- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 15, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Taliban troops struggled to regroup in their southern stronghold of Kandahar while rival warlords staked a claim on territory abandoned by the Islamic regime and vowed to resist the U.S. backed Northern Alliance.
In Washington, a U.S. official said military planes bombed and destroyed a building where top al Qaeda terrorist leaders were believed to have gathered. The Tuesday strike also included a remote-control Predator spy aircraft armed with missiles, the official said, according to the Associated Press.
U.S. officials have not determined how many or which al Qaeda leaders were in the building, the official said.
Throughout the day yesterday, province after province fell as Taliban soldiers fled, either to mountains along the Pakistani border and even into tribal areas of Pakistan itself.
In many areas, ethnic Pashtun warlords who are hostile to the Northern Alliance and angry over the U.S. bombing campaign, took over, putting the nation in a precarious standoff reminiscent of the early 1990s when ethnic warfare killed tens of thousands of people.
The dominolike fall of provinces in the south followed the sudden takeover of most of the north by the Northern Alliance this week with the help of heavy bombing of Taliban front lines by U.S. jets.
The Pentagon yesterday described the situation as "fluid."
"Anti-Taliban opposition groups in southern Afghanistan are rebelling against Taliban control, especially near Kandahar," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff.
U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the airport near Kandahar, the stronghold of the ruling Taliban, had fallen under opposition control.
Army Special Forces troops were on the ground south of the Afghan capital of Kabul helping direct air attacks against the fleeing Taliban forces, U.S. officials said.
Adm. Stufflebeem said as many as 23 Pahstun tribes are engaged in fighting against the Taliban around Kandahar.
"There are a number of Pashtun tribes in the south whom would appear now to be opposing Taliban," said Adm. Stufflebeem. "Whether or not they're working in concert, we don't know. Whether or not they are being organized to work together, we don't know. All we know is that there are multiple groups now in opposition to the Taliban."
Opposition forces also gained ground against the Taliban near the western city of Herat. The provinces of Kunar, Logar, Uruzgan, Khost, and Paktia also fell to local commanders as the Taliban fled. In some cases, lower-level Taliban troops were allowed to surrender and switch sides.
Kunar Province in particular was the site where thousands of Pakistani fighters entered in recent weeks to fight alongside the Taliban. Yesterday, Pakistanis were reported heading toward the Pakistan border with Taliban fighters at their side.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the Taliban was abandoning cities throughout Afghanistan although it is not clear to the Pentagon why that is happening.
"It may be that they are regrouping," he said. "It may be that they are abandoning and retreating. That part of it's just not clear as to necessarily why they have done what they've done." Some of the Taliban forces were observed moving west and others were seen fleeing into Pakistan, he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, touring the wreckage at the World Trade Center in New York, said the military is inserting Special Forces teams in southern Afghani-stan that are "interdicting main roads that connect the north from the south" to stop fleeing fighters.
As the regime collapses, it has lost the symbols and the substance of government authority. The capital, Kabul, has fallen to the Northern Alliance and the central government has evaporated as senior Taliban leaders have fled.
Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghani-stan's president from 1992 to 1996, is the titular head of the Northern Alliance, and there's speculation he plans to return soon to Kabul. His Jamiat-i-Islami faction is the largest component of the alliance, which returned to the capital, Kabul, on Tuesday as the Taliban evacuated.
He has expressed reservations about the broad-based government demanded by the United States and other countries.
Meanwhile, the Taliban's communications network and links to the outside world, limited to begin with, have been shrinking by the day.
The Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, who gave daily press conferences to hordes of international journalists in Islamabad, has retreated to Afghanistan. With his departure, the Taliban has gone silent, lacking a senior official able or willing to speak publicly for the movement.
All these developments point toward the disintegration of the Taliban as a political movement. The chaos underscored the urgent need for peacekeeping troops to stabilize the region while world leaders scramble to find a long-term political arrangement that will secure the peace and keep Arabs and other foreigners from using the nation as a staging ground for terrorist attacks.
If the fighting ebbs and the factions settle along the current lines, Afghanistan will look much as it did in the mid-1990s, before the Taliban came to power in 1996.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban's deputy ambassador to Pakistan, claimed the current campaign against the movement was "plunging the country into anarchy and bloodshed once again."
The Taliban said that Osama bin Laden, who is wanted for his suspected role in the September 11 attacks on the United States, was safe inside Afghanistan and repeated their refusal to hand him over as demanded by Washington.
From a hide-out near Kandahar, Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar ordered fighters to regroup and counterattack.
The Taliban denied reports of heavy fighting in Kandahar, the site where the Taliban was born in the early 1990s and from which it went on to conquer all but about 10 percent of Afghanistan.
By the end of yesterday, the Taliban was in control of less than a quarter of the country, and the Northern Alliance claimed that even Kandahar itself had fallen into opposition hands. The Taliban, trying to put the best spin on its military collapse, claims it never intended to fight a conventional war, and is prepared to wage a hit-and-run campaign from the guerrilla-friendly terrain in the south.
If the Taliban turns into a guerrilla force an age-old Afghan tradition it would likely relinquish its last vestiges of political clout. But it could be difficult to root out.
The mountains offer an infinite number of places to hide and the Taliban will no longer be burdened with defending cities, military bases and frontline positions that were high-profile targets for U.S. warplanes.
Bill Gertz contributed to this report from Washington.

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