'Please Don't Forget Us'

The road to Kabul is pocked by bomb craters and littered with the accumulated debris of two decades of war: burnt-out husks of Soviet tanks; rusting antiaircraft guns; a crushed truck that had swerved out of control when its Taliban passengers, trying to flee Kabul in a panic last week, plunged over a steep mountainside. It's all part of the scenery now. "Do you like this melody?" asks a young Pashtun truckdriver as he enjoys a scratchy cassette--music that had been outlawed under the Taliban. "Does it sound good?" Clearly he thinks it does: he asks the question over and over, reveling in the syrupy falsetto of a Pashtun love song as his dilapidated Land Cruiser bounces and shimmies toward the capital.

Inside Kabul some Afghan women have removed their burqas, and can freely feel the sun on their faces for the first time in years. In other "liberated" towns, children flew tattered kites, and men joyfully shaved their beards. On a field in Herat where the Taliban used to amputate hands and cut heads off, kids played soccer. And at the Takhar hospital in the northern city of Taloqan, a poster of Taliban rules and regulations had been ripped down and thrown into a closet. Doctors told stories of steel cables that Taliban officials kept at the hospital for whipping patients who "misbehaved." Even the sickest patients were forced to pray five times a day. One young boy was flown to Pakistan two weeks ago after he was shot in the leg by a Taliban soldier. His crime: "He cheered when he heard the Americans were bombing his country," says a hospital nurse.

Rarely in the course of warfare have events--and the conventional wisdom--changed so dramatically. But just as Taliban invincibility turned out to be a myth, so, too, may the notion that the beleaguered Afghans are free at last. Like the Pentagon and everyone else, U.S. and U.N. diplomats were surprised by the Taliban's rapid implosion, and efforts to cobble together a replacement government have lagged far behind the military offensive. The relentless bombing campaign, in fact, may have damaged diplomatic efforts even as it pummeled the Taliban. In particular, it emboldened the minority-dominated Northern Alliance to believe it could now impose its will on other Afghan parties, or at least negotiate from a position of strength. Last weekend U.N. negotiator Francesc Vendrell went to Kabul to persuade Northern Alliance president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who returned in triumph on Saturday, to attend a peace conference at a neutral place outside Afghanistan. A Bush administration official told NEWSWEEK that the alliance "has thus far been intractable" in refusing to go. But Rabbani, coming under intense international pressure, promised publicly that he came back "for peace, not power."

The men from the north understand the ruthless nature of Afghan politics as well as anyone. Across Afghanistan last week, local warlords asserted control over regional cities, towns and villages, giving rise to fears of a return to the chaos that swept the country in the early and mid-1990s. The Bush administration, for the most part, indicated that it wasn't very worried about that outcome: the war, U.S. officials said, was still mainly about getting bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In fact, President George W. Bush three weeks ago made a conscious decision not to fret about regional politics--especially whether a Northern Alliance takeover might upset Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, and their backer, neighboring Pakistan--but simply to prosecute the war in the most effective way. That meant giving close air support to the Northern Alliance. But one senior U.S. official conceded: "Danger lurks of endless civil war or partition." For Washington, one risk is that Osama bin Laden's propaganda line--that the West is out to destroy Muslims and their countries--may again ring true in the Islamic world if Afghanistan now disintegrates into anarchy. Violence could also spread into Pakistan.

In hindsight, the unraveling of Taliban power seems easy to explain. For starters, the fierce U.S. bombing campaign by B-52s and an armada of carrier-based aircraft, dropping up to 10,000 bombs in little more than a month, may have destroyed the will of many Taliban foot soldiers. Second, an ideology that demands all or nothing from its followers thrives in a world of absolute control. Yet the American bombs broke communication and logistics links between Mullah Mohammed Omar, the "supreme commander of the Muslim faithful," and his field units. In dark, cold caves along the front lines near Kabul, and in cities where the locals were turning increasingly hostile, rank-and-file Taliban fighters calculated the cost of their continued struggle in pragmatic terms: they could run and survive, or they could die in a seemingly futile struggle against an enemy they could hardly see, much less fight. Conditions were already becoming desperate. In the trenches near Kabul, Northern Alliance fighters reported finding the remains of mice that had been cooked and eaten by Taliban soldiers.

