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Afghanistan: Anti-Taliban Forces Near Kabul Again

Prague, 30 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- As Taliban forces have dug-in to hold back the opposition advance just north of Kabul, the Islamic militia's hopes of winning all of Afghanistan are beginning to look more and more unrealizable.

Just three months ago, the Taliban fighters were on the verge of taking the remaining northern provinces -- about a third of the country -- which still opposes its rule. The Taliban swept into regions until then held by former ethnic Uzbek opposition leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum on the wings of a succesful mutiny by Dostum's Foreign Minister Abdul Malik. But since that moment, when the Taliban tide seemed at its highest, the militia has only suffered setbacks.

The reversals began when the Taliban sought to sideline Malik and disarm his fighters in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. There largely ethnic Uzbek and Shiite Muslim opposition fighters turned on the mostly ethnic-Pashtun Taliban, killing hundreds and capturing thousands. Several top Taliban commanders were among those taken.

Correspondents say the Taliban's rout from Mazar-i-Sharif is both a military and psychological defeat from which the militia has yet to show it can recover. Militarily, the Taliban have since been hounded all the way south to Kabul. The opposition northern alliance led by former defense minister Ahmad Shah Massoud and ethnic-Uzbek leader Malik Pahlawan is now some dozen kilometers north of the capital. Once again, the front lines today are almost exactly where they were immediately after the Taliban seized Kabul ten months ago.

The psychological defeat the Taliban has suffered since its rout from the north may be even greater. Prior to Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban had enjoyed a string of victories as region after region fell to it without hardly a shot fired. The Taliban counted on its fundamentalist religious doctrine to appeal to a populace tired of the anarchy of Afghanistan's decades of civil war and countless faction leaders, and victory after victory over the last three years seemed to prove the militia right.

But that pattern began to change with the capture of Kabul. Until then, Taliban were welcomed into the regions they captured as fellow Pashtuns, who make up nearly half of Afghanistan's population. In Kabul, the Taliban encountered an ethnically mixed population with a relatively cosmopolitan outlook which the Taliban revolution has had difficulty digesting.

Mazar-i-Sharif brought the Taliban face-to-face with another ethnically-mixed and relatively liberal city and here the Taliban advance was reversed. The defeat has destroyed the aura of invincibility the Taliban had achieved and, still worse for the Taliban, raised questions as to whether the militia will be able to retain its hold on cosmopolitan Kabul.

The Taliban itself seemed to admit these concerns when earlier this week it moved into several of Kabul's minority neighborhoods to make pre-dawn arrests. Foreign aid workers say militiamen have taken away thousands of ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras. The Taliban has denied it has made sweeping arrests, saying it has only taken into custody a few people sympathetic to the opposition forces.

With the battle lines again outside Kabul, correspondents say it is uncertain whether either side -- the once conquering Taliban, or the resurgent opposition forces -- have the strength to force back the other. That leaves Kabul's war-weary residents again facing the prospect of the same kind of long siege which brought the Taliban into the city less than a year ago.