Just last week, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was planning to fight America and its Afghan allies to the last drop of blood. Yesterday, with a sweep of his hand, he called it all off.
A deal was reportedly struck for the peaceful handover of Kandahar, the spiritual home and last bastion of the Taliban. The fall of this ancient Afghan city would mark the final demise of the Taliban as a major political and military force in Afghanistan, and leave only one loose end for the US-led operation there - the search for prime terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden.
At press time, Mullah Omar's whereabouts were unknown. But his envoy to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said the handover would take three to four
days. "We have agreed to surrender weapons not to Hamid Karzai [the newly appointed head of the interim government], but to tribal elders," Mr. Zaeef said.
He said Taliban fighters would begin handing over their weapons to a local Pashtun leader, Mullah Naqib Ullah, beginning today, and that Omar would be allowed to live in Kandahar under Mullah Naqib's protection.
But the US has opposed any deal that would allow Omar or Mr. bin Laden to go free.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the US would not stand for any deal that allowed Omar to remain free and "live in dignity" in the region."
Kandahar is the city where Omar first led a group of religious students, or Taliban, in an armed revolt against corrupt Islamic warlords who ruled the country after the Soviet invaders departed. While some Taliban units and their Arab supporters may continue to fight a guerrilla conflict against the new Afghan government, the war is considered all but over.
"There's a hard core that will resist at all costs," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of "Taliban," the preeminent book on Omar's movement. "But the key question is what will happen in the post-Taliban setup. You've got a half dozen warlords who might divide the city. None of these warlords have national inclinations."
Just as the UN Security Council yesterday prepared to endorse the agreement among anti-Taliban Afghans to form an interim government, some leaders of the various factions began to complain.
Ethnic Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose forces dominate a large part of northern territory, including the key city of Mazar-e Sharif, said his faction was not fairly represented under the Bonn accord. And ethnic Pashtun spiritual leader Sayed Ahmad Gailani described the Bonn agreement as "unjust."
But down in the southern region of Kandahar, where the Taliban have always been strongest, there are two men who might have the ability to pull all these fragmented groups together. One is Naqib, who is a member of the Jamiat-I-Islami party of Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, and thus has close ties with the Northern Alliance. The other is Mr. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun and moderate Muslim who was selected as head of the new interim government announced in Bonn this week.
Yet these two leaders could also be each other's worst enemies. Karzai might see the handover of Kandahar to Naqib as an effort to weaken his own position on the eve of his taking power in Kabul. Naqib, as an ally of current Afghan president and Northern Alliance leader Rabbani, could see Karzai as a threat to his friend's hold on power.
ANTI-TALIBAN Pashtun tribesmen, backed by US bombing and American special forces, had been closing in on Kandahar from the north, south, and the east, including a force led by Karzai.
At the same time, the US is ratcheting up its efforts to catch bin Laden at Tora Bora, in the rugged White Mountains near the eastern city of Jalalabad. Yesterday, American B-52s dropped 250- and 500-pound bombs onto an elaborate tunnel and cavern complex, setting off orange flashes and plumes of smoke in the forested mountains.
Dozens of planes flew missions there through Wednesday night and yesterday morning after anti-Taliban forces used tanks and mortars to attack Al Qaeda guerrillas loyal to Mr. bin Laden.
Local tribesmen believe bin Laden might be holed up inside the Tora Bora caves with Arab, Pakistani, and Chechen defenders. As many as 1,500 tribal fighters pushed down a valley toward the fortified complex.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said US special forces were in the area helping direct airstrikes and gathering intelligence. He said Afghan fighters had already entered some caves in the hunt for Al Qaeda members.
Late yesterday, two truckloads of what appeared to be bearded Western military advisers disguised in local clothes sped toward the mountain redoubt where bin Laden is reportedly lodged. With more forces massing around Tora Bora and a growing sense that Al Qaeda fighters can be squeezed from the ground and the air, speculation grew that many of the top terrorists would try to flee.
Rooh Ullah, an officer attached to the warlord Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, pointed into the distance over a mountain toward the Pakistani border.
"We've only been able to block part of the valley leading into Pakistan," he said. "The Arabs can still cross into Pakistan on a 24-hour walk. If they prefer, they can go south into their other terror bases still inside Afghanistan."
The ridge where Mr. Ullah stood was littered with fliers dropped from the skies by US planes. On one side was the face of bin Laden, and on the other side was that of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's No. 2, whom senior intelligence officials for Commander Ghamsharik believe died in an airstrike Monday when he was asphyxiated by a bomb blast near his cave.
Material from Philip Smucker in Bamokhil, Afghanistan, and from the wire services was used in this report.