support.

In recent days, the Northern Alliance has made some territorial gains, according to militia spokesman Zubair in the regional center of Taloqan, but still controls less than half of Kunduz province. Defections have sapped the Taliban's numbers, but he estimated that there are still about 30,000 in the province.

In Afghanistan's south, another stubborn standoff continued in the Taliban headquarters of Kandahar, but no solution short of continued bloodshed has emerged, said Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

With no guarantee of free passage or escape, the outside Taliban fighters have reportedly pledged to make Kunduz and Kandahar their last stand.

As gun battles and clandestine negotiations coincided, 65 warplanes continued to pound cave and tunnel complexes near the cities, Stufflebeem said. The Pentagon would be willing to halt bombing in the region during negotiations if asked to by allies, Stufflebeem said, but added that the anti-Taliban fighters appeared content to allow U.S. bombers to continue the pressure.

Alliance Playing Its Card Slowly in Kunduz

Pentagon officials also said they had no reports that Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda terrorist network leader blamed for planning the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, had been killed or captured. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Chicago radio station that if Bin Laden sought to flee Afghanistan, he would be "shot down if he tries to leave by air or we'll find him in some other country."

The United States has tended to avoid targeting front-line positions near Kunduz to minimize the risk of a stray bomb hitting the Northern Alliance. So most of the Taliban fighters are clustered along the front, said Zubair, the alliance spokesman.

Some of those Taliban fired heavy machine guns briefly Tuesday morning at the hill above Chogha, sending several news crews scurrying for shelter. But within the hour, things were so peaceful that the only gunfire was from Northern Alliance troops taking potshots at geese flying overhead.

"The Taliban cannot fight anymore," said Taj, the platoon commander. "They have nothing left to fight with."

Taj wrapped himself in an olive-colored blanket, which set off his eerily pale blue eyes. He and his men shivered in the damp cold. Winter weather had arrived suddenly, with temperatures near freezing and the skies so overcast that the number of B-52 bombing runs dropped from the daily average of several dozen to a few.

The sudden chill was a reminder that the arriving winter will probably freeze the battle lines until spring. That increases pressure on the alliance to resolve the standoff in Kunduz as quickly as possible.

Still, the alliance seems to be playing its card slowly in Kunduz. After giving the Taliban two days to surrender, and then extending the deadline by a day, Daud said he was willing to keep talking until the end of the week.

What the Northern Alliance hopes to do in coming days is more deeply divide the foreign Taliban from the local ones, Daud said. The foreigners are Arabs, Pakistanis and others recruited to fight in Afghanistan by Bin Laden. The locals are Afghanis who served the Taliban but are not the same kind of do-or-die fighters.

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