- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

QUETTA, Pakistan Afghan militia leader Hamid Karzai completed a four-day drive to the outskirts of Kandahar yesterday with his army swelled by defectors from the Taliban regime, which still clings to power in the besieged city.
Mr. Karzai's 4,000 troops camped for the night on the edge of Arghandab, a town about six miles from the gates of the city that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has vowed to defend to the death.
"The Taliban just left. No shots were fired," said Mr. Karzai's younger brother, Ahmad Karzai, in the Pakistani border city of Quetta.
With another tribal opposition army east of the city, the advance by the Karzai army signaled a final push into the birthplace of the Taliban, a movement of Islamic students that first emerged in the early 1990s and went on to control more than 90 percent of Afghanistan.
New fighting was reported late yesterday between tribal groups and Taliban forces at the Kandahar airport. U.S. B-52s continued to pound the city as well as suspected terrorist hide-outs of Osama bin Laden near the Pakistani border.
Hamid Karzai, one of four candidates selected at the Afghanistan conference in Bonn this week to lead an interim national government, plans to halt the advance at the gates to the city to give the Taliban yet another chance to turn over Kandahar and flee to the hills, his brother said. The hope is to avoid bloody street battles and door-to-door fighting.
"This is our biggest fear. There are too many civilians in the city. That's why we plan to keep negotiating with the Taliban," said Ahmad Karzai, who keeps in touch with his brother by satellite telephone.
The Karzai force began the drive to Kandahar on Friday from the Tarin Kot region of southern Uruzgan province with about 2,000 men. As the troops moved south, the army doubled in size with Taliban defectors.
"We know these people. We are being very careful who we accept. We do background checks, and anyone with a criminal past is rejected," Ahmad Karzai said.
U.S. Marines, who last week set up camp at an air base south of Kandahar, yesterday made last-minute preparations to fan out in an effort to hunt down and capture Taliban or al Qaeda fighters as they flee the final assault.
Ahmad Karzai said U.S. troops would not be necessary for the battle for Kandahar. "We are confident with our fighters that we will be able to finish it," he said.
Hamid Karzai became chief of the influential Popalzai clan in 1999 after his father was assassinated in Pakistan. The Popalzais are leaders of the Durrani tribe, which established the first Afghan empire in the 1760s, with its capital in Kandahar. Their descendants continued to rule Afghanistan almost without interruption until 1973, when its king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was overthrown in a coup.
In October, Hamid Karzai led a small band of troops from exile in Pakistan into Afghanistan in an attempt to turn his and other Pashtun tribes against the Taliban. Early on, he required U.S. air support to escape from a firefight with Taliban troops.
But he has managed to raise an army and solidify support within his tribe, which wields influence throughout the Kandahar region.
With troops poised outside Kandahar, the Karzai forces maintain contact through intermediaries with Taliban Interior Minister Abdul Razak, who was appointed military chief of the Afghan border city of Spinboldak last week.
Local tribal leaders hope to work out a deal similar to those made in other Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan, in which the Taliban received safe passage to mountain hide-outs in exchange for handing over control of the government.
The Associated Press, which interviewed Hamid Karzai yesterday by satellite phone, quoted the warlord as saying the city's defenses appeared to be made up of mainly Arab al Qaeda warriors who were preventing the Afghan soldiers from surrendering, just as they did in the northern city of Kunduz.
"They can't get out of the city to surrender. The Arabs have blocked the exits of Kandahar," he said.
Waves of U.S. warplanes yesterday pounded the ancient walled city as they have for the past week. Locals reported that Arab fighters, who came to Afghanistan by the thousands to train under bin Laden, were already moving to the mountains northeast of Kandahar.
That, in turn, prompted speculation that Mullah Omar and his followers would eventually turn there for sanctuary.
The United Nations said yesterday that refugees were also fleeing Kandahar by the thousands, hoping to reach U.N.-run refugee camps in the Pakistani border town of Chaman.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Peter Kessler estimated that 8,000 Afghans have reached the safety of Pakistan since the war against the Taliban narrowed to Kandahar a week ago.

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