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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Taliban Won't Give Up Kandahar, Official Says

Afghanistan: 'We'll defend our nation,' spokesman for supreme leader declares. He denies movement is negotiating to surrender the city.

November 22, 2001|ALISSA J. RUBIN and TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SPIN BULDAK, Afghanistan — In a remarkable meeting with a large group of foreign journalists, a spokesman for the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, vowed that Kandahar would be defended and emphatically denied reports that negotiations were underway for the surrender of the movement's spiritual capital.

"This is propaganda," said Taib Agha, who traveled from Kandahar to meet more than 100 journalists in this border town 60 miles away. "We'll defend our nation, our religion and our people," said the 25-year-old spokesman, who used quiet but fluent English to make the movement's points.

His comments came amid reports that tightly guarded talks were indeed being held to broker the surrender of Kandahar, the Taliban's southern stronghold, according to sources both within the Taliban and with close ties to the movement.

The withdrawal of the Taliban from Kandahar would be seen as tantamount to its demise as a legitimate ruling force, so every move in that direction is both delicate and highly contentious within the movement.

Many are convinced that the negotiations hinge on the outcome of the Taliban battle in the northern city of Kunduz, where a large contingent of Taliban fighters is encircled by the troops of the Northern Alliance. The talks center also on the difficult problem of to whom to hand power.

Taliban sources interviewed here indicated that the movement is split: Hard-liners talk about fighting to the last man, but others see a future for themselves in Afghanistan. Among the hard-liners are said to be a limited number of foreign fighters from Arab countries, Chechnya and Pakistan who form the corps of troops most loyal to Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden Contact Lost Now, Regime Claims

During the course of Wednesday's news conference, Taib called Bin Laden a close friend of the Taliban and defended the movement's decision to offer him sanctuary. But Taib claimed that the Taliban hierarchy had lost contact with the Saudi exile in the weeks since the U.S.-led bombing campaign began Oct. 7.

The outcome of this power struggle will determine whether the Taliban chapter of this troubled country's history will end quietly, in a peaceful hand-over, or with more fighting and bloodshed. American special forces are known to be operating in the region around Kandahar.

Reports of the talks are so closely held that it is hard to tell how far they have progressed. However, the resolution of the situation in Kandahar is tightly linked to Kunduz, according to Taliban sources. The defeat or surrender of the Taliban forces in Kunduz would seriously weaken the hard-liners within the Taliban ranks who are said to be hanging on to the hope of a counteroffensive.

There were contradictory reports about conditions in Kandahar, with some describing the city as nearly empty and Taliban officials saying that the city was functioning normally. The truth appeared to lie somewhere in between.

"The common people are not in the city, but many fighters have come over the past week," said Hamdullah Hafeez, who held the job of deputy foreign secretary for the Taliban until it abandoned the national capital, Kabul, early last week.

No Taliban official was prepared to say how many of the movement's troops were in Kandahar. Hafeez talked of "more than 1,000," while Taib said simply, "There are enough."

Taliban officials and those with no direct connection to the movement claimed that there were few Arab, Chechen and other foreign fighters in the city.

"About 1% are foreigners," Hafeez said.

At least three figures engaged in the negotiations appear to be key to the future of southern Afghanistan. They include a wealthy opium smuggler, a former moujahedeen fighter and a tribal chief who served as a diplomat in Pakistan for several years. All have ties to the Taliban and are therefore trusted by its leaders, but they also support a loya jirga, the traditional tribal council used to pick a new leader.

Also in the mix is the man who has been the movement's supreme leader, Mullah Omar. Wednesday's news conference left little doubt that Omar favors fighting to hold on to Kandahar.

Of the three involved in the talks, the best known is opium smuggler Haji Basher, said to be one of the wealthiest men in Afghanistan. Like all the people involved in the discussions, his ties to the Taliban go back to the early days of the movement's rise to power. He drove Omar to Helmand province and introduced him to local commanders and government officials, giving Omar a needed access to a source of support.

"He gave Mullah Omar men and guns and money," said Abdul Samad, a 28-year-old opium smuggler who fought with the Taliban on several occasions during the past few years but left Afghanistan for Pakistan after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Taliban Links Seen as Aiding Opium Trade

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