Fears Taleban retreat is tactical
TONY Blair yesterday announced British troops could yet be
thrown into "offensive front line" action in Afghanistan as US
officials issued a warning that it was dangerous to assume the Taleban had
collapsed, despite its apparent capitulation.
While the Northern Alliance continued to make advances and capture several key
cities, the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar was continuing to hold out amid
reports of fierce fighting, while Taleban fighters were allowed to leave the
eastern city of Jalalabad with their weapons after striking a deal.
It is unclear how many Taleban troops have defected or been killed. There are
few reports of prisoners of war.
Taleban officials claimed there were up to 50,000 in Kandahar and boasted that
Osama bin Laden remained safe.
US bombers were targeting the mountain caves around Jalalabad, where it is
thought bin Laden could be hiding.
About 5,000 Taleban soldiers are believed to have withdrawn into the southern
mountains near the Pakistan border to prepare for a winter campaign.
US Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said of the Taleban: "In previous
conflicts against the Soviets many of them fought from and lived in the caves in
the south, so it could be that there is a place they can retreat to consider
He told a Pentagon briefing: "Itís been predominantly a guerrilla style
war done from hidden positions and utilising caves that they may be familiar
with, especially if they came from tribes from this part of the world. We still
believe we have a hard job in front of us and it may take some time."
The Soviet Union captured Kabul in just two days at the start of the 1979
campaign against the mujahideen. It turned out to be the start of a war which
lasted ten years and ended in humiliating retreat.
With the military emphasis in the north switching to consolidating the advances
made, the government yesterday placed on standby Royal Marine commandos and
members of the Parachute Regiment to join the 4,200 British troops already
committed to the region.
They are initially expected to be called on to secure airfields, clear mines and
establish corridors for humanitarian aid convoys, but the Prime Minister said
some British troops may be called on to join the fighting for a strictly limited
period while an international force under the auspices of the UN was formed.
Mr Blair appealed to the countryís Pashtun tribesmen to rise up against the
Taleban and over bin laden, the al-Qaeda leader, reminding them that the US had
placed a multi-million dollar reward on his head.
In the latest example of contradiction between the British and US
administrations, Mr Blair told the House of Commons that the Taleban were in
Mr Blair told MPs: "It is time for the rest of Afghanistan - particularly
the ethnic groups in the south - to join the uprising against the Taleban and
throw off their oppressive rule. The sooner they act, the greater the benefit.
It is clear that support for the Taleban is evaporating."
But he urged the Northern Alliance forces to resist the urge to take revenge.
Mr Blair said: "Regrettable incidents have happened as the liberated people
have turned on their oppressors. This should not happen and I appeal to the
Northern Alliance and all other forces to be restrained, to avoid acts of
revenge and to engage with the UN."
In Kandahar the Islamic militia made announcements over loudspeakers warning
that anyone found on the streets after 9pm would be shot.
Supporters say the Talebanís withdrawal from urban areas throughout the
country is a strategy that will allow the militia and its allies to wage a
guerrilla war from Kandaharís mountains and caves.
Throughout the day Taleban soldiers, some wounded, trickled across the Pakistan
border, insisting that the fundamentalist Islamic group was still firmly in
charge of Kandahar.
Din Mohammad, bearded and clad in the Taleban turban, said: "There are
about 40,000 or 50,000 Taleban in Kandahar. We are making strong defensive
"Many Taleban are going towards Herat and we plan to take it back. We also
plan to take back Kabul."
But in the capital, Northern Alliance forces were moving to consolidate their
hold on the city, taking over key posts and ministries despite a pledge to
support a broad-based government.
Officials portrayed the move as temporary and said they support a UN-supervised
political settlement in which all ethnic groups would be represented.
Northern Alliance officials, especially those from the Jamiat-e-Islami faction
of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, returned to the government offices they
abandoned in 1996 when the Taleban drove them from power.
Diplomats, however, are hoping for an early UN-convened meeting of Taleban
groups, including Pashtuns, under the UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi.
Mr Brahimi has a political blueprint for a Taleban regime involving a two-year
transitional government to bring the countryís ethnic groups together and a
multi-national security force to protect them.
But there appeared no sign of an imminent breakthrough, and the US-led coalition
has been criticised for failing to have a plan in place before the Talebanís
The UN sent its first delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan yesterday, 55
tons of winter supplies via a barge across the Amu Darya River that separates
the country from Uzbekistan. If the shipment is successful, as much as 17,600
tons of aid a month could be routed through northern Afghanistan.