"All or nothing" ideologies are a lot more attractive, anyway, when prospects for victory are good. But when the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif fell on Nov. 9, compromise quickly became an attractive alternative. Many if not most of the Northern Alliance "victories" last week, in fact, were the result of hard bargaining, not hard fighting. In the northern city of Taloqan, for instance, the Taliban simply retreated quietly, without any organized resistance, according to locals. A murky deal was cut for a hand-over of power in the eastern city of Jalalabad, and Northern Alliance forces surrounded the city of Konduz, but delayed an offensive while commanders on both sides negotiated. (American planes bombed Konduz late last week.) Things were murkier still in the southern city of Kandahar, the base of the Taliban, where Pashtun tribal leaders were trying to negotiate the departure from power of an increasingly frazzled Mullah Omar.

The horror stories about Afghanistan as a graveyard for foreign armies were true enough. But comparisons between the American bombing campaign and Soviet occupation were vastly overdrawn. In the Soviet case, the Afghans' great strength was that they were fighting the foreigners on the ground inside their tribal homelands. They knew the territory, had the support of a major superpower and the local people, and could choose when and where to fight. They would stage raids and ambushes, then disappear into the hills before the Soviets could call in artillery or air support. But in the current conflict, Taliban fighters, many of them Arab or Pakistani fundamentalists, were often fighting outside their countries or tribal homelands against Afghans who knew the territory intimately. "During the Soviet war the mujahedin had backup support from every house, but the Taliban do not enjoy that support," says Saleh Mohammed, a charismatic former commander who goes by the nom de guerre Mullah Malang. (The Pashto word malang can be translated to mean a person in a state of religious or alcohol-induced intoxication.) "People are fed up with them. In addition, the Pakistan border was open for us [during the Soviet era]. We could bring in unlimited supplies of medicine, food and weapons."

Northern Alliance forces were also helped significantly by several teams of U.S. Special Forces, outfitted with GPS and sophisticated communications gear. The Special Forces not only called in and directed U.S. bombing, but also helped to coordinate the Northern Alliance multipronged offensive on Mazar-e Sharif. The abrupt success of these missions stunned even the Pentagon, which had reckoned it could maintain leverage over the Northern Alliance and its actions for many months. (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at one point: "If we're supplying arms, and we're supplying supplies, and we're supplying food, and we're supplying air cover and air support, we have the ability to provide it or withhold it.")

So sudden was the broad Taliban retreat that many Afghans and other analysts initially suspected it must have been orchestrated--that Mullah Omar wanted to regroup and revert to a more effective guerrilla-style fighting force. But those suspicions were largely dispelled by Mullah Omar himself, who urged his followers not to act like "slaughtered chickens" running aimlessly to their death. "You should regroup, resist and fight," he declared over a local radio. "This fight is for Islam."

Mullah Omar had to be worried that the end was nigh for him and his movement. Even in the south near Kandahar, Mullah Omar's base, Taliban authority was fraying. Late last week the Taliban leader handed power in the city to two longtime associates, Mullah Naqib and Haji Bashar, former commanders from the anti-Soviet war. He may believe they can help shore up his ties to other Pashtun tribal leaders. "Mullah Omar has excellent relations with both of them," says Ahmed Walid Karzai, an influential Afghan opposed to Taliban rule.

If Mullah Omar and his loyalists take to the safety of the mountains or hill country, it will be with reluctance. Earlier last week, Pashtun sources in Quetta told NEWSWEEK, a group of midranking Taliban commanders visited Mullah Omar and brought with them fighters bleeding from the ears as a result of relentless U.S. bombing raids. The one-eyed mullah, wounded in fighting Soviet occupation during the 1980s, was unmoved and sent them away with orders to fight on.

Mullah Omar apparently believes that his fellow Pashtuns will rally round to prevent the minority-dominated Northern Alliance from winning control of the country. But even among the Pashtun, Taliban support is dwindling. Former Pashtun mujahedin, veterans of the anti-Soviet war, held traditional shura (councils) in several areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, plotting ways to get the Taliban to give up their fight. "We are sending representatives to the Taliban commanders every day," one such mujahed, Qari Abdul Aziz, told NEWSWEEK. "Our message is, 'Lay down your arms, and your safety will be guaranteed. If you refuse, we will make a military move against you'."

Some anti-Taliban Pashtuns are busy recruiting small armies, each numbering between 300 and 500 men, in their tribal areas. The troops have access to "a big supply" of Kalashnikov assault rifles and ammunition, according to one prominent commander, but they're less well equipped with heavier weapons like mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The commanders themselves are mostly respected veterans who, like Mullah Omar himself, earned their reputations in fierce battles against the Soviets during the 1980s. Skirmishes were reported between one tribal force and the Taliban about two hours outside Kandahar; Taliban forces successfully put down another tribal revolt in the province of Helmand.

To stave off defeat, Mullah Omar cut several power-sharing deals with regional warlords. Some of these arrangements are extremely volatile. At a roadblock outside Jalalabad, heavily armed fighