Taliban soldiers head for the hills

By Mort Rosenblum

Associated Press

CHAMAN, Pakistan – Taliban soldiers in large numbers have taken heavy weapons into the mountains near Kandahar to await any American assault, according to Afghan travelers reaching this border post Friday.

Both Taliban sympathizers and others who denounce the fundamentalist government concurred that convoys had left the city, which is exposed in a valley, to dig into defensive positions on higher ground.

Passing time seems to have polarized positions in the southern city, stronghold of Mullah Omar Mohammed, head of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, who refuse to deliver Osama bin Laden in spite of the threat of U.S. retaliation.

“Kandahar is almost empty, and everyone remaining there is afraid,” said Bashir Ahmed, 27, a trader who shaved off his Taliban-imposed beard the moment he reached Pakistan. “No one knows what will happen tomorrow.”

Others who declared themselves happy to be free of the extremist Muslim leaders painted a similar picture: closed shops, confusion fed by fear and increasing severity by authorities.

But Yar Mohammed, a 26-year-old laborer, offered a different version. People are tired, he said, but morale is high.

“Everyone suffers hardship because Pakistan has closed the border,” he said, “but we are ready for anything. We are happy because Americans will lose this fight. Their days are numbered.”

Taliban authorities will never surrender bin Laden, he said, adding, “We will do everything for the safety and security of our guest.”

As he spoke, the first trucks carrying 5,000 tons of U.N. World Food Program grain trundled over the high mountain pass from Quetta, Pakistan, toward Kandahar. Most was donated by the American government.

Reminded of this, Mohammed dismissed the food aid as “the politics of America.” He tossed a turbaned head and added, “Don’t worry, you can stop.”

In theory, the border is closed, but a steady stream of trucks and cars manage to cross, either with special permission or because of cash pressed into the right palms.

The no-man’s land between Afghanistan and Pakistan teems with trade and turmoil. Merchants deliver staples to Afghans who bring luxury goods smuggled across other borders.

Because of the sporadic traffic, no predominant point of view is clear. Anti-Taliban Afghans mostly tend to keep their opinions to themselves.

But young radicals in their black turbans or colorful skullcaps leave no doubt about their feelings.

Noor Ahmed, 18, at first said the Americans had provided no proof that bin Laden was responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Then, warming to his rhetoric, he said the killing of thousands of innocent people was justified because “America interfered in Afghanistan’s affairs.”

Ahmed stopped denying that bin Laden was responsible and added, instead, that if the United States did not stay out of Afghanistan the same thing would happen again.

“If America continues, we will do what we can do,” he said.

All the travelers had similar accounts of Taliban troop movements toward the mountains, although details were sparse.

In Quetta, U.N. officials in contact with their Afghan workers confirmed that military preparations were evident, including the forced conscription of young men from all ethnic groups.

One European U.N. official, who like the others asked not to be named, said the Taliban was drafting youths from ethnic minorities with the apparent intention of placing them in front-line positions.

At the border, Faiz Khan, a 45-year-old truck driver, said he felt certain that a majority of Afghans wanted the return of their aged king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, to put in place a different government.

Also, he said, people wanted a traditional council – the old style of representative democracy via tribal chiefs – to plot out the future.

He said military columns had taken arms and ammunition to the mountains, while people left in the crippled city seemed fearful. Whatever happens, he said, most people want it to happen soon.

Asked why he wore no beard, Khan laughed. “The Taliban is busy with other things,” he said.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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