- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan This is a deserted, silent, frightened country. The fear of an all-out American attack has emptied the cities and grossly swelled the number of refugees lining up at the border of Pakistan.
Here in the countryside, thousands of townspeople are taking shelter with their kinfolk.
Just as I witnessed in Baghdad before the start of the Persian Gulf war a decade ago, people are paralyzed by the thought of the coming onslaught. There is the same combination of fear and utter bewilderment.
The indications are that the Taliban government, under its reclusive leader, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar, intends to stand fast for as long as possible.
But he and his colleagues know that their power rests on an uneasy coalition of military groupings and militias, which mostly came together in 1996 when the Taliban was closing in on Kabul.
The Taliban's success was always political rather than military. Its forces were distinctly inexperienced and often ramshackle, but it managed to persuade scores of warring groups that it had the power to win.
Now, neither the Taliban nor anyone else thinks it can conceivably survive long against an all-out American attack.
Reports from several parts of Afghanistan speak of Taliban commanders quietly slipping away and joining the exodus to the countryside with their men.
Nor can the Taliban rely on civilian support in Kabul or anywhere else, except its heartland of Kandahar. In recent years, it has become as unpopular as previous Afghan governments and for the same reasons: its growing corruption and complete mismanagement.
The days when people were grateful for the relative order that the Taliban introduced have long gone. Altogether then, the Taliban represents by far the weakest and most disorganized enemy the United States and its allies have faced during the past decade.
By comparison, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic were serious opponents who could defend themselves. The Taliban cannot.
Still, here in Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province, which borders Pakistan and takes in the city of Jalalabad, the Taliban is dangerous enough on the ground. This is also the area where many of Osama bin Laden's Arab and Pakistani volunteers, an estimated 1,000 of them, are trained and operate.
They may well be prepared to fight if the Americans and their allies put ground forces in here. The Arabs among them have nowhere else to go and are powerfully motivated to fight.
Their presence makes it particularly hard to infiltrate Nangarhar Province.
With the distinguished news photographer Peter Jouvenal, a veteran of 21 years' combat reporting in Afghanistan, I made the journey here with the aid of a group of cross-border smugglers.
Their advice was that we should disguise ourselves as women, because any Taliban group we came across would be unlikely to stop or search us.
John Simpson is the British Broadcasting Corp.'s world affairs editor.

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