For Taliban, many losses to count

As Afghans flee the retreating Taliban, manuals by radical US groups are discovered.

MAIDAN SHAR, AFGHANISTAN

With emotional, red-rimmed eyes and quivering lips under his black Taliban turban, Gholajan Armani is watching the political wind shift against him in Afghanistan.

It is the same wind that is blowing harder against accused terrorist Osama bin Laden, as Taliban control crumbles and American Special Forces troops increase operations in the shrinking parts of Afghanistan where Mr. bin Laden can still roam.

Mr. Armani and a handful of long-bearded fellow fighters yesterday gave up their violent resistance to forces of the Northern Alliance in this pocket of Taliban sympathizers 20 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul.

A similar scene of surrender was played out on a larger scale over the weekend in the city of Kunduz. Yesterday, joyous Northern Alliance troops entered the Taliban's last northern citadel.

But the apparent disappearance of 2,000 Taliban and Arab and Pakistani militants reported to have been here in Maiden Shar (much like the confusion over force size in Kunduz) is emblematic of how the fog of war still hangs over much of Afghanistan.

"The Taliban were foreigners," says Armani, his emotional reaction betraying a disbelief in his own words. "If you can find any Arabs or Pakistanis here, you can hang me."

As the Taliban and bin Laden's militants retreat south toward their last stronghold, Kandahar, what they are leaving behind - from vast ammunition stores to do-it-yourself chemical weapons and terrorism manuals - are critical assets.

While there is elation in Washington at the speed of the alliance advance, spurred on by seven weeks of US airstrike, there is also caution. President George W. Bush warned of "difficult times ahead" during his Saturday radio address. But that wasn't the impression left at the surrender of Maiden Shar or Kunduz yesterday. After a tense standoff at Maidan Shar that lasted more than a week, during which one failed ground assault left at least three alliance soldiers dead, the village caved in to Northern Alliance rule.

"The Taliban are finished," said Haji Gholam Mohamed, the local commander who denied the presence of any Taliban or foreign fighters. "Now, you can see, we are standing with the alliance soldiers."

Alliance soldiers and local Taliban exchanged handshakes and smiles. A friend of the distraught and red-eyed Mr. Armani put his arms over his shoulders to comfort him.

In Kunduz, the "Arab" troops, as bin Laden's non-Afghan militants are known here, initially prevented the surrender of Afghan soldiers.

Analysts say this growing split is also undermining overall support for bin Laden, as more and more Afghans see his presence as responsible for their current misery.

"He is vulnerable as a foreigner among Afghans," says a former US Special Forces officer who requested anonymity. "If bin Laden were Afghan, he would be almost bulletproof. We are slowly, slowly getting better intelligence."

And there are other signs on the ground of what the Taliban and bin Laden have lost in the fight. One is at the sprawling military base of Rishkhor, 10 miles south of Kabul, which was hit repeatedly by US bombs. Virtually untouched by the US bombing in an adjoining valley, however, are dozens of reinforced concrete-bunker ammunition depots. Thousands of mortars and heavy artillery of every size, rockets and countless bullets fill the depots, and are now in alliance hands.

"It's a huge loss; it was the main secured place for the Taliban, where they kept all their ammunition," says alliance commander Ayoub Salangi. "Now they are only trying to keep themselves alive. They don't care about the damage - they just move."

Perhaps just as damaging to Al Qaeda is the amount of documentation left in training camps and safe houses, which were hurriedly abandoned when Kabul fell on Nov. 12.

Documents retrieved from the Al Qaeda training headquarters at Khost, a series of camps 95 miles southeast of Kabul, underscore the losses.

Stacks of documents there - discovered by a British correspondent for The Observer (London) newspaper, the first known Westerner to have visited the spot for years - reveal a concerted effort to instruct militants in every aspect of terrorism. English language files seen by the Monitor - many apparently from far-right US antigovernment groups - describe everything from making car bombs to converting a shotgun into a grenade launcher.

A 41-page file, called "Assorted Nasties," claims to be a recreation of a CIA manual allegedly commissioned in the 1950s and known as the "Devil's Diary," which details how to make bio- and chemical weapons from household items. "This book may seem controversial and dangerous, but such information may someday be the lifeblood of freedom fighters," one manual reads, addressing American right-wingers.

Among the piles of documents from Khost are letters from militants to their instructor, apparently an Iraqi Kurd called Abu Said, at Khaldan Camp. This camp is mentioned in confessions gleaned during several US terrorism investigations into the 1998 US Embassy blasts in Kenya and Tanzania, and the USS Cole bombing in Yemen last year.

"Thank you Abu Said," reads one letter from another Iraqi Kurd sent to Eritrea to train other militants, "for showing us how small people with faith can defeat the big people with equipment and power, who have no faith."

"We are grateful to God," reads another letter from a Yemen trainee, "to get this training and have this chance for martyrdom."

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