Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 15, 2001
Taliban moves raise suspicion
Rebels said militia members leave Kabul before U.S. strikes each night, return later. Some suggest a hold-back strategy. 

At War With Terror

BAGRAM, Afghanistan - Every day around dusk for the last week, just before U.S. bombers begin their nightly assaults on Afghanistan, a peculiar phenomenon reportedly takes place at this front-line position about 25 miles north of the capital, Kabul.

Observers for the opposition Northern Alliance say they watch as many as 50 trucks driving Taliban soldiers out of the capital to Qalaygulay, a village of mud buildings about a mile from the front line. And every morning, just after the 5 a.m. prayers, the trucks pack up and return the troops to the capital.

The nightly troop movements help fortify the Taliban's lines. But they also remove Taliban soldiers from military bases around the capital, which U.S. air raids have struck repeatedly in the weeklong war against the radical Islamic Taliban for harboring accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

For a Taliban soldier right now, one of the safest places in Afghanistan is at the front lines.

U.S. bombers have not yet hit the concentrations of Taliban troops along this crucial front that stretches across the broad Shamali plain north of Kabul. Opposition commanders do not want to launch any assaults while the air strikes continue.

And so the Taliban are encouraging their troops, or Talibs, to take refuge at the front at night until the U.S. bombing campaign is over, opposition leaders say.

"The officers encouraged the Talibs to go to the front lines for safety," Gen. Baba Jan, the commander of the defenses here, said yesterday.

"They tell their troops that after a few days, the United States will stop bombing and you can go back and rule Afghanistan."

Officials of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic and political groups that the Taliban ousted from Kabul in 1996, denied reports that they had struck a deal with Washington to delay a push on Kabul until an interim government was formed.

Washington was said to have made the deal at the behest of Pakistan, Afghanistan's big southern neighbor and Taliban sponsor, which loathes the idea that an alliance made up of northern ethnic minorities hostile to Islamabad might step into power because of the U.S. campaign.

"It is very unlikely that there is a deal behind the scenes without our knowledge," Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance foreign minister, said in an interview Saturday.

Baba Jan said yesterday that he, too, was unaware of an arrangement to spare Kabul. Yet no attack on the capital appears imminent.

"We have our priorities," said the general, holding forth with reporters at an abandoned air base that straddles the front lines and explaining why his troops had not tried to attack the nightly concentrations of Taliban soldiers. "Some times are better for attacking than others."

Baba Jan, a legendary commander of the mujaheddin that fought in the 1980s to oust a Soviet occupation army before its own disastrous rule was ended by the Taliban, seemed amused by persistent questions about when the alliance might be expected to attack.

"We are waiting," said Baba Jan, who wore an olive green uniform and black loafers without socks. "We have been here five to six years fighting for our freedom against the Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs who are the main forces behind the Taliban. It doesn't depend upon the U.S."

Baba Jan expressed the growing frustration that the Americans would not attack the Taliban front-line positions out of deference to Pakistani interests. He said he was unimpressed with the U.S. assaults so far.

"The attacks of the United States don't really have too much effect," he said.

"It's not enough. The Taliban hide themselves at night and cover up their military equipment so it can't be seen. The United States should attack during the day."

Abdullah, perhaps the most powerful political leader in the alliance, was more diplomatic about the U.S. campaign.

"The Americans are doing the right thing so far," he said.

"It makes sense that they would start by bombing targets in the center and then move out toward the front lines."

It is unclear whether the U.S. attacks have targeted any Taliban front-line positions, which would make it easier for the anti-Taliban rebels to recapture towns lost in recent Taliban offensives.

Abdullah said U.S. bombers on Saturday hit Taliban positions near Taloqan, the former alliance capital in Takhar province.

But Baba Jan said the air strikes were not directed at Taliban entrenchments in Takhar.

Abdullah, speaking Saturday at a bunker in Jabal Saraj, said the bombing campaign had weakened the Taliban. "They have lost their capacity to launch counteroffensives."

Meanwhile, a small stream of refugees continues to leave Kabul, traveling by foot over mountains to Northern Alliance territory.

"All the people in Kabul are in a panic," said Mir Asamshur, 35, who was among 17 adults and six children packed into a pickup that fetched refugees after their mountain trek. "Nobody can sleep at night because of the bombing." home page   
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