Taliban yield Kabul, but not war

Concern for human rights follows the swift rebel capture of the capital yesterday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tears of joy - and sorrow - greeted Afghan rebel forces yesterday, as they seized the capital, Kabul, from the retreating Taliban militia.

Rejecting all advice but their own, Northern Alliance rebels paused at the gates of the city - as promised - and then roared into the capital with armor, troops, and police units.

The quick capture of the capital - with little military resistance - is a symbolic victory that signals the end of the first phase of this military campaign. But it's not clear how much control the Northern Alliance will assume, and how much control the US can exert over the alliance. While both the US and UN are rushing to put together a coalition of Muslim nations to form a peacekeeping force, no political plan has yet been agreed upon that would include all of this nation's fractious ethnic groups.

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The US has three concerns: that the Alliance itself doesn't take iron-fisted control of Afghanistan, that it doesn't commit revenge atrocities as it has in the past, and how to proceed militarily from here. The Taliban aren't finished.

The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar Mohammad, says they are retreating to their strongholds in the remote southern mountains of Afghanistan - where they can fight the US on a more equal footing - to wage guerrilla warfare.

But for the residents of Kabul, this is a time of celebration. Flowers and cheers showered the arriving alliance troops on the streets, where people said they were grateful for "liberation" from five years of oppressive Taliban rule.

"The people are free!" shouted Massood, a university student. "I never thought I would see Kabul fall so quickly. Only God knew better. Now there will be wedding parties with dancing and music every night!"

Taliban forces - pushed back by an alliance offensive and US airstrikes - withdrew overnight. Then came a day of extraordinary emotion, that ranged from fear to jubilation - and, for some, despair.

"Thank you, Mr. Bush!" shouted Nissar, standing on the edge of a crowd holding cloth over their noses, as they gathered around the bodies of several Taliban soldiers ambushed in their car as they tried to flee. The gruesome sight was one of a handful that dotted Kabul yesterday.

"We don't like this one," Nissar says, pulling at his long beard - a legal requirement for all men that the Taliban enforces with whips and jail time. "I will shave it off very soon."

Tanks and vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft fire rumbled through the streets, as alliance policemen - wearing distinct blue bands on their hats - deployed with shoulder-held grenade launchers at every corner. Some women revealed their faces from under their burqas - a liberty forbidden by the Taliban. Others relished the return of music - also outlawed.

"This is the first time I listen to this in public in five years," says Hashem, listening to an Iranian tape on a like-new walkman. "I will shave my beard, too. We are so happy - this is a celebration day!"

As he said it, a wedding party - the colorfully decorated lead car and bus of revelers encouraged by the changing hands of their city - drove by behind.

But along with the cheers for the retreat of the Taliban, a certain trepidation was evident. Some here fear a repeat of the ethnic bloodletting that left tens of thousands dead the last time the alliance ruled here, from 1992 to 1996.

Ethnic Pashtuns - who make up 38 percent of the Afghan population, and dominate the Taliban - rejected rule then by the minority Tajiks, Uzbek, and Hazaras, who constitute most of the alliance forces.

"There is no problem now, but we are afraid of the future - about people being killed or disappearing," says Hares, an engineer. "People are afraid that what happened before will happen again. There will be revenge. All Pashtun people aren't bad, but the Taliban made it bad, because they killed so many people."

Alliance officials say they are changed from those chaotic days in the early 1990s, and that lessons have been learned about including all ethnic groups in government.

Still, the 87-year-old former king, Zahir Shah, an ethnic Pashtun who has lived in exile in Italy since 1973, yesterday said the alliance had broken a deal with him by entering Kabul.

For the rebels on the ground, not entering the undefended city would have been a sacrilege. The road they traveled to the city proved that, they say. As soldiers pressed south along the Shomali plain, they came across one village after another that had been largely destroyed by the Taliban - and could inspire revenge thinking.

Trees had been cut down, fields burned, and villages occupied during Taliban sweeps in 1999. The offensive and defensive action left its own charred remains. American bombing of Taliban strongholds - including 20-foot-deep craters left along the road to stall retreating troops - further added to a war scene that in places resembled post-World War II cities of rubble.

Alliance troops stopped along the road to Kabul to posed for photos, with war souvenirs held high. Some rode atop captured Taliban tanks.

"I just saw my village," said alliance soldier Mohammed Gholam, the words catching in his throat as he rolled toward the capital. "I am nervous, because we now have no house and no fields. Everything is destroyed."

Front lines that just hours earlier had been blanketed with hostile fire were strangely quiet. Abandoned mattresses, clothing, and military equipment in layer after layer of trenches north of Kabul pointed to a hasty Taliban retreat.

A handful of dead Taliban fighters on the road, who had been ambushed during their late retreat, were surrounded by dismissive and curious passersby. Further up the road, at the "gates" of Kabul on the Sara Kotel pass, alliance officers at first tried to prevent their troops advance.

Three armored personnel carriers blocked the route mid-morning, even as citizens of Kabul poured up the road in increasing numbers, giving the soldiers gifts, flowers, and encouragement.

Just inside the city, a mob of hundreds, stomped and pulled at the corpse of a Taliban fighter, who Afghans said was one of the 10,000 Arab volunteers who fought alongside the Islamic militia. "Arab, Arab!" the crowd shouted, "We are killing bin Laden! We have defeated the Taliban!"

Abdul Hamid was among the first down that road into the city yesterday morning. A fighter for the alliance, he was forced to leave his family five years ago, when the Taliban took Kabul.

He had never seen his youngest child, a son, Fazilrahman, and his daughters were too young to remember him. "They cried so much when I walked in the door," he said, with the shine of a tear in his own eye. "They could not believe it - especially this one," he says, putting his hand on the head of daughter, Faridah.

But there were tears on the other side of the road, too, just 300 yards away, where a family buried Taliban Commander Mahmoud, who was killed in the fighting. The grave was dug into a hillside, and Mahmoud's wife and brother sobbed as the the body was lowered into the hole and covered with broad shale stones, then dirt.

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