- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

CHAMAN, Pakistan Pashtun forces have failed to negotiate a peaceful surrender of Kandahar, the Taliban's last stronghold in Afghanistan, and are preparing to launch a full assault on the radical regime's southern birthplace within the next two or three days.
Abdul Khaliq, who is coordinating the Pashtun commanders hoping to take Kandahar, returned to the Pakistani city of Quetta yesterday after five days of unsuccessful meetings with Taliban commanders in Afghanistan.
"All the Taliban commanders said to me, we don't want to fight," Mr. Khaliq said. "They kept telling me to wait and then they will defect. But we have already waited a long time.
"Now I think Mullah [Mohammed] Omar and his supporters will fight until they die," he said, referring to the Taliban leader.
The Taliban movement and its extremist Muslim theology originated among ethnic Pashtuns, many of whom are ready to be rid of the oppressive regime that sheltered Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.
"I told them we don't want to fight or destroy our city. But they have given us no alternative. I am afraid a lot of people will die."
One of the sticking points in arranging defections was the fear among Taliban troops that they would be massacred, particularly after events last week in the north at Quia-i-Jhangi fort in Mazar-e-Sharif. Hundreds of Taliban were killed after rising up against their captors.
"I reassured them that we are not the Northern Alliance," Mr. Khaliq said, referring to the main rival opposition group dominated by non-Pashtun ethnic groups. "We are Pashtuns like them and promised them amnesty. But they said let us first see our friends from Kunduz; then we will decide."
Meanwhile, talks in Bonn over a post-Taliban government for Afghanistan moved to an intense phase as the United Nations late yesterday presented the four rival Afghan factions with a draft proposal for an interim government.
Prospects for a deal, which could come as early as today, improved sharply after the Northern Alliance indicated it was prepared to transfer power to an interim council until a transitional government could be worked out.
Mr. Khaliq said the attack on Kandahar could come as soon as two or three days' time. He said it would be coordinated with the forces of Haji Gul Afgha, former governor of Kandahar, and those of Hamid Karzai, the leader of the Popolzai tribe who is in Uruzgan, Mullah Omar's home province just north of Kandahar.
"We already have lots of our commanders and mujahideen in place," he said. "They are just waiting for instructions."
The attack will be launched after consultation with the U.S.forces engaged in round-the-clock bombing of Kandahar from their desert base 60 miles to the southwest. Mr. Khaliq said Mr. Karzai had to call in American help yesterday after the Taliban launched an offensive against his forces in Uruzgan. In the resulting bombing, 70 Taliban trucks were destroyed.
Preparations for attack began as reports claimed Taliban commanders desperate to prevent defections were exacting brutal revenge on followers of a former minister who switched sides to the alliance.
A man hanged as a suspected American spy in Martyrs' Square in Kandahar last week was, it emerged yesterday, a senior aide of Mullah Khakser, the former intelligence minister who since his recent defection has revealed how bin Laden bankrolled the Taliban with $98 million.
Several more Khakser supporters are expected to be executed in public after being rounded up over the past two days.
The bloody retribution was taken as American jets struck relentlessly at Taliban compounds in Kandahar.
Taliban soldiers injured in the fighting have been ferried across the border for treatment in Quetta.
Accounts they and other refugees have given paint a picture of chaos in Taliban ranks in Kandahar. Commanders are organizing their frantic defense of the country's second-largest city from a fleet of pickup trucks that are driven all day around the potholed streets in an effort to evade American air strikes.
All government buildings have been abandoned, and Taliban forces have been moving into mosques and private homes that they hope will not be targeted.
Like his commanders, Mullah Omar is also said to be constantly on the move to avoid both the bombs and American and British special forces snatch squads.
Although the Taliban leader is understood still to be based in the Kandahar area and in control of the rump of his movement, he does not stay in one location for more than six hours.
"The whole movement is living in pickup trucks," said Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmed, who is in daily satellite telephone contact with him. "They are constantly on the move and run the war from these vehicles. Their buildings are empty, and they are not functioning as a government."
The account was confirmed by refugees fleeing the city.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters have retreated from the city in recent days, still armed as they head to their villages in the mountains. Some are threatening to mount a protracted guerrilla campaign against the country's new rulers; others are simply going home.
In the city, remaining Taliban fighters are digging trenches in readiness for a pitched street battle following the defiant radio exhortation to arms by Mullah Omar last week.
Remarkably, however, many shops remain open.
The Pashtun population is terrified by reports that the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek forces of the alliance may try to claim the south.
Fears are also growing for a return to the banditry that helped to bring the Taliban to power after 1994. When the Taliban briefly abandoned the town of Spin Boldak last week, the looting and extortion was so serious that merchants and residents urged their return.

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