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Taliban Fortifies Capital For War
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Trenches Are Dug, Men Conscripted
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service Thursday, October 4, 2001; Page A01
GOLBAHAR, Afghanistan, Oct. 3 -- The ruling Taliban militia has begun fortifying its lines around Kabul in preparation for a military attack, recovering from an early period of disarray, according to defectors emerging from the embattled capital city and opposition spies.
Taliban troops in recent days have built two lines of defense north of Kabul, digging trenches and bomb shelters while replenishing their forces by apprehending young men and sending them to front lines north of the capital. Some recruits who refused to join up were shot, a defector reported, and the Taliban has begun rotating troops to and from the front every three or four days to guard against desertions.
"They said they'll fight to defend Kabul," Khan Jan, who defected from the Taliban army, said in an interview today in rebel-held territory north of Kabul. The Taliban leaders have decided that "if America attacks us, it's our duty to defend our homeland, it's our duty to wage jihad," he said.
"At first the Taliban were in a panic, but now they've gotten themselves better organized in their defenses," said Mirabdulwahid, the chief intelligence officer for the 516th Regiment of the anti-Taliban rebel forces known as the Northern Alliance. Like many Afghans, he uses only one name. "But the [Taliban] military is still quite disorganized, not as organized as before, and they're collecting people by force."
The reconnaissance from Kabul suggests that during the nearly three weeks since the United States announced it would take military action if the Taliban did not surrender Osama bin Laden, the Afghan rulers have collected themselves and put their forces in better order. The days following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States brought a chaotic response in Kabul, as senior officials and other residents fled rather than face what they expected to be a swift U.S. airstrike.
"In the first days, the commanders ran away and there was nobody to give orders," said one rebel, 20, who added that he was undercover in Kabul for three months.
Since then, some order has been restored. While ordinary residents are still leaving the city, some government ministers have returned and some stores have reopened, according to rebel spies. The Taliban evidently has decided to make a concerted effort to prevent Northern Alliance rebels from overrunning the capital as part of a U.S. assault.
"When the Americans said they would attack but didn't attack at once, the situation normalized," said Abdul Rahim, commander of another front-line rebel post who has agents crossing back and forth from Taliban territory. "Their leaders said, 'Go back to Kabul and prepare to defend it and prepare your troops.' "
While the Taliban is based mainly in the southern city of Kandahar, Kabul remains the capital and a key political and military center. The Taliban's capture of Kabul in September 1996 cemented its hold on power in Afghanistan on the way to setting up a state governed by an ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The Northern Alliance, formed from the remnants of the government ousted by the Taliban, has been battling with the Taliban ever since but has been stalled in positions north of Kabul for two years. Rebel leaders now hope the U.S. military will enable them to make a decisive breakthrough.
Abdullah, foreign minister for the Northern Alliance government-in-exile, told reporters in Jabal Saraj today that in recent days he had his first face-to-face meeting with a U.S. official to discuss cooperation. He would not identify the official or the setting other than to say it was not in Afghanistan. Abdullah has been meeting with envoys from other countries lately in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the most accessible foreign capital for the Afghan rebels, who can reach it from here by helicopter.
Abdullah also confirmed for the first time that the rebels have been receiving support from Russia and Iran in their fight against the Taliban, although such aid has been widely known through other sources for years. The Iranian government, led by Shiite Muslims, opposes the Taliban, which is Sunni Muslim and has persecuted Afghanistan's Shiite minority. Russia fears the spread of Islamic radicalism in the former Soviet states of Central Asia.
Although the Northern Alliance controls just 5 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, its leaders are banking on a popular uprising to help overthrow the Taliban after U.S. bombs start to fall. At his news conference today, Abdullah expressed confidence that Taliban troops would defect and citizens would take up arms on the Alliance's behalf and predicted the combination would mean a gain of 10,000 fighters for the rebels.
Such forecasts are impossible to verify. Several rebel commanders here in the Panjshir Valley said they have been in contact recently with their counterparts on the Taliban side to talk about deserting after the U.S. operation begins.
"This is the end for them," Mohammad Ashraf, a deputy rebel commander at a post outside Jabal Saraj, said of the Taliban. "There's no way they can advance. Some of their commanders are already talking with us. They're waiting for [the beginning of] airstrikes to come over to our side." The only reason they are not coming now, he said, is fear of Taliban reprisals.
One Taliban soldier who has already come over is Khan Jan, who crossed lines last week. A young man with a wispy beard who described himself as 23 or 24, Jan was a shopkeeper in the northern city of Kunduz until the Taliban police rounded up him and 50 others about three months ago and flew them to Kabul. He was forced to serve in the reserves until a few weeks ago, when he said he was sent to the front.
Although he said he saw several other "recruits" shot for refusing to fight, he decided to flee, and slipped away one day at 4 a.m. He met up with a rebel officer who brought him here.
Jan said the Taliban has had several defections but retains considerable force. He said "they're certainly very well equipped" with new guns and new tanks provided by foreign supporters. "The majority of their armored personnel carriers are new."
Various rebel commanders estimated the Taliban force defending Kabul at between 4,000 and 5,000, many of them Pakistanis and Arabs allied with the Afghan government. The main bases for their troops inside the city are the military university, the barracks of the old national guard and the Hotel Intercontinental, according to rebel agents. The Taliban forces are equipped with Chinese and Russian antiaircraft batteries as well as U.S.-made Stinger shoulder-fired missiles. Ashraf said an informer recently saw seven 100mm cannons in action at an antiaircraft drill.
Another agent, who spent more than 10 days in Kabul scouting Taliban positions before returning this week, said there were 300 to 400 Pakistanis in the northwest part of the city, where the old 8th Division was headquartered, while hundreds of Arab soldiers were based in the former 10th Division headquarters elsewhere in the city. Another 300 Arabs were at a checkpoint near Bagram north of the city at the front lines, he said.
The agent said anti-American demonstrations were being held in Kabul every day, and the religious police were detaining more young men every night and holding them in a prison that was reopened in recent months.
The agent said Kabul's population would support an assault on the Taliban. "We have lots of mujaheddin in the Taliban ranks," he said, using the term for holy warriors. "As soon as people find out that our forces are approaching the city, the people will immediately rise up."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 04, 2001