Cities fall to chiefs with divided loyalties

FROM STEPHEN FARRELL IN PESHAWAR AND ZAHID HUSSAIN IN TORKHUM KHYBER

AFGHANISTAN’S provinces and cities came under the control yesterday of a bewildering variety of regional leaders whose allegiances remain far from clear.

With the pace of war far outstripping diplomacy, the country moved a step closer to falling under the control of feuding warlords again.

As the Northern Alliance consolidated its hold on Kabul and northern areas, leaders of the Pashtun tribes in the south and east were desperate to stop the Alliance seizing areas in their own heartland.

Armed men in camouflage jackets replacing black-turbaned guards marked the end of Taliban rule in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The ousting of the Taliban from one of their strongholds came not through defeat but from a deal that allowed its fighters safe passage to the mountains. “They have carried all their weapons with them,” said Muhammad Rahim, a government official in Jalalabad.

Mullah Abdul Kabir, the governor of Nangarhar and the second most powerful leader of the Taliban movement, left Jalalabad yesterday morning after handing over power to Younus Khalis, a veteran Mujahidin leader of the war against Soviet forces.

Unlike many Mujahidin, Younus Khalis remained aloof from the internecine warfare that followed the collapse of the communist-backed regime in 1992 and stayed in Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power, although he was not a part of the regime.

The fact that he was permitted to remain in the east, where he wielded considerable political and religious loyalty, combined with his timely assumption of power, has prompted speculation that he made a deal with local Taliban. Last night he reiterated that he was not a member of the Alliance and told it to stay out of the city.

Some reports suggest the negotiated transfer of power was backed by Pakistan, which is alarmed by the advance of the Northern Alliance.

“The deal was made to stall the Alliance from marching to the east,” said a senior Pakistani official.

Scores of Pakistani-based Pashtun commanders crossed into Afghanistan from Torkhum on Tuesday night, eager to reclaim districts that they consider to be rightfully theirs.

One Western diplomat said that it was inevitable that the military campaign would run far ahead of the diplomatic one in Afghanistan.

“With modern military technology, a general wants to launch a strike and he can call up aircraft within minutes,” he said. “However, diplomacy in Afghanistan still moves at medieval speed.”

Within 24 hours of the Alliance entering Kabul, the leadership’s spokesman, Younis Qanooni, said the eastern provinces of Khost, Kunar and Nangarhar were now being controlled by “local elders”, with other sources saying that the same was true of Wardak and Ghazni.

In another major development the Taliban vacated the southeastern province of Logar which is now being controlled by the commanders of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another veteran Pashtun leader.

A leader of Hezbe-i Islami and a former Prime Minister in the Alliance Government, Mr Hekmatyar switched his support to the Taliban after the US attack. His taking over of Logar also appears to be the result of a deal.

There are reports of tribal uprisings in the Pashtun provinces of Paktia and Paktika. It is, however, unclear who their leaders are. The Taliban has also vacated the southern province Uruzgan, the birthplace of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader.

According to the sources more than 15,000 Taliban, Arab and Pakistani fighters have moved to new mountain bases. Significantly, no Taliban leader has so far been captured or killed in the battle.

“The entire leadership is safe and waiting to strike back,” said Samiul Haq, the chief of the pro-Taliban Council for Defence of Afghanistan. Some reports suggest that hundreds of armed Taliban soldiers have entered the Pakistani tribal area which they plan to use as a rear base for future guerrilla action.

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