Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 14, 2001
In Kabul, a weary welcome for the victors

At War With Terror

Afghan opposition members crowd on a captured Taliban  tank as it entered Kabul.

KABUL, Afghanistan - When anti-Taliban troops entered Afghanistan's capital yesterday, they received a muted welcome in a city weary from war and 37 days of American bombing.

Children cheered; teenagers tossed bits of paper and candy; and adults mostly stared impassively as trucks packed with soldiers of the opposition Northern Alliance drove into the capital, horns blaring.

There were no huge, enthusiastic crowds to greet the new occupation forces. Many residents had cleared out during the U.S. bombing campaign, and those who remained in the city shut down their shops yesterday for fear of a bloody battle for the capital.

A few Taliban stragglers who did not flee with the rest of the city's defenders were arrested or killed, their bodies left for morbid gawkers to surround and poke for the rest of the day.

Residents were clearly relieved to see the end of five years of occupation by the Taliban, the puritanical Islamic movement that captured Kabul in 1996 and imposed rigid religious rules in its areas. Some men celebrated yesterday by shaving or trimming the long beards the Taliban had mandated. Others gathered in the street to listen to music - banned under the Taliban - blaring from loudspeakers.

Despite their promises not to capture Kabul, Northern Alliance officials said they had ordered their military to enter the city after the Taliban abandoned Kabul overnight and armed groups began to loot it.

"There was no alternative for us but to send our military forces into Kabul," said Dr. Abdullah, the Northern Alliance foreign minister who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

Abdullah said most of the ugly incidents - such as the sacking of the Pakistani Embassy - occurred early in the day, before the arrival of alliance soldiers and several thousand gray-suited police officers.

As Taliban soldiers were fleeing the city just before dawn, a missile reportedly destroyed the office of Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite news channel that has been critical of the United States. The director of the channel, Mohammed Jassim al-Ali, said the missile was fired by the United States but did not detonate.

Foreign Minister Abdullah called the capture of Kabul and the four-day campaign to overrun the Taliban "a major and significant victory in the campaign against terrorism." The United States began bombing the Taliban on Oct. 7 after it refused to turn over terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden.

The opposition force began its push on Kabul on Monday morning, in coordination with U.S. air assaults on the front line that stretched across the Shamali Plain, 25 miles north of Kabul.

After the line was breached, Taliban defenders had little choice but to flee and abandon the capital itself.

"They were not expecting their front lines to be broken so easily," Abdullah said. "They didn't have any defenses around Kabul, so they had to run." He said the Taliban soldiers were more than 50 miles from Kabul by late yesterday.

The Northern Alliance's dawn drive across the Shamali Plain threaded through a devastated wasteland, where a series of 15-foot-deep craters attested to the ferocity of the American air assaults. The buildings in villages along the way were crumbling mud-brick ruins rapidly returning to the earth, helped along by U.S. bombs on top of decades of war.

In the hazy mist of yesterday morning, the plain was eerily empty. The only people moving were Northern Alliance soldiers scavenging abandoned Taliban equipment. A surprising amount of heavy armor and antiaircraft weaponry survived, considering it was a primary target of U.S. bombers.

About three miles from Kabul, at a pass in the mountains called Kotal Khairkhana, soldiers were preventing civilian vehicles from getting close to the capital, seemingly fulfilling the promise not to capture the city.

But troops began slipping in, many of them soldiers intent on passing through Kabul in pursuit of the Taliban soldiers as they fled south. And after a while, that trickle swelled, until there was a flood of traffic pouring in.

"We came in, people were lined up on two sides of the road shouting: 'Long live the mujaheddin! Down with the Taliban,' " said Gulum Hazarat, 47, an infantryman who marched into Kabul. "That was rewarding."

Most of Kabul's markets were closed, though some vegetable vendors sold fresh pumpkins, onions and potatoes. In the afternoon, a few shopkeepers reopened their stores after determining the big battle was not going to materialize.

"The people were afraid this morning, but by tomorrow, all the shops will be open again," said Mohammed Zarif, who sold electrical equipment.

"I am very happy today, so I cut my beard," Zarif said.

Customers gathered in his shop said they, too, were pleased about the departure of the Taliban - though some worried that the Northern Alliance factions might begin fighting among themselves, as they did so disastrously in the 1990s after driving out the Soviets. The ensuing chaos led to the Taliban takeover.

"At that time, the mujaheddin didn't have much experience," said Sayed Haizullah. "Now they have more experience, so I don't think a fight will happen. A person should be allowed one mistake."

Haizullah and other ethnic Pashtuns said they were unconcerned about expectations that the alliance would try to grab power for northern ethnic groups - Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras. The southern Pashtuns dominate the Taliban leadership and are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance soldiers, wearing new camouflage uniforms, and police officers in gray fanned out over the city to establish security. Soldiers set up roadblocks downtown and on Kabul's broad tree-lined streets to inspect motorists' cars.

Some soldiers were said to be going door-to-door to hunt down stray Taliban supporters. With a promised reward of $3,000 for every one they turned in, residents were quick to point fingers at their neighbors.

Some residents around Shahrenaw Park did not even bother to collect the reward money. After they encircled seven Arab and Pakistani Taliban fighters, a gun battle broke out. The Taliban members sought refuge in the park's trees but were brought down by mujaheddin marksmen. Their bodies lay crumpled in a concrete drainage ditch.

Elsewhere in Kabul, four corpses were laid out on the street beside their upturned, blackened pickup truck. Residents said the truck had been shot by a U.S. jet the night before as the vehicle attempted to flee. "They were running and the plane got them," said Shirin Shah.

Shah was hardly upset by the grisly sight. "I'm very happy about the coming of the mujaheddin. We're free. We were like slaves of the Taliban."

Abdullah said that 8,000 Taliban soldiers fled the city in pickup trucks and headed toward Kandahar, the stronghold of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar. The Taliban soldiers took with them the eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, they have been holding since Aug. 3, when the Westerners were arrested on charges of proselytizing Afghan Muslims to Christianity.

The Northern Alliance, regarded in much of southern Afghanistan as an unwelcome force, was not going to pursue the Taliban forces much beyond Kabul, officials said.

"We don't intend to move into southern Afghanistan, though you might not believe us since we promised not to move on Kabul," said Abdullah. home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth