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Cracks within Taliban ranks

KALAI NAW, OCTOBER 13: THE militia swept in before anyone realised what was going on. Zalmai, a 20-year-old merchant, was tending to apples and cucumbers at his Kabul store when officers began grilling him. ‘‘Give us the weapons you have,’’ one said. ‘‘We don’t have any,’’ Zalmai answered.

‘‘We’re simple people. We’re just selling fruit.’’ The officers didn’t believe him, and Zalmai found himself thrown into a car with three others. The four were then hustled to a police station, where Zalmai was beaten and given a choice: Go and fight in the war or languish behind bars. It was no choice, he figured. The odyssey Zalmai began that day some five months ago would take the young man to the heart of the Taliban military, a machine powered by forced conscripts threatened with death or prison.

Details are sketchy, but Zalmai’s story and others like it hint at what opposition leaders believe could be a fundamental weakness of the Taliban armed forces: Most of them may not want to fight. Their accounts raise a question about what kind of fighting force the US would face if it sent ground troops to Afghanistan — one that was strengthened under siege from the West, or an Army crumbling from within. The zeal of the true believers is matched by the reluctance of the rest. Given the chance to defect or surrender, opposition leaders say they believe the majority of Taliban fighters would gladly lay down arms.

‘‘They’re weak because many of them don’t want to fight,’’ said Golbashan, another resident of Kabul sent to war against his will. He estimated that 60 to 70 per cent of the Taliban troops were compelled into service. For now, however, the Northern Alliance, have yet to see the mass defections they predicted would follow the beginning of the US aerial bombardment. About 1,000 Taliban troops switched sides in central Afghanistan this week, but fear may be keeping others from following their lead.

One defector said the Taliban commanders shoot recruits who refuse to fight. In the Northern Alliance, some of the warlords have also been accused of brutal behaviour. But the alliance is not known to gather recruits by force.

However, stories told in recent days about the Taliban have been similar. The days leading up to the US campaign accelerated the Taliban roundups that swept young men off the streets of Afghanistan to be pressed into service. (Reuters)

-- Martin Thompson (, October 14, 2001

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