Taliban holdouts keep US on edge

A major Taliban stronghold surrenders, but prisoners revolt and many are killed.

Washington

A mixture of peaceful surrender and violent revolt marked the fate of thousands of Taliban fighters besieged in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, illustrating the complexities the US-led coalition faces as it pursues stubborn pockets of resistance in Afghanistan.

Kunduz stood as the biggest concentration of Taliban holdouts in the north - estimated at 3,000 to 10,000 men - and the prospect of its peaceful capture raised hopes that the US coalition could root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda with few big ground battles.

Indeed, hundreds of Afghan Taliban fighters in recent days have laid down their arms and received amnesty. But a prison uprising yesterday by several hundred foreign militants from Taliban ranks (mainly Pakistanis, Chechens, and Arabs) ended with reports of hundreds of foreign fighters dead - and grisly new evidence of the resolve of hardcore Taliban to battle to the end.

According to the Pentagon, about 300 non-Afghan Taliban brought from Kunduz to a fort outside Mazar-e Sharif used smuggled weapons to begin "a firefight." The uprising was quelled by 500 troops of the US-backed Northern Alliance, with the aid of US airstrikes.

At press time, the Pentagon declined to say how many were killed or wounded in the uprising, although Northern Alliance commanders said hundreds of the foreign Taliban prisoners were killed.

The Pentagon also would not confirm reports by journalists on the scene that US Special Operations Forces were at the fort - and that one American was killed. Spokesman Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking said only that "it appears all US forces in the region are accounted for."

Taliban forces had threatened to fight bitterly at Kunduz, where they regrouped after the US-backed Northern Alliance swept Afghanistan in mid-November. At press time, the possibility remained of a stiff fight between Northern Alliance forces entering Kunduz on Sunday and hardcore Taliban remnants in the city.

The Pentagon has emphasized that difficulties lie ahead in Afghanistan, including the test of overthrowing the Taliban from its southern base of Kandahar. US warplanes in recent days have been striking Taliban targets in the south, as well as cave complexes considered to be possible Taliban and Al Qaeda hideouts.

Still, the Kunduz breakthrough, brought about after several days of complex negotiations by Northern Alliance commanders, holds a mixed bag of psychological, diplomatic, and military consequences for the anti-terror coalition, analysts say.

Psychologically, the example of Kunduz could drive a wedge between the remaining Taliban members who are native Afghans and the non-Afghan foreign fighters. "It might ... create greater division in the south between Afghans and Arabs," says John Moore, who formerly tracked Afghanistan for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

A deal struck by the Northern Alliance allowed the Afghan Taliban to switch sides; indeed, many were welcomed as "brothers." But the agreement required that the Taliban's foreign mercenaries in Kunduz surrender and be taken captive pending an investigation of any ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Saudi-exile Osama bin Laden. Northern Alliance President Burhanuddin Rabbani said Sunday that the foreign fighters who surrendered - so far estimated to number 700 - would be handed over to the United Nations.

Earlier in the Kunduz standoff, which began Nov. 12, the more hardcore, ideologically driven foreign Taliban had allegedly killed some Afghan Taliban who sought to defect.

Yet diplomatically, the starkly different fates of Taliban forces from Kunduz will both help and hurt US ties to key allies in the struggle in Afghanistan. On one hand, the lenient treatment of Afghan Taliban is likely to reassure Pashtun tribes in the south. On the other, the deaths of foreign fighters are likely to exacerbate complaints from Pakistan.

The Pashtun, who make up 40 percent of Afghanistan's population and have large contingents in Pakistan, have provided the core support and manpower for Taliban rule. Although several Pashtun tribes have recently abandoned the Taliban, for ethnic reasons they are likely to welcome the willingness of the Northern Alliance, composed mainly of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, to negotiate a surrender and amnesty for rank-and-file Afghan Taliban fighters not accused of war crimes.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has expressed concern that Pakistanis who joined the Taliban might be slaughtered if the Northern Alliance seized Kunduz. Adding to the sensitivities, some US experts believe that those Pakistanis could include former Pakistani intelligence agents advising the Taliban, as well as the children of religious figures in Pakistan. (The Pentagon denied reports this weekend that Pakistani jets had ferried some foreign militants out of Kunduz.)

Pakistan has sought to negotiate the return of the militants to Pakistan for trial - and is expected to protest the Northern Alliance crackdown on imprisoned Pakistani fighters.

"The war effort would be hurt by a massacre of foreign fighters in Kunduz," says Thomas Simons, who served as US ambassador to Pakistan from 1996 to 1998. "It is very important to keep Pakistan with us," he says, especially as the Pentagon beefs up US commando forces operating from Pakistani bases.

Militarily, the Taliban surrender from Kunduz offers the US-led anti-terror coalition several benefits, analysts say. By further strengthening the opposition and demoralizing the Taliban, it may reduce the need for US and allied forces to support broader ground combat, freeing up resources for the hunt for top Taliban leaders and Mr. bin Laden.

Also, the growing numbers of Taliban defections, including most recently the Taliban deputy interior minister Mullah Khaksar and foreign Al Qaeda recruits, could provide important intelligence for US forces as they track down terrorists in Afghanistan and other nations.

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