JALALABAD, Afghanistan Cheering Afghans yesterday lined the road to Jalalabad, celebrating the retreat of Taliban forces and welcoming droves of returning refugees.
With soldiers of the defeated Islamic militia switching sides or melting into the mountains, local residents shouted joyful greetings to returning neighbors who poured through the newly opened border crossing at Torkham on the backs of overloaded buses and pickup trucks.
But there was no sign of the conquering Northern Alliance, whose forces have driven Taliban troops out of the capital, Kabul, and most of the country in less than a week. Here in the mountains east of Kabul, tribal leaders from four provinces managed yesterday to negotiate a peaceful exit for the Taliban and assume control without a fight.
The regional leaders worked last night to form a new regional government that would include the four provinces and, if successful, establish a second power center to compete with the Northern Alliance for influence in a new national government.
Prior to the September 11 attacks on the United States, Jalalabad was one of Osama bin Laden’s favorite spots in Afghanistan. It was the hub of a network of guerrilla camps run by his al Qaeda terrorist network. Several of the hijackers who crashed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon spent time here.
The Pakistan government announced yesterday it was moving tanks and soldiers up the border to try to prevent Taliban soldiers from slipping across the rugged frontier, perhaps to set up future guerrilla operations.
But with their leaders gone, many rank-and-file Taliban soldiers in Jalalabad simply threw away their black turbans and pledged loyalty to the new government being formed by Yunis Khalis, a former leader of the U.S.-backed guerrillas who fought off the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
With the road from Pakistan now open, Mr. Khalis’ administration brought in 15 buses full of reporters from the Pakistan border city of Peshawar, a public relations move intended to earn the administration a degree of legitimacy.
In village after village, men with newly trimmed beards and rifles slung over their shoulders cheered as the caravan passed. Rifles were fired into the air and celebratory anti-aircraft blasts streaked from the towering mountains onto the arid valley floor.
In the darkened town square of the electricity-starved Jalalabad, the celebration continued, with hundreds perhaps even thousands of people on the streets.
Mr. Khalis, known for his flaming red beard, is unlikely to play a direct role in the new government, officials said.
Instead, he turned the task over to a council of about 60 tribal elders, scholars and local military commanders led by another former anti-Soviet fighter, Deen Mohammed.
“They are meeting to work out a new ideology,” said spokesman Abdul Rahim.
Mr. Mohammed is the brother of former guerrilla commander Abdul Haq, who was recently captured and executed by the Taliban while on a mission to start an anti-Taliban revolt among tribal leaders.
The Taliban, with its harsh Islamic ideology and its brutality, has terrorized the region for the past six years.
Taliban religious police beat men who dared to trim their beards and women who dared to wear white shoes beneath their burkas, the all-covering robes.
Under its rule, television was banned, children weren’t allowed to sing and girls were prohibited from going to school.
“Now, girls will go to school,” said Mr. Rahim, who helped organize the reporters’ bus caravan. “There will be a lot of freedom for them.”
But, he said, “we are looking for help from foreign governments to help rebuild our education systems. There is no money in the bank because the Taliban took it all.”
Mr. Khalis, who effectively controls the province of Nangarhar that surrounds Jalalabad, is trying to revive a defunct legislative body, the Eastern Shura, which would include the neighboring provinces of Kunar, Laghman and Noorista.
The shura would appoint a governor for each province as well as a chief executive for the entire region. Because the group and the region is composed almost entirely of ethnic Pashtuns, the shura will likely play a major role in a new national government.
Although Mr. Khalis’ group says it wants to work with the Northern Alliance, which is composed of mainly ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, on Wednesday it warned the alliance not to enter its territory.
Pashtun leaders in several other southern provinces have also taken power from the Taliban, which appears to have fled to the mountains to wage a guerrilla war.
World leaders are anxious to see Afghanistan form a government that reflects the nation’s complex ethnic makeup in order to prevent a civil war like the one in the early 1990s, which precipitated the Taliban’s rise to power.