Eyewitness: The Taliban Undone

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TYLER HICKS/GETTY IMAGES

A Northern Alliance soldier waves to civilians

When the Taliban lost this capital of northern Afghanistan, they set the pattern for the war. After days of relentless pounding by American bombers, the Islamic militia simply had no stomach for a fight.

The Northern Alliance attacked in earnest on Friday night, and the Afghan Taliban soldiers immediately switched sides, while their commanders jumped into pickup trucks and sped south. Only the "tourists" — the term Alliance soldiers use for the foreign zealots who make up the most committed of their enemy's ranks — chose to make a stand. Pockets of Uzbeks, Chechens and Pakistanis held out for up to five days before they were overcome or picked off by snipers.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Around 900 Pakistanis were surrounded in a girls' school, Sultan Razinya, in the southeast of the city. Over three days, the Alliance commanders — Ustad Mohammed Atta, General Rashid Dostum and Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq — say they tried to persuade the Pakistanis to surrender. The Pakistanis refused. By Tuesday afternoon, the commanders had exhausted their patience, and warned civilians living in the area to move away. Then they attacked, and the fighting lasted four hours. The Alliance took just 175 prisoners.

Tonight, the occasional burst of gunfire still rings out in the city, but order is fast returning. Alliance soldiers patrol the streets and monitor traffic at checkpoints. AK-47s slung over their shoulders and sacks of RPG rockets in the back of their high-powered pickup trucks. But in a country that has been at war for more than two decades, armed fighters are merely part of the scenery.

The bazaar is open. Streetside shashlik stores send plumes of the thick smoke of lamb fat into the air, and yellow taxis ply their trade. The Alliance leader Ustad Mohammed Atta has become the unofficial mayor of Mazar, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his new home, receiving a stream of visits from town elders, tribal leaders and messengers from the frontlines.

The frontlines get further away by the day as local commanders defect from the Taliban in a domino procession. To the southwest, Herat has fallen due to a spontaneous uprising by the Shiite Muslim population against their Sunni Taliban rulers. To the south, Kabul and Jalalabad have gone. And now the fight is for Kandahar, where the Taliban was born and which has remained its administrative center.

"The Taliban is finished," says Atta over a meal of flat bread, apples and qabeli, the traditional mound of rice, mutton, carrots, onions and raisins that is a staple of Afghan cooking. "Only the tourists remain."

Talk is already turning to the future government, even elections. The plan is to call a Loyat Jirga, a national gathering of all Afghanistan's tribal chiefs to debate the shape of the country's new order. Atta says all the commanders are anxious to avoid a repeat of 1992 when, after defeating the Soviets, rival commanders turned on each other and fought pitched battles on the streets of the capital. "This time we want to have democracy," he says. "We have to keep the people with us."

The Taliban prisoners, he claims, will be tried and eventually expelled, although he does not rule out the possibility of executions. In this desolate battle-scarred landscape of dust and desert, barren mountain peaks and rusted, blown out Soviet tanks, killing is given little thought. "Maybe we will have to execute a few people," says Atta. "The people want to kill these tourists."