The Battle On The Ground

Abdul plays the Great Game pretty well. He's slightly built with a boyish demeanor and an unflinchingly calm gaze--good assets for a spy. His thin whiskers are a liability, however, when he's collecting intelligence on Taliban militiamen in Kabul. "Many times the Taliban stopped me in the street for having too short a beard," says the 20-year-old ethnic Tajik, who works for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. "But after they inspected my face, they'd let me go. They joked I was just a young boy."

Abdul's latest mission lasted three months, until Sept. 20. He had two key goals: to spot Northern Alliance turncoats fraternizing with the Taliban, and to contact Taliban commanders keen to change sides themselves. Abdul (not his real name) reckons that up to 20 unit commanders--in charge of up to 2,000 men in and around Kabul--could make the switch if the tide turned decisively against the Taliban regime. "I was in touch with some commanders who used to be on our side but went over to the Taliban during the last few years," he says. "They fight for the Taliban, but they are not Taliban. They are thinking of coming over to our side when the time is right."

Afghanistan is a land of porous battlelines and tenuous allegiances. So while Washington moved troops into the region last week--including 1,000 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, who arrived in Uzbekistan--a battle of wile and wits was already underway. The United States hoped to exploit fissures within the Taliban, and to cripple the movement before the shooting even got started. But that's a tricky business. In addition to the Northern Alliance, several once-and-future Afghan warlords hope to play a part in toppling the Taliban. All presumably want some power in a post-Taliban government, yet none wants to play the role of American stooge. So Washington pretended, at least, to keep its distance, even as officials played up reports that Taliban authority was dissolving. (The only obvious "psy op" that was underway last week was an increase in Voice of America's Afghan broadcasts; there was also talk of setting up a new transmitter in Pakistan.) All the while, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was flogging a plan--to Russia's Vladimir Putin and Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf--to topple the Taliban through diplomatic pressure over the next few weeks and replace it with a broad-based government.

The best intelligence on the Taliban gave a mixed picture. The militia's authority was fraying at the edges as ordinary people ran for the relative safety of refugee camps. Yet thousands of true believers were reinforcing their positions and preparing for an American assault. The Taliban are "very well equipped" with new guns and tanks, a defector named Khan Jan told NEWSWEEK--better equipped than their Afghan opposition. The militia also has a number of U.S.-supplied Stinger antiaircraft missiles, leftovers from the war against the Soviets. Jan says that Arab and Pakistani volunteers for the Taliban are playing a key role. "They have the best morale," he says. "They say, 'Let anyone attack us, Americans or anyone; we will defend ourselves'."

Hundreds of militant students from neighboring Pakistan are rushing to help. Administrators at two of Pakistan's hard-line Islamic schools, or madrasas, told NEWSWEEK that as many as half of their students--Afghans and Pakistanis--had traveled across the border by night to join "the jihad." One veteran Afghan commander from the anti-Soviet war, who now lives in Pakistan, said that young teenagers from a Karachi madrasa had been bused off to Kabul and Kandahar without their parents' consent. "Their children have been kidnapped," he said, "but there is nothing they can do."

Many Afghans have their fingers to the wind, while others are trying to sway their compatriots one way or the other. A former Afghan mujahedin leader named Abdul Haq, who lost a foot fighting the Soviets, was in Peshawar last week holding late-night meetings with Afghan tribal leaders and commanders. Abdul Haq made a reputation for himself during the anti-Soviet jihad by running an underground network of double agents in Kabul that included a communist general. Now he's trying to persuade former allies to hold a loya jirga, or national council, under the auspices of the former king, to form a new government. "I tell them that for the first time there will be peace and security, there will be school and education--all these things that Afghans need," says Abdul Haq. "Many people don't want the Americans to attack," he adds, "but they want the Taliban to go." There is nothing that Washington itself would like more.

WithinWashington andin Peshawar

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