Taliban digs in as it dissolves

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – Taliban forces in the Afghan cities of Kunduz and Kandahar dug in Thursday for what could be the regime’s last conventional battles, even as U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks declared that U.S. forces were “tightening the noose” around Taliban leaders and their allies in the al-Qaida terrorist network.

In Kunduz, the remnants of Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan, including as many as 3,000 zealous foreign fighters, broke off negotiations with opposition forces and sought to fortify their defensive positions for battle. In Kandahar, in the south, Taliban troops skirmished with several opposition groups and a small number of U.S. special forces troops.

But less than a week after the opposition Northern Alliance captured its first major city, Taliban forces continued to dissolve as some fighters defected, others fled the country and still others sought to blend in with the rest of the Afghan population.

In western Afghanistan, more than 100 soldiers, including at least 19 prominent Taliban leaders, were captured Wednesday. The general in charge of the arrests said many of the men had changed their appearance by cutting their hair and shaving their beards.

Although that made positive identification difficult, turncoat Taliban forces tentatively fingered three of the men as the former governor of the capital, Kabul, and the former governor and chief of police in Herat, in western Afghanistan.

In the Kandahar area, negotiations were apparently under way between tribal leaders and a number of local Taliban commanders in an effort to get the Taliban to give up power without bloodshed.

Even as the Taliban appeared severely weakened and on the run, its supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was warning Wednesday of the imminent destruction of the United States.

“The current situation of Afghanistan is related to a big cause – that is, the destruction of America,” Mullah Omar told BBC radio. “We will see this in short time.”

Asked whether there was a concrete plan for such destruction, Omar replied: “The plan is going ahead, and, God willing, it is being implemented. But it is a huge task which is beyond the will and comprehension of human beings. If God’s help is with us, this will happen within a short period of time. Keep in mind this prediction.”

U.S. warplanes also continued to aid opposition forces Thursday with strikes on Taliban positions outside Kunduz, in the north.

The Taliban forces around Kunduz gathered there last weekend after retreating from the fallen city of Mazar-e-Sharif and other nearby locations. They number about 20,000 in all, opposition commanders said. They are led by, according to Franks, “hard-core” foreign fighters from places such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Russian republic of Chechnya.

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