Keith B. Richburg Washington Post ServiceSaturday, December 1, 2001
KABUL Ten days ago, as the defeated Taliban forces were regrouping in their stronghold of Kandahar for a defiant last stand, some cassette tapes, along with a letter, arrived in Kabul, secretly delivered to top officials of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
According to alliance officials, the message contained in the cassettes and the letter was simple and direct; some top Taliban leaders were ready to surrender, and they wanted to speak in person with two dozen specific alliance commanders whom they trusted to work out the details.
The arrival of the cassettes and the letter set off a clandestine mission by about 20 alliance commanders - all ethnic Pashtuns, of the same tribe as the Taliban leaders. Some traveled by road from Kabul, others crossed the border from Quetta, in Pakistan and others made the journey from Iran in the west. They fanned out through the provinces of Kandahar, Oruzgan and Helmand, the last redoubts of the Taliban. And they opened the secret talks that alliance officials in Kabul hope will soon lead to a peaceful takeover of the remaining areas under Taliban control.
"The number of commanders is not specific. They were sent in at the request of the Taliban," said Wahidullah Sabawoon, the alliance finance minister and a senior member of the ruling Leadership Council. "These people were called upon because of traditional reasons - they belong to the same clan or the same village" .
"The Taliban sent the tapes with a written letter to the capital, saying they would not fight anymore," said Mr. Sabawoon, disclosing in an interview the first details of the secret talks now under way. "You will hear soon the result of these negotiations." Mr. Sabawoon provided the names of more than a dozen commanders sent to the three provinces to begin the surrender talks.
A top Northern Alliance military commander, General Haji Almas, confirmed in a separate interview the extent of the secret mission. "Yes, we can say it's the truth," he said. "Some of them have already had contact." He said that 20 to 30 commanders were involved, all of them native to the areas where they had been dispatched.
The two officials said they hoped the talks would be completed by the end of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan in mid-December.
The alliance foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, told reporters on Monday that "a few" commanders "who are influential in that area" were on the ground in the largely Pashtun, Taliban-held provinces of the south, helping to coordinate anti-Taliban activities. The officials Friday provided new details of the covert operation, and offered a glimpse into the reasons why the alliance believes it will be able to take control of the remaining Taliban-held areas without having to dispatch its own military forces south.
They added, however, that a military operation in the south of Afghanistan remained a possibility.
"As the first priority, we prefer negotiations," Mr. Sabawoon said. "But if the negotiations fail, we will have to fight." The Northern Alliance front line has moved only incrementally in recent days. Since winning the surrender of local tribes once loyal to the Taliban in the town of Maidan Shahr, about 40 kilometers southwest of Kabul, the alliance has extended its control 8 kilometers farther along the road to Kandahar.
When the Taliban officials first sent the feelers, requesting meetings with the Pashtun alliance commanders to negotiate surrender terms, the alliance officials were skeptical. They recalled an earlier, similar contact from Helmand Province, when Taliban fighters offered to surrender, then killed more than 100 Northern Alliance soldiers in an ambush. Fears that the cassettes and the letter could be a ploy to stage an ambush led to a lengthy debate and to delay in dispatching the envoys.
Mr. Sabawoon said the alliance, which now controls more than half the country, including the capital, Kabul, had no specific plan to send troops to Kandahar or the other southern provinces. And he said the alliance is aware that the American government and others would be concerned if the alliance, with its ethnic base among the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the north, sent forces to the largely Pashtun south.
But he added, "If these negotiations fail, we will have no other choice but to march toward Kandahar. And we will announce it to the United Nations and the world."
Kandahar is about a two-day drive from Kabul, and a move south might seriously stretch the alliance forces. But Mr. Sabawoon and General Almas said the logistical difficulties could be overcome by moving troops from Herat in the west, and from central Afghanistan.
Also, they said, the fall of Kunduz in the north - where the remaining Taliban fighters surrendered last week - has freed up alliance forces for a possible march to the south.