A PITCHED battle in the Afghanistan capital has set back the Taliban, a much-celebrated army of Islamic youths, and cleared the way for a UN-proposed switch of governments in the war-torn nation next week.
Fighting over the past few days saw the Taliban, which captured a third of the country's provinces in just nine months and left an indelible impression on the political scene, come under attack by Afghan Army Chief Ahmed Shah Masoud.
Until last month, the Taliban had been receiving military support from Mr. Masoud, a former guerrilla leader who fought the Soviet occuption from 1979-89.
The onslaught sent the Taliban and a rival Shiite militia under Abdul Ali Mazari, who had held western Kabul for the last three years, into full retreat. The Iranian-backed Mr. Mazari had subjected Kabul to a devastating artillery siege in which 20,000 people died.
It is still not clear who fired first, but as government forces advanced on the remaining Shiite opposition forces in west Kabul over the weekend, Taliban fighters, who said they had been trying to keep the peace between the sides, joined the fight against the government.
The Taliban's decision to join the fighting in Kabul has seriously undermined their credibility as UN-sponsored talks to form a new government gather momentum.
After taking the western districts of Kabul, Masoud and President Burhanuddin Rabbani held a meeting with Satar Sirat, chairman of the UN-sponsored working group charged with forming an interim government here by March 21.
In an interview with the Monitor, Dr. Sirat, who served as Afghan justice minister from 1969-1971, announced that ''both President Rabbani and Commander Masoud have agreed to our new plan. We now intend to transfer power to a representative national council made up of two members from each of Afghanistan's 31 provinces.'' But he also conceded that his group may not be able to form a new government by the March 21 deadline.
If implemented, the plan would likely give Masoud effective control of the new government.
Although the plan conforms with the Taliban's basic demand of establishing a representative Islamic government, it seems unlikely that Masoud would agree to grant them any military role inside Kabul.
TALIBAN forces had entered western districts of Kabul last Thursday, after apparently making a deal with Mazari for his forces to hand over their positions. Taliban leaders then negotiated a cease-fire with the government and began positioning their forces in a thin buffer zone between the warring sides.
But by Saturday morning, fighting had broken out between the Taliban and Mazari's forces.
Seizing on the chaos, Masoud's forces began their ground attack against the joint forces.
While militarily the operation quickly met its objectives, the situation quickly degenerated, as government units began pillaging, raping women, and beating whatever men were present.
Thousands of refugees poured out, clogging the narrow roads as they headed for safer areas.