Opposition closing on Taliban

The Washington Post and associated press

JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan — Afghan opposition forces on Sunday closed in from three sides on a large concentration of Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan, threatening to cut off the last major Taliban contingent in the north from its supply lines, rebel commanders said.

Leaders of the opposition Northern Alliance reported several additions to the string of rebel victories that began Friday with the fall of Mazar-e Sharif, a northern crossroads city. The alliance fighters, operating with decisive help from U.S. warplanes and special forces advisers, captured the town of Taloqan, sending Taliban troops retreating toward Kunduz, one of their last northern strongholds.

Many of the Northern Alliance’s claims could not be verified independently.

The setbacks for the Taliban over a three-day period appeared to strengthen the hand of the United States in pursuing its goal of dismantling the ruling Afghan militia, which is harboring reputed terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Some rebel commanders have expressed eagerness to retake Kabul, the Afghan capital. But military and political planners in Washington and other foreign capitals have urged them to stay out of the capital until a broad-based government can be formed to replace the Taliban.

In a news conference Sunday, Abdullah, the Northern Alliance’s foreign minister, asserted the alliance had seized six northern provinces since Friday. After being bottled up in the northeastern province of Badakhshan for most of the last three years, the alliance now also controls Takhar, Bamian, Samangan, Jowzjan, Badghis and Balkh provinces, he said.

But alliance officials cautioned that several pockets of resistance remain in the north, and the Taliban forces being hemmed in around Kunduz include Arab, Pakistani and other foreign fighters who are expected to put up a fierce defense.

In Kabul, a Taliban spokesman acknowledged the loss of three provinces but said its forces had made a strategic withdrawal to regroup.

U.S. warplanes, including B-52 bombers, staged air strikes throughout Sunday on Taliban front-line positions 35 miles north of Kabul, seeking out retreating bands of Taliban fighters. Taliban and Northern Alliance forces also traded fire with rockets, mortars and machine guns.

The people of Mazar-e Sharif, which had been in Taliban hands for three years before its capture Friday, celebrated the alliance victory by flouting the harsh social and religious restrictions that had been imposed by the Taliban’s widely resented Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Men lined up at barber shops to shave off their beards, which had been mandatory under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam; music, previously banned by the Taliban, blared from homes and shops; and women threw off their head-to-toe veils known as burqas, the Pakistani-based Afghan Islamic Press reported.

Associated Press

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