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Afghanistan: Seizure Of Kabul Catches World By Surprise

  • Alexandra Poolos

Northern Alliance opposition troops entered the Afghan capital Kabul early today after a retreat by Taliban forces. The move, which culminates a recent sweep of alliance victories, is in apparent defiance of international requests for the opposition group to remain outside Kabul until the terms of a broad-based government could be worked out. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos examines the significance of the opposition's latest military success.

Prague, 13 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When Northern Alliance troops entered Kabul early this morning, they came with bright red flowers in their guns amid cheers from local citizens.

Despite local and foreign anticipation that the Taliban would staunchly defend the Afghan capital, which they have held since 1996, the ruling militia simply packed up late last night and headed farther south towards Kandahar. Their retreat followed U.S. air strikes on Taliban front lines to the north of Kabul yesterday.

The withdrawal of the Taliban was met with joyful celebration in Kabul, with reports of local men heading to the barber to have their beards cut and music blaring from radios for the first time in years.

One local man told a television news crew that people see the retreat of the Taliban from Kabul as a positive development for all of Afghanistan.

"Today we are very happy that our [Northern Alliance] brothers came and the Taliban was defeated in our country. And I hope everything [will get better]. But right now -- like in previous years -- there is a very bad situation [in Afghanistan]. But things will get better. And people, I think, know that. People are very happy about this situation because the Taliban was very serious about Islam. Islam has a very good origin, but the Taliban used Islam in a bad way."

Ahmed Rashid, Afghan expert and correspondent for the "Far East Economic Review," says that the Taliban withdrawal is not that surprising.

"Ever since the fall of Mazar [-i-Sharif on 9 November] it's been very clear that the Taliban have wanted now to retreat back into their heartland in the south of the country. The problem has been that the retreat in most places has been a rout, because of the overhead bombing by U.S. forces and the fact that they were unable to reach assembly points and retreat properly. So the organized retreat has turned into a rout. What you have now is a more orderly retreat from Kabul. They managed to get their heavy weapons out -- their tanks and their armor. But of course even this is going to be bombed by U.S. forces on the road now down to Kandahar, where they are escaping."

Rashid says it's unlikely the Taliban will attempt to retake Kabul: "There's no chance now of a counterattack. I think the strategy now is to break up into smaller groups in the south of the country, abandon the cities -- even Kandahar perhaps. And then take to the mountains and carry out guerrilla war against both the Americans and the United Front [Northern Alliance]."

The capture of Kabul and other opposition gains across Afghanistan could help facilitate the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born fugitive who is wanted in connection with the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington. Rashid says bin Laden and his Taliban protectors are running out of places to hide in Afghanistan.

"I think it's going to make the hunt all the much easier. The fact is now that bin Laden and the Taliban are restricted to a much smaller area. They're going to come under increasing scrutiny by the air cover as well as on the ground by the anti-Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan. So it's going to make the whole business of trying to find Osama bin Laden very much easier."

The sudden retreat of the Taliban could create a power vacuum in the Afghan capital -- creating a difficult situation for the U.S. in its month-old air campaign against the country. The U.S. had recently urged the Northern Alliance to stay out of Kabul until a temporary government was set up to govern the city.

Just yesterday, senior alliance officials repeated pledges not to battle their way into the capital, saying they would stop at the city's outskirts in hopes of averting civilian casualties and easing an accord for a broad-based government comprising the country's diverse political and ethnic factions.

But alliance officials said the unexpected Taliban retreat made it necessary for them to enter Kabul to maintain order. An Afghan opposition leader, Yousin Qanooni, is quoted today as saying the alliance has no plans to rule the country. He says it plans only to maintain security and suppress criminal activity in Kabul.

The fear is that history will repeat itself in Kabul. Before the Taliban officially took control of the capital city in 1996, commanders who are now loosely unified under the Northern Alliance were battling it out between themselves as warlords. These commanders had worked together to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but when it came to controlling Kabul they fought each other in battles across the city that killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Rashid says that despite these bad memories, there are many ethnic groups in Kabul who align themselves with the Northern Alliance: "Well, it's a mixed reaction. Many people do have very bad memories of the last time the Northern Alliance ruled the city. But at the same time, Kabul is a multiethnic city -- there's a lot of support for the Northern Alliance amongst the Tajiks, the Hazaras, and other minority ethnic groups who live there and have been very badly oppressed by the Taliban."

But while some locals may be cheering on the streets of Kabul, foreign leaders and former Afghan officials are not exactly pleased with the entrance of Northern Alliance troops.

There was no immediate reaction from Washington, but British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon cautioned against the Northern Alliance taking power wholesale in Kabul.

Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan said today that Pakistan does not want Northern Alliance troops to "occupy" Kabul: "Pakistan holds to the view that the Northern Alliance forces must not occupy Kabul. Pakistan would like to see an early return to durable peace and stability to Afghanistan. Past experience has already demonstrated that no single group or faction can bring peace to the country."

Sattar Sirat, an aide to former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah -- who, with the Northern Alliance, forms the keystone of a likely post-Taliban government -- accused the opposition group of breaking a deal with the exiled monarch by entering Kabul. He voiced fears for the safety of the capital's residents.

"This is an event that is very new for us and unexpected because we consulted [with the Northern Alliance] and there was a united front -- Kabul should be demilitarized and no one should enter Kabul, and the administration in Kabul should come under the [control] of a high council representing the whole Afghan nation and under a political process."

Rashid argues that despite these anxieties, the appearance of Northern Alliance troops in Kabul is a good thing: "It's too late now for the United States to say anything. What has happened has happened. Once it became clear last night that the Taliban were retreating from Kabul, there was no way the United Front was going to stand and wait for the Americans to do something, or for the Americans to put together a government. There was going to be a horrendous vacuum. Already we're hearing reports of looting and other such problems in Kabul. It would probably have been much worse if the Northern Alliance had not gone in."

But the Northern Alliance's success in keeping the peace is dubious. A UN official said today that there are reports of reprisal killings across Mazar-i-Sharif, including a mass execution this weekend of 100 young Taliban soldiers who were hiding in a warehouse.

The UN refugee agency today called on the alliance to show "restraint" toward Afghan civilians. UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond, speaking in Geneva today, said that the agency "does not want to see another Afghan exodus."

But there are already signs that Kabul may be falling into the patchwork divisions that led to widespread civil war when the same groups took over from the Soviet-installed government in 1992. News agencies report that within hours of the Northern Alliance's entry into the city, Kabul was already being split up along ethnic lines. Reports said fighters loyal to ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani had taken over the center of the city, while the Shiite Hezb-i-Wahdat group had taken the southwest.