Eyewitness to a Sudden and Bloody Liberation

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Slowly, hesitantly, the four tanks and two armored fighting vehicles of the Northern Alliance's Guards Brigade rolled forward from their advance position 28 miles north of Kabul. It was last Monday afternoon, before the capital fell, and the crews were tensed for a barrage of enemy fire. But none came, so they pushed on faster, rumbling down narrow lanes in thick clouds of dust before turning onto the Old Road and heading south toward Kabul. This was once agricultural land, but now the landscape was lunar and blitzed: the remaining trees were shredded and the fields were pocked with the 10-ft.-deep footprints of 1,000-lb. American bombs.

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The convoy passed abandoned bunkers, some manned by the corpses of Taliban troops. A few hundred yards ahead, Alliance infantrymen exchanged small-arms fire with Taliban stragglers. An Alliance foot soldier, hit in the back, lay doubled over in pain. Others rained blows on a captured jihadist as he was duckwalked toward a jeep. Occasionally a small black puff and a crack would mark the explosion of a rocket-propelled grenade. But the fiercest fighting, a remarkably brief exchange of recoilless rifle and mortar, had tapered off shortly before; and by 4:30 the brigade rolled over what for two years had been the immovable front line in this war. By dusk all resistance had disappeared, and the northerners camped for the night in the shattered ruins of Qarabagh, a target of repeated air strikes, and the roadside town of Kalakan. On the flank of a mountain to the west, part of a village blazed brightly.

The battle for Kabul lasted less than three hours. Just three days before, an optimistic Alliance commander had been predicting it would last two weeks. The fiercest fighting ran roughly from 1:30 until 3:30 Monday afternoon; then Taliban frontline defenses began to crumble. The battle took place 28 miles to the city's north, but Taliban commanders mounted no counterattack. Alliance sources reported having lost a grand total of 10 men. There was a variety of reasons for the rout. The intense American bombing of Taliban forward troops had been devastating. The rapid fall of Mazar-i-Sharif and other northern cities chewed up Taliban morale. And their generals did not take advantage of the Alliance's nightlong pause in Qarabagh to attempt a counterattack. Maybe the generals feared that Kabul's civilians would attack them from behind if they battled the Alliance at the city gates.

So the Taliban ran. At 9 p.m., said Wakil Mir Agha, a local leader from a suburb near Kabul International Airport, he was on the roof of his house and heard Taliban soldiers saying Qarabagh had fallen. Soon after, he reported, they fled the city, joining some 8,000 Taliban and radical fighters. It was unclear whether the retreat had been ordered or was a result of panic. Said Jawed Hussein, 21, a Pakistani captured by the Alliance: "Everybody was running to save his own skin." Or driving. Abandoning tanks and heavy weapons, they stole an estimated 800 cars for their getaway. Destinations varied: some headed toward Maidanshahr, Ghazni and the southwest; others, south toward Logar province; and still others, east toward Jalalabad and the al-Qaeda stronghold of Tora Bora in Nangarhar province.

Before they left, one armed group hit the main money exchange at the Serai-i-Shahzadah near the Kabul River; another, the National Bank on Pashtunistan Square. Private homes were also robbed, although Mohammed Yama Sharifi, a staff member at a hospital run by the Milan-based charity Emergency, noted that "some of [the marauders] said they were Taliban, but in reality they were just local criminals using the Taliban's name to cash in on the chaos."

Battlefield losses were not the only thing fueling their flight. On Monday night, low-flying American helicopter gunships hovered over the darkened city, raining rockets on Taliban targets. "The sky seemed full of them," says Gino Strada, Emergency's director in Kabul. There were several direct hits: one, on a car, killing three Taliban soldiers inside and several civilians in a nearby house; and another on a pickup truck, which burst into flame and flipped, killing eight armed Arab fighters.

Even before the sun rose Tuesday morning, the Alliance had resumed its advance, a triumphal convoy of jeeps, trucks and tanks rumbling toward Kabul. Occasionally the victors discovered an enemy straggler: Western journalists intervened to save the life of a young, beardless suspect whom Alliance soldiers had dragged out of a small hut and were beating furiously. As the advance swept on, he was left on the ground, not seriously wounded but paralyzed with fear, staring into the dawn sky. At 6:30 a.m. troops led by Alliance General Gul Haidar were the first to arrive, halting at the city outskirts in accordance with assurances to the international community. For several hours they held back, the Alliance's Kabul commander Bismillah Khan presiding over an ever growing traffic jam, enforcing the halt with sharp orders and the occasional well-placed punch.

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