A Volatile State Of Siege After a Taliban Ambush

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JAMES HILL/GETTY IMAGES

Northern Alliance fighters, trying to take Kunduz last week, flee after walking into a Taliban trap

Pocked with shell craters and fretted with tank tracks, the road from Taloqan to Kunduz was empty of civilian traffic. In the ditches were the bombed remains of Jeeps, tanks and armored personnel carriers. Now and then a truck jounced past carrying Northern Alliance soldiers to the Kunduz front, which had settled into a tense standoff between Alliance and Taliban forces. Inside Kunduz were some 6,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda troops, many of them Arab, Chechen or Pakistani holy warriors with no place in this world left to go. They had retreated into Kunduz after being routed at Mazar-i-Sharif and Taloqan. Now they were surrounded by an estimated 10,000 Alliance men who had cut off all roads out of the city, and they were willing to die.

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Kunduz last week became a showplace for the trickery and betrayal at the heart of Afghan warfare. On Monday the Northern Alliance commander, Mohammed Dawood Khan, was expecting a rout. His troops were chasing Taliban soldiers down the road from Taloqan to Kunduz, and a key Taliban commander had promised to defect. The Taliban's hard-core Arab fighters, however, had other ideas. As Dawood's troops got out of their trucks at the village of Bangi, about 30 miles east of Kunduz, they were ambushed by Taliban forces hidden in the village. As the advancing Alliance column turned on its tail and fled, with some trucks crashing into one another and others running over soldiers in the panic to escape, at least 30 Alliance soldiers were killed, according to local commanders.

By midweek the Taliban had dug in along a ridge at Selbur, three miles west of Bangi, and the village, emptied of its population of farmers, had become an eerie no-man's-land. In the last half-mile up to Bangi, the sides of the road were heavily mined, a red rock every two or three yards marking mines the Alliance troops had found before their retreat.

Inside Kunduz, the Taliban leaders, including top commander Mirza Nasri, saw they had no way out and began to negotiate a deal with the Alliance. But the Arab and Chechen al-Qaeda troops opposed any surrender; they wanted to fight. On Tuesday a group of about 200 Taliban soldiers seemed to be giving themselves up to the Alliance near Bangi. "Some raised their hands, but others had guns, and they killed several of our soldiers," said General Pir Mohammed Khaksar, a front-line Alliance commander from Taloqan. There were also reports that three Arabs had pretended to surrender to Alliance troops in the town of Dasht-i-Archi in the north of Kunduz province. When Alliance soldiers approached them to take their weapons, the Arabs detonated the bombs strapped to their bodies, killing themselves and five Alliance soldiers. Like other Alliance generals, Khaksar has now ordered his men not to take any chances with the so-called Arab Afghans. "I told my men to kill all the foreigners," he said.

Leaders on both sides wanted to avoid a bloodbath, so surrender negotiations continued. On Thursday Dawood claimed the Pakistani air force had begun flying planes into Kunduz on Tuesday night to evacuate "military personnel," meaning some of the Pakistani volunteers. Northern Alliance commanders tried to arrange a deal to end the standoff, possibly by flying out more of the foreign Taliban militants, although it was unlikely that the U.S. would allow it. On Saturday U.S. planes bombed Taliban positions around Kunduz from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., the most sustained bombardment in that area since the beginning of the campaign.

For some Taliban members, the campaign was already over. Captured by the Northern Alliance, they were crowded into an eight-cell, dirt-floor jailhouse in Taloqan, where they waited, fearing for their lives. Aziz, a tall, moon-faced Arab warrior in a dirty blue shalwar kameez, squatted on the floor of his cell, pulling at his hair and muttering in Arabic, "Osama bin Laden is God." He repeated it again and again and said nothing else; he was either deranged or doing a good job of pretending. The prison commander, Awaz Mohammed, said Aziz was merely acting that way in hope that his captors would take pity and take no action against him--a sort of ad hoc insanity defense. "These are the gifts that Osama has sent to Afghanistan," said Mohammed.

In the same cell was a timid Pakistani named Mahsood Ali, 22. Three weeks ago, he came from Peshawar with three friends to fight the jihad against the Americans. Now his friends are dead, and Ali hugged his knees to his chest and rocked on the soles of his feet. "I think I made a mistake coming to Afghanistan," he said.