ISLAMABAD, Pakistan The quick collapse of Kabul has become a recurring theme in Afghanistan’s long, strange war. Time and again, the rival factions have waged fierce battles for years in remote mountains and isolated villages only to see the capital change hands with barely a shot fired.
“The Taliban had wanted to make a tactical retreat from the north, but they didn’t want to give up Kabul,” said Ahmed Rashid, author of the best-selling book, “Taliban.” “It turned into a pell-mell rout because the Taliban completely underestimated the impact of the U.S. bombing and the speed of the advance by the Northern Alliance.”
Rewind to 1992: Afghanistan’s Communist government was crumbling from within, and President Najibullah relinquished the capital to the advancing guerrilla factions, which included some of the same leaders and fighters who now make up the Northern Alliance.
Those factions then fought each other in Kabul for four years, reducing entire sections of the city to rubble. The Taliban was on the fringes of the city for more than a year but did not enter until President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s forces evacuated in September 1996, again without a fight.
The sides were reversed this time. Piling into trucks, the Taliban troops rolled out of the city overnight, clearing the way for the Northern Alliance, which is led by the white-bearded Mr. Rabbani, a former academic, who has never relinquished his claim to the presidency he lost five years ago.
In the odd psychology of Afghan warfare, fighters often seem more comfortable waging a hit-and-run guerrilla campaign from the protection of the rugged mountains than defending a city with a conventional army.
The Afghans are legendary guerrilla fighters just ask the Soviet Red Army, which chased them through the endless mountains and across the scorching deserts for a decade before leaving in defeat in 1989.
But in more traditional, face-to-face military battles, Afghans conduct warfare in their own unique way.
Rival factions routinely chat with each other across the front line on their military radios, exchanging jokes and insults as often as artillery rounds. The front will be stalemated for weeks or months, with both sides content to lob shells back-and-forth, and neither side making a serious attempt to take ground.
But over weeks, these conversations may lead a key commander to accept a bribe and defect, causing the seemingly fixed front line to crumble without so much as a skirmish.
Even as the Northern Alliance was pressing its offensive on the capital, it was talking to the retreating Taliban forces, looking for defectors.
“We are keeping in touch with the Taliban commanders and we are hopeful they will come to us,” opposition spokesman Mohammed Abil said Monday from northern Afghanistan.