Tough Talk

Call it an instant saga of heroism. Northern Alliance commander Gen. Mohammed Daoud insists that his forces took Taloqan--the northeastern Afghan town situated 120 miles east of Mazar-e Sharif--only after "continuous fighting" earlier this week. But locals here say the Taliban just retreated quietly, without any sort of organized resistance.

Now Daoud claims Alliance forces have surrounded Kunduz, the only significant northern city still under Taliban control. The general says the troops are ready to take the city--and are holding back simply to spare civilian casualties.

More likely, the U.S.-backed Alliance is worried about its own casualties. Like so many other reports in the battle for Afghanistan, the situation on the ground in Kunduz is tough to confirm. Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters are said to be preparing to make a stand while U.S. warplanes are reportedly bombing targets outside the city. Some scenarios, however, do seem more likely than others. One is that the battle for Kunduz could be the fiercest yet. Another is that as easy victories over the Taliban are celebrated, key terrorists may be escaping to fight again another day.

The reason? Kunduz is not just a Taliban stronghold, it's the redoubt of Juma Namangani. His Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has posed a growing threat to the stability of regimes in Central Asia and sent tremors as far away as Moscow. Alliance fighters have been squared off against Namangani's men--and very reluctant to move against them--throughout the war. They claim he's got Arab, Chechen, Chinese and even Burmese fighters under his command. Namangani has a close relationship with Osama bin Laden and could be one of his last protectors in Afghanistan. He also has lucrative ties to the region's opium-smuggling mafias, and he is very well armed. Namangani and the rest of the non-Afghan fighters gathered around him might well decide to fight to the finish. Or, they may already have left the scene.

A Northern Alliance spokesman in Kabul told Reuters that Namangani and many of his men may have been spirited out of Kunduz by two Pakistani aircraft sighted landing there yesterday. Conceivably, the Northern Alliance itself may have cut a deal to let the Namangani inner circle go free in hopes of securing yet another quick and easy "triumph." If so, Washington's newfound allies in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will not be pleased--nor will Russian President Vladimir Putin, since the tentacles of Namangani's networks reach well into his territory as well. And if Osama bin Laden was among those evacuated? The capture of Kunduz would hardly seem a fair price.

Near the front lines, Northern Alliance commander Daoud claimed earlier today that the city is besieged on four sides by Alliance forces who are ready to roll in. But his explanation for the delay--that they have not yet done so because they want to avoid the possibility of large-scale civilian casualties--is a pat answer. His tactics are those being put into place all across Afghanistan as Alliance troops take back Taliban terrain: let the Taliban retreat--or just change the color of their turbans--and then march in and claim victory in hard-fought battle. Rarely, if ever, has hard fighting on the ground made any difference since American bombers started their campaign 39 days ago.

Daoud's plans for Kunduz involve a particularly Afghan brand of bravado and negotiation. "First we will separate the Afghan people from the terrorists, and then we will invite them to our side," he said. "We want to distinguish between local Taliban and foreign Taliban."

Daoud said the Alliance would provide some form of clemency in the form of courts for the "low ranking" Taliban, but that the higher-ranking commanders would not be spared. "For the high-ranking officers, they are killers. They have assassinated [former Alliance commander Ahmed Shah] Massoud, and we will not [make deals] with them."

Asked by NEWSWEEK how the Alliance could possibly ensure that those local Taliban who had defected to the Alliance would not shift sides again once the liberating troops had moved on to the next village, Daoud's response was muddled. "The situation dictates that they don't defect back," he said. " If they do, even their own families will fall into dispute and not let them go back." In fact, allegiances shift all the time. "It's normal that people change sides," said one local man named Saeed, "Especially if they're of the same nationality." For nationality, read tribal group.

General Daoud says he's sure that his forces have the fighting power to win the key battle of Kunduz. He just doesn't know when. Sitting in the gravel parking lot of the Iranian Red Cross here in Taloqan, Daoud told reporters he'd heard that two Pakistani planes had landed in Kunduz, but said he could give no details on the size of the planes or the reason for their presence in Afghanistan. When asked how they could have gotten there considering the fact that Americans are controlling the airspace, he said, "You have to ask the Americans about that."

Meanwhile, Alliance fighters who waited until the American bombing had cleared the way for them to make their advances, now seem utterly uninterested in the American side of the campaign. "When we advanced from Takhar to Taloqan, there was no air power from the U.S. for us," Daoud said this afternoon. But there were plenty of deals to be made, and there still are.