Prague, 25 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - The Taliban Islamic militia's overnight seizure of the eastern Afghan city of Sarobi is its latest, and perhaps most important, triumph in a three-week-old offensive.
Stymied in its 11-month siege of the capital Kabul, Taliban early this month turned some of its forces toward areas further east. It first took the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman and Kunar, giving it control of some two-thirds of the country.
But, analysts say, Taliban's capture of Sarobi is a more significant breakthrough in its efforts to overthrow the Kabul-based government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Before Sarobi fell, one Western military analyst said that, in his words, "the fate of Kabul could rest on" the battle for Sarobi.
Some 70 kms east of the capital, Sarobi had been the long-time base of the Prime Minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, of the Kabul-based regime and his Hezb-e-Islami forces. Hekmatyar was brought into the government in June by President Rabbani specifically to help thwart the Taliban.
The government had moved forces to protect Sarobi, which controls access to the Tagab Valley leading to the government's only functioning airbase at Bagram, 50 kms north of Kabul. Analysts say the loss of Bagram would be disastrous for the Kabul regime. Taliban officials say their forces are now heading into the valley and advancing on the airbase. They say they are also preparing to step up attacks on Kabul itself.
In addition to Sarobi, Taliban claims it has captured the nearby Naghlu Dam and hydro-electric plant. Government sources acknowledge the loss of Sarobi, but deny that the plant, the country's largest electric generating facility, has been lost.
Taliban emerged from Sunni Muslim schools in the south of neighboring Pakistan some 22 months ago. Made up mostly of ethnic Pushtuns, who are the single largest ethnic group in Afghanistan's diverse population, Taliban made significant gains in its first battles in the south.
Initially, Kabul welcomed its entry into the fractious infighting among the country's Islamic forces, calling the Taliban, quote "an Islamic and humane effort." That all changed as the militia made further gains, first reaching the gates of Kabul in early 1995. Not long after, Taliban suffered its first major defeat at the hands of troops loyal to Rabbani.
The Taliban has argued all along that it is different from other factions in Afghanistan, which turned upon each other after forcing the country's communist government from power in 1992. Taliban says the other factions are driven by a thirst for power while it is fighting for "peace, security and stability," an appeal likely to be popular with Afghanistan's war weary populace.
Taliban's idea of stability includes adopting a stricter interpretation of Islamic law. In areas under its control, Taliban has barred women from working except in health care and has ended schooling for girls. It is also carrying out executions and amputations as punishment for crimes and has moved against music, television, and some sporting events, including football.
Analysts say that while Taliban enjoys a good deal of popular support in areas under its control, its image both at home and abroad has been damaged by its shelling of Kabul. In one assault in June, more than 50 civilians were killed.
Aside from Taliban and the Rabanni government, the third major force in the country is the northern-based Junbish-i-Milli militia under General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
As Taliban has gained in strength, Kabul has attempted to negotiate with Dostum, who was allied with Rabanni until 1994.
A Dostum spokesman, Fateh Mohammad, said that Dostum is meeting today in the Uzbek capital Tashkent with an Afghan government delegation, led by Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni.
The spokesman could not provide details on the talks, but said Dostum had earlier pledged he would not support a Taliban attack on Kabul.
Analysts say Dostum may be persuaded to actively back Rabbani in order to block Taliban, since Taliban views Dostum, once a communist general in charge in the north during Soviet occupation, with disdain.