Who Can the Taliban Surrender To?

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"The Taliban realize it's over," says one Pakistani trader in Chaman border town who has contacts with several of Kandahar's top commanders. "What worries them is that they'll surrender — and then be massacred, like the Pashtuns were up in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz."

Top on the list of Taliban demands has been a guarantee that the lives of Supreme Leader Mullah Omar and the other commanders be spared. Their conduit has been a respected Soviet war veteran, Wakil Samat Noorzai, living in Spin Boldak, near the Pakistani border, who flatly informed the Taliban leadership that he didn't have the clout to enforce such a promise. Soon after, Omar urged his men to fight to the death. Negotiations for the peaceful handover of Kandahar's eastern borderlands to supporters of exiled King Mohammed Zaher Shah fell apart, and Taliban resumed control of the area. On Friday, dozens of their armed warriors appeared on the sandy mounds beside the Pakistan border fence — a flashy show that the Taliban were still in charge.

An unsavory option

The Allies still face a last, major hurdle on their way to conquering the Taliban's last outpost: they have failed to rally local tribesmen against the Taliban. Most of the U.S. hopes are pinned on former Kandahar Governor Ghul Agha Sherzai, best known for letting his commanders run riot in the city. From 1992 to 1994, they set up tollbooths every few hundred yards in the city and raped whatever young boys and women they fancied. Recalls one Kandahar resident: "They had dancing boys for their pleasure." These excesses — scorched into the minds of Kandaharis — led to the rise of the Taliban. And nobody is happy that the U.S. is backing Sherzai's return.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]After a trip to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad a month ago, the portly, mule-jawed Sherzai came back to the southern Pakistani city of Quetta throwing around cash. Merchants say he bought himself over 30 new four-wheel vehicles and then set off to an Afghan refugee colony called Jungle Piralzai known for its thieves and opium smugglers. As one associate of Sherkzai's admitted: "Of course, these men are bandits." There, he recruited men for 15,000 rupees ($250 a month), and outfitted them with weapons and at least 40 kilos of hashish, according to this associate. As one tribal chieftain Sardar Galani Khan Ashazai says, "These men are drug smokers. They're only fighting for U.S. dollars. They have no aim."

Ashazai says that even if the U.S. planes were to flatten Kandahar to the point where Sherzai and his mercenaries could march in, they wouldn't last long. As one Pakistani border official remarked: "If America hands over power to these looters and bandits, the Taliban will be back in six months — and the Afghans will welcome them back."

The Taliban's choice

The other main opposition force, led by pro-king supporter Hamed Karzai, is something of an enigma. Karzai gives interviews by sat-phone from "somewhere in Oruzgan province" claiming that he's amassed 5,000 men and is marching southwards through the mountains to Kandahar. It may be true that Karzai once was in Oruzgan — he was rescued from a Taliban ambush six weeks back by U.S. choppers — but there are some doubts that he's still there. One reliable Pakistani tribal elder told TIME that Karzai is making his sat-phone broadcasts from a secluded house in Toba Achakzai, a village on the safe side of the Pakistan-Afghan border — and several hundred miles from Oruzgan. "Karzai and his men — these are not fighting people," says Malik Sarwar Khan Kakar, the tribal elder.

Nevertheless, the Taliban think Karzai is a better option than Sherzai and his unruly mercenaries. Kandahar sources say that the Taliban defense minister Mullah Obadullah has sent out feelers to Karzai, offering to hand over the city to him and to Mullah Naqib, a respected former Soviet war commander residing in Kandahar with a large tribal following. "Some commanders are thinking of a change of strategy, but Mullah Omar is overruling everybody." And so far, nobody dares to defy the self-anointed Commander of the Faithful. One Pakistani intelligence officer recently told TIME; "You can finish the Taliban simply by killing off Mullah Omar and a few others." The Taliban revolves around the mysterious and rarely seen personage of Mullah Omar, so that if he is indeed felled by a bomb, it might shatter the core of the Islamic movement.

Back in Kandahar

None of the Taliban fleeing from the north are heading to Kandahar for a last stand. They know it would be suicidal; the U.S. bombers would spot such a build-up and pulverize the Taliban forces. But most of the Taliban fighters are up in the mountains of Oruzgan and Zabol. Mullah Omar is thought to be hiding up there, too, though the Taliban say he turned up in Kandahar at least once this week.

Omar still keeps a tight grip on his Kandahar through his loyal corps commander, Akhtar Usmani. A native of Helmand, Usmani's a pragmatist, not a die-hard jihadi, and if the tide turns seriously against the Taliban in the southern provinces, he might step forward and negotiate Kandahar's surrender. He's held in check, to some extent by the 25-year old police chief, Hafez Majid (Mullah Omar owes the kid his life for pulling him out the wreckage after a truck bomb destroyed his house in Kandahar several years back.) Majid is fanatically devoted to Mullah Omar. In Kandahar, the other key player is the governor, Mullah Hassan, who is also more of a wheeler-dealer than a wanna-be martyr.

With the U.S.-backed opposition forces going nowhere, the Allies might be tempted to back a drive southwards by the Northern Alliance. But that would be a huge mistake; the Allies might conquer the city that way, but they'd lose the Pashtuns, whose participation in any future government is essential to insure stability. A degree of peace has been reached in the eastern provinces of Ghazni, Paktia, Paktika and Logar, where Taliban commanders relinquished power to local Pashtun chieftains. But these Pashtuns would rise against any attempt by the Northern Alliance to push south from Kabul. They wouldn't necessarily unite as a Pashtun army, but every Pashtun tribe — and they're all armed to the teeth — would take a shot at Rabbani's men if they ventured out of Kabul.

It would probably be an even bigger mistake to send the U.S. Marines into Kandahar. Having marines in their desert fatigues strolling victoriously through the dusty lanes of Kandahar, while residents cower from the doorways, might play well for the Bush Administration back home, but it would go against U.S. strategy to date: helping Afghans free themselves from the Taliban rule. This endgame may look like a stalemate, but the best tactic may be to keep putting pressure on the Taliban, maybe move the marines closer to Kandahar and keep up the accurate bombing on Taliban targets as a way to strengthen those Taliban commanders who are willing to break with Omar and negotiate to end the conflict.

A guerrilla force?

The Taliban's ability to resurrect itself as a Pashtun guerrilla force depends on Mullah Omar staying alive. If he lives, and if the Allied forces cannot broker a lasting, stable government in Kabul that passes on immediate benefits to the Pashtuns, then the Taliban fighters will dig up their hidden weapons and descend from the mountains, probably in six months time. The U.S. may indeed have "fractured" the Taliban's command and control structure, as the Pentagon claims, but the militia's lower echelons remain intact, along tribal lines. A commander usually recruits from his own village or town, even if the unit ends up fighting in the other corner of the country. Last week, in Spin Boldak, about 60 miles from Kandahar, I met a Taliban named Abadullah, a bright fellow in his mid-twenties whose sun-weathered face glowed red through his beard. He'd studied engineering before joining the Taliban, and he strutted around with a walkie-talkie.

He, his friends and commander were from the same village in Wardak province. He was worried of what would happen if Spin Boldak fell to the opposition forces: "Nobody around here is from our tribe. We cannot trust them. Somehow, our commander will have to lead us back home." He and his comrades were debating whether to take their weapons with them back to Wardak — and risk being detected as fleeing Taliban — or hide them in Spin Boldak and return for them later. Abadullah wanted to take his AK-47 and a few rocket-propelled grenades with him. "The journey home is long and dangerous. There are no more Taliban to keep the roads safe," he said, grinning.