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Afghanistan: As Kandahar Surrenders, Is Political Accord Unraveling?

  • Bruce Pannier

The last stronghold of the Taliban -- the southern Afghan city of Kandahar -- is falling. Reports from the region say the Taliban intends to surrender its weapons and relinquish control of its spiritual home to Afghan tribal leaders tomorrow. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction is already emerging among some anti-Taliban factions with yesterday's political accord on a future Afghan government.

Prague, 6 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Taliban announced today it is surrendering the last major Afghan city under its control -- Kandahar.

The announcement today came after reports claiming Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was in talks with a Pashtun commander, Mullah Naqibullah, to surrender the city. The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, announced the surrender late today.

"Today we agreed to surrender Kandahar and other places peacefully to the leaders of tribes, not to [Hamid] Karzai and other ones. Both sides -- Karzai and the Taliban authorities -- have agreed to surrender Kandahar for the welfare of the people."

Zaeef said the Taliban will start surrendering its weapons to Naqibullah, a famous mujahedin commander from the days of the Soviet occupation. Naqibullah will be in Kandahar tomorrow.

Speaking from near Kandahar, Karzai -- selected yesterday to head an interim Afghan government -- said the surrender of the city will start tomorrow. "The Taliban leadership have decided to surrender Kandahar, Helmand, and Zabul to me, and in return we offered them amnesty and they can go to their homes safe, without any trouble." Karzai could not say when the surrender of the city -- considered the Taliban's spiritual home -- will be completed.

Zaeef said part of the surrender deal includes assurances that Mullah Omar's life will be spared and that he will be allowed to "live with dignity." But Karzai added that the fate of Mullah Omar depends on the Taliban leader publicly denouncing foreign Taliban fighters as terrorists.

"Mullah Omar must distance himself completely from terrorism, from the presence of foreign terrorists in Afghanistan. He must condemn terrorism in Afghanistan. He must acknowledge that these terrorists have ruined Afghanistan and killed the Afghan people and have hurt the international community. If he doesn't do that, he will not be safe."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld late today ruled out any surrender deal for Kandahar that allows Mullah Omar to remain free.

Equally in doubt is the fate of foreign fighters in Afghanistan. Karzai called them "criminals," but refused to discuss the issue further, saying only the fighters must leave the country. He did not specify how these foreign fighters will find a safe route out of Afghanistan.

The commanders of the anti-Taliban forces around Kandahar are calling for a cease-fire. Qayyum Jan, a spokesman for former Kandahar governor Gul Agha, said he had talked to commanders who said there will be no more fighting today because of the talks.

On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, the ink was barely dry on the Afghan interim government agreement before problems started.

Less than 24 hours after representatives from four Afghan groups signed the agreement outside Bonn, Germany, two leading figures in Afghan politics rejected the terms of the agreement, which forms a six-month interim government that will help pave the way for eventual national elections.

In northern Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum said today he intends to boycott the new government, which is supposed to take power on 22 December, while in Pakistan, Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, the head of the so-called Peshawar group, also rejected the agreement. He says the division of power among Afghanistan's ethnic groups is nearly the same as existed under the regime of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who ruled Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996, one of the bloodiest periods during more than two decades of fighting in Afghanistan.

Gailani was diplomatic about his objections and says he hopes the situation will improve: "As a whole, I considered this development a useful one for Afghanistan and its future. It is a good thing that the United Nations has taken practical steps towards the solution of the Afghan crisis, although the new setup is not so balanced."

While Gailani's comment indicates he may try to find common ground with the future Afghan government, Dostum seems much more difficult to placate. Dostum is quoted by Reuters as saying the agreement makes him "very sad."

Observers say Dostum has made a career of allying himself only with those who offer him some advantage. He was an ally of the Soviet army, then turned on the communist Afghan government that remained when Soviet troops withdrew. He then joined Rabbani, who eventually became president of Afghanistan.

Not long after Rabbani assumed power, Dostum turned on him also, and the greatest destruction done to Kabul in more than two decades of war came in large part during battles between Dostum's forces and those of Rabbani's defense minister, Ahmad Shah Massoud, between 1992 and 1996.

Dostum joined with Massoud when the Taliban ousted Rabbani and his government from Kabul in September 1996.

Dostum has ruled Mazar-i-Sharif and large sections of northern Afghanistan as his own personal kingdom for most of the last two decades. He was not given any post in the new government and may now feel he could lose the near-total control he exercised over his region prior to its capture by the Taliban in 1998.

Further south in Afghanistan, the U.S. announced yesterday that three of its servicemen had been killed. The friendly fire incident happened when a B-52 seeking to target enemy Taliban forces missed and dropped its ordnance too close to opposition forces and their American advisers north of Kandahar.

At a Pentagon briefing, Department of Defense spokesman Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem explained the difficulty of using air power in such a situation: "You also need to appreciate that as a close air-support mission, this is potentially one of the most hazardous type of missions that we use as a military tactic. Calling in air strikes nearly simultaneously on your own position, on enemy forces that you are engaged in close proximity to, is a hazardous business and takes very fine control and coordination and precision."

Besides the three U.S. fatalities, another 20 U.S. servicemen were reported wounded, as well as troops from the Northern Alliance. Karzai was also slightly wounded in the incident.

Just over the Afghan border to the north, Uzbekistan's government said today it may soon open the "Friendship Bridge" leading into Afghanistan. The bridge was closed in 1998 when the Taliban captured the territory on the Afghan side of the border. Humanitarian aid organizations have been asking the Uzbek government to re-open the bridge, which would speed up badly needed humanitarian shipments to areas in northern Afghanistan.

Russian border guards are reportedly building a pontoon bridge across the Pyanj River, which divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan, also to speed aid into Afghanistan. The construction is being funded by the German government.