Kunduz Reveals the Fluidity of Afghan Battle Lines

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Northern alliance soldiers overlook the frontline village of Chuga in Kunduz

Even with the Taliban's surrender of Kunduz supposedly a done deal, the fighting for the last holdout town in northern Afghanistan was fierce on Thursday. And the confusion on the battlefield offered important clues as to the nature of the power shift in Afghanistan over the past month. Earlier Thursday, the commander of the Northern Alliance's Uzbek forces to the west of the city, General Rashid Dostum, announced that he had secured an agreement from Kunduz's Taliban commanders to lay down their arms by Sunday. But Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni said from Kabul that cease-fire talks had failed, and that the Alliance was now fighting its way into the city.

The breakdown of the mooted cease-fire may reflect divisions on either side of the battle lines around the besieged city where some 12,000 Taliban fighters, including about 3,000 Arab, Pakistani, Chechen and Chinese volunteers mostly linked with Al Qaeda, are surrounded by thousands of Alliance troops. There are plainly sharp divisions between the foreigners and the Afghan Taliban, whose commanders have been negotiating with Northern Alliance commanders behind the backs of the foreigners and in defiance of Taliban leader Mullah Omar's orders to fight. Reports from refugees fleeing the city say hard-line foreigners had even executed hundreds of Afghan Taliban to prevent them surrendering. Their resistance is unsurprising — while the Northern Alliance have been willing to forgive the Afghan Taliban all along, they have previously threatened to kill all the foreigners. The cease-fire deal announced by General Dostum Thursday offered safe passage home for disarmed Afghan Taliban, but imprisonment, trial and an uncertain fate for the foreigners. And in light of reports of massacres of foreign fighters from other towns seized by the Alliance, it would be surprising if the "tourists" accepted the deal made by their Afghan comrades. Artillery barrages launched from inside the city Thursday, which were taken by the Northern Alliance forces as a signal that the deal was off, may have been a sign of defiance on the part of the city's most hard-line defenders.

But there are divisions on the Northern Alliance side too. General Mohammed Daoud, a Tajik commander in charge of the Alliance forces to the East of the city was reportedly unhappy that Dostum was conducting negotiations in Mazar-i-Sharif, at the same time as he was talking to the Taliban from his headquarters in Taloqan. Long-running tensions between the Uzbek and Tajik factions of the Northern Alliance may become sharply exacerbated now that the Alliance is claiming control over large swathes of territory. And those divisions, too, could have played a role in prompting Thursday's advance on Kunduz.

Alliance commanders had been discussing surrender terms all week with senior Taliban commanders from Kunduz. The Alliance had given the Taliban forces until Thursday morning to surrender or face a frontal assault, but Dostum's cease-fire announcement appeared to have averted a bloodbath. Hours later, however, the guns were blazing and Alliance tanks were driving towards the city. Initially, the Taliban commanders had sought safe passage for the foreign fighters to Pakistan, but the U.S. was having none of a deal that might allow Al Qaeda fighters to escape.

Although Taliban chief Mullah Omar has urged the defenders of Kunduz to resist, the local commander, Mullah Dadullah, has previously clashed with his supreme leader. Local observers are not surprised that he may be seeking an honorable way of keeping his men alive. And like those who retreated from Mazar-i-Sharif, many Afghan Taliban fighters in Kunduz may be quite willing to leave the foreigners to their fate, if not to turn their guns on the "tourists" who have reportedly killed hundreds of Afghan Taliban.

Despite bloodcurdling threats, Northern Alliance commanders had been somewhat reluctant to launch the promised frontal assault — Thursday's deadline was the third "final" ultimatum for the Taliban to surrender. But despite the fact that the Alliance has swept into Kabul and liberated half of the country, there hasn't, in fact, been a single pitched battle in this war. The Taliban's sequential withdrawals have for the most part spared the Alliance from having to fight street-to-street for control over any city. And the fundamentalist movement's demise has come about in large part because many of the local warlords on whose support it had ridden to power simply switched sides. Some of the fighters currently besieging Kunduz as part of the Northern Alliance had been on the Taliban side ten days ago. And once battle is joined many of those inclined to accept a deal may be inclined to simply surrender, easing the Alliance's passage into the city.

While the Taliban's rapid decline has cheered the U.S., it also ushers in a new phase of the war in which U.S. special forces conduct intense search-and-destroy missions against hard-line Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in southern Afghanistan on an increasingly murky battlefield. It's easy to see why Washington would be skeptical of any deal allowing safe passage for any Taliban fighters. Further south, the Taliban have often simply retreated and dispersed, handing towns and regions over to relatively friendly local Pashtun mujahedeen commanders who share their hostility to the Northern Alliance, and in some instances even to the U.S. They've left behind their tanks and artillery, but those wouldn't be much use to an army waging a guerrilla war from the hills. And the presence of thousands of dispersed Taliban fighters all over southern Afghanistan increases the dangers to U.S. forces going after Al Qaeda forces there.

But for the Afghanis themselves, the battle at Kunduz may be a critical moment shaping the post-Taliban order. The various factions of the Northern Alliance are due to meet Monday in Germany with the Pashtun mujahedeen commanders and others who have taken over much of the south, as part of a U.N. effort to broker agreement on a new government. A bloodbath at Kunduz, where some 30,000 mostly Pashtun civilians are reportedly trapped, may sour the atmosphere for Monday's talks. But if large numbers of Afghan Taliban surrender and ultimately find themselves joining with Alliance fighters in facing down the recalcitrant foreigners, they may finally have found (at least symbolically) the factor that bests unites Afghanistan's fractious warlords — a common enemy.