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Afghanistan: The Taliban Take Control

Prague, 26 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Less than one week after a revolt by one of his commanders, General Abdul Rashid Dostum's headquarters has been overrun by both the mutineers and the Taliban.

General Dostum is in Turkey and the other forces in the anti-Taliban coalition are under attack, or, perhaps, already subdued. Reactions from Afghanistan's neighbors ranged from alarm to lack of concern, but it now seems Taliban is in control of 90 percent of the country.

Last week, May 17, one of Dostum's commanders, Abdul Malik, started the revolt in Faryab Province. As it spread and Dostum turned his forces toward the mutineers, the Taliban began their own offensive. By Saturday, May 24, Dostum returned from the battlefield to his headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif, and after a short stay to consult with his military commanders, the General left in a jeep convoy. There had been defections in his air force, so Dostum may have felt the skies were not safe.

Dostum and some family members reached the border with Uzbekistan reportedly around midnight, and by 7 a.m. Sunday morning he was in Ankara, Turkey. By that time Mazar-i-Sharif had been under Taliban control for several hours. Their capture of the city was apparently bloodless. Also by Sunday, Dostum's four northern provinces were reported to have been overrun, and Taliban forces were heading east to engage the last areas of resistance.

Earlier, on Saturday May 24, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov warned that any incursion by Taliban forces onto CIS territory would activate "the mechanism of the CIS Collective Security Treaty," and Russia alone would provide "very tough and effective actions."

Closer to Afghanistan, Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov called an emergency session of the country's border guard command, the defense and security ministries, and the security council. Uzbekistan announced it was reinforcing its border with Afghanistan. Traffic crossing the border from the Afghanistan side was briefly halted. These two countries, along with Kyrgyzstan, are bracing for waves of refugees. Turkmenistan, which has bordered Taliban-controlled territories for some time now, said it "did not expect any complications," and noted it has not joined any CIS military agreements.

On May 25, Pakistan became the first country to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and called on other nations to do the same. Iran however declined, preferring to wait until the United Nations had made its judgment.

Initial reports from Mazar-i-Sharif indicate little change. As of May 25 the bulk of forces occupying the city were those of the mutineer Abdul Malik. Malik was already preparing the people there for the entry of more Taliban forces, and the imposition of the Taliban?s strict version of Shariat Islamic law. The Russian and Turkish consulates in Mazar-i-Sharif have been evacuated, but the U.N. refugee program headquarters, though ransacked, continues to function.

Radio broadcasts from Islamabad claim Afghanistan's ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani has fled to either Tajikistan or Iran. These broadcasts also claim several more of the anti-Taliban coalition commanders have gone over to the Taliban and are urging Rabanni's military chief, and last significant hold out against the Taliban, Ahmed Shah Masoud, to do the same.

Taliban forces are reported to be advancing into the eastern provinces and the central Bamiyan Province, the last areas not under Taliban control.

The Taliban would like to have Masoud join their cause voluntarily for several reasons. First, he is a capable and legendary commander in Afghanistan since the days of the Soviet occupation. The Taliban also have less of a problem in allying with Masoud than they did with Dostum, whom they constantly referred to as a Communist, hinting at Dostum's ties to Moscow during and after the Soviet occupation. And perhaps most significantly, Masoud is an ethnic Tajik.

One of the reasons Pakistan gave for recognizing the Taliban government at this juncture was because the Taliban, "genuinely comprises various ethnic groups in Afghanistan," which may simply be a reference to Abdul Malik's ethnic Uzbek origins. An alliance with Masoud may go far in bringing Tajik-majority areas under Taliban control without bloodshed and there are more than six-million Tajiks in Afghanistan.

The Taliban's capture of these northern provinces came as suddenly as their success at capturing Kabul last September. Prior to Abdul Malik's mutiny, it appeared a long, bloody campaign would last at least through the Summer. How control is maintained in these regions is now the big question.

The Taliban, mainly ethnic Pushtuns, now find themselves in areas where few Pushtuns live. The majority peoples in the north are Tajiks, Uzbeks and other groups with potentially sympathetic CIS states close at hand. Tajikistan has already expressed interest in the conditions for its refugees who are suddenly now living in Taliban territory. The peoples of these areas are generally better educated than in the south. The Taliban will likely take a different course in ruling these areas than they have in the southern regions, possibly more liberal, or, perhaps, much more authoritarian.