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RESPONSE TO TERROR

To Taliban Forces, White Flags Often Aren't

Military: Alliance finds itself double-crossed by enemy troops who had promised to defect.

November 23, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — Northern Alliance troops felt the sting of a Taliban double-cross Thursday in the hills outside Kabul, when soldiers who had promised to surrender fought a pitched battle instead.

One of the alliance's front-line generals, Haji Sher Alam, had begun negotiating with senior Taliban commander Haji Ghulam Mohammed 10 days earlier, just hours after Kabul, the Afghan capital, fell to Northern Alliance control.

Taliban fighters in three villages about 18 miles southwest of Kabul had promised Alam that they would give up and support an alliance offensive against Taliban holdouts, he said. The general ordered his men to advance at 8 a.m. Thursday, believing that the Taliban forces who had once threatened his left flank were now allies.

"They didn't abide by the promises to surrender, and they made us fight. . . . They told a lie," Alam said in a roadside interview as the battle raged about three miles away.

The sudden turn of events, at a strategic crossroads that has seen many fierce battles in nearly 23 years of war, showed how dangerous Taliban forces still are--and how little their word is worth as the extreme Islamist fighters face defeat.

It also proved what many here had feared: After more than a week of rapid advances by Northern Alliance troops, pockets of tough resistance remain in various parts of the country, and not just from Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters defending Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south.

Even if the Northern Alliance manages to break that resistance, the Taliban forces and their allies in Osama bin Laden's terrorist network could drag out the war for months, or possibly years, with hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.

Taliban forces are planning to launch conventional offensives near Herat, northwest along a main highway from Kandahar, the Taliban's southern stronghold, according to Alam.

"And they think they can tie us up by starting more fighting near here," he said.

Defections by key Taliban commanders and their troops, prompted by massive U.S. airstrikes, have been crucial to the alliance's lightning advances across Afghanistan. But both defections and airstrikes failed the alliance Thursday on this critical front southwest of Kabul.

Alam said he had expected that U.S. bombers would come to his aid as he tried to advance through the Sare Maktab hills and toward the city of Ghazni, but the jets passed the alliance forces by.

Ghazni is the next main stop on the highway southwest to Kandahar, where Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is still believed to be holding out. He has repeatedly said he will not surrender.

"We've asked for bombing through the [Northern Alliance] Defense Ministry authorities, and they had promised us that they would start it this morning," Alam said Thursday after waiting several hours for U.S. airstrikes that never came.

"We need bombing because, behind this front line, there are Taliban forces as far as Kandahar. And they are all local armed people," the general added.

The signature vapor trails of huge B-52 Stratofortress bombers crossed the horizon far behind the Taliban lines several times during Thursday's fighting, but the bombers headed onward, apparently to other targets.

Alam said he also wasn't getting help on the ground from ethnic Hazara soldiers, who form a faction of the fractured Northern Alliance. The Hazara soldiers failed to attack the Taliban on another flank, the general said.

Alam said his troops managed to kill several Taliban soldiers, knock out a truck mounted with an antiaircraft gun and seize three Taliban posts. The alliance forces suffered three casualties but took no prisoners, the general added.

By 2:45 p.m. Thursday, almost seven hours after the start of what was supposed to be a decisive ground battle, Alam ordered his front-line tanks to retreat down a ridge as his troops regrouped for another planned offensive today.

Mohammed, the Taliban commander, has a reputation for breaking battlefield promises.

Though negotiations for his surrender were in their early stages last week, one of Alam's commanders, Tawakal Shah, said Mohammed had received three payments totaling at least $300,000 over the last several years to defect with his forces. But the Taliban general took the money and kept fighting, Shah said.

Now Mohammed is up to his old tricks, according to Alam's radio operator and chief bodyguard, who goes by one name, Allauddin.

Mohammed, who Shah said is commanding as many as 2,500 Afghan and foreign Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, wants $200,000 to $300,000 in exchange for his surrender, according to Allauddin.

But Alam denied that Mohammed was holding out for more money and suggested that the Taliban commander might be under pressure from foreign fighters.

The general added that some people speaking over Taliban radios, on which alliance fighters can easily eavesdrop, have Kandahari accents, suggesting that the Taliban's high command may be directing the fighting just outside Kabul.

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