Melting Away: Where Did All The Taliban Go?

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When the Taliban imposed a regime of rigid religious joylessness in 1996, Afghans buried their outlawed televisions in the hope that they would one day tune in again. Last week, as the locals in Kabul were enjoying their Sonys, Taliban soldiers who had surrendered there and in Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities were, in a manner of speaking, burying their AK-47s for later use.

But what kind of use? And on whose behalf?

In Afghanistan, where loyalty is fungible, accounting for the numbers in the Taliban grew more complicated during last week's flurry of surrenders and swapped allegiances. Those who marched under its banner have recalculated their loyalty based on tribal and ethnic alliances, their zeal for Islam and their desire to see another day. "People feel [the Taliban] messed things up. Their popular support is gone," says a Pakistani official.

And so, for now, are many of their fighters--conscripts, true believers, and opportunists who followed their warlords. At least a third of the 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers--not including the 10,000 or so foreigners--who called themselves Taliban members have turned in their black turbans. "The Taliban are still there. They have just changed sides," says Abdul Rub, 41, a former Afghan mujahid who is now based in Peshawar, Pakistan. Anti-Taliban Pashtun forces in the south number at least 10,000 and are growing. Northern Alliance armies have doubled in size, to 40,000.

Many Taliban fighters have followed the path of defeated soldiers before them and gone home. Thousands are thought to have fled across the porous border to Pakistan. "Most Taliban leaders are now in Pakistan," says Mohammed Naeem Safai, former Taliban director of information. Safai snuck across the border, and is now in a refugee camp outside Peshawar. "The day the U.S. stops bombing, the Taliban will come back," he says.

There are still pockets of resistance. Mullah Dadullah, a top Taliban commander in Kunduz before it fell, has resurfaced in Balkh, about 19 miles west of Mazar. Here Northern Alliance commander Amir Jaan--who switched sides in September--is sheltering him, some senior Taliban figures and between 400 and 500 soldiers.

Even by the most conservative figures, the Taliban had 5,000 men in Mazar before it fell and 12,000 in Kunduz, many of whom arrived after fleeing Mazar. Subtract the dead and the POWs, and there are at least 8,000 unaccounted for. In Mazar, thousands of former Taliban members have returned. They have not been welcomed back by wary Mazaris. Indeed, fears of a resurgence have made the Alliance cautious, and at least 2,400 Taliban, mostly Pashtun and foreigners, have been detained. In Taloqan, Noor Mohammad, 20, a Pashtun, says he was given a gun by the Taliban leadership in Kunduz just one week before. When his commander defected, "I threw away the gun and then cut off my beard. All I want to do is look after my family," he says from a Taloqan jail.

That won't be possible for many. Hundreds were killed in U.S. air attacks, and at least 1,000 Taliban soldiers, including many foreigners, were wiped out by Northern Alliance forces in Mazar and Kunduz. Hundreds more perished elsewhere.

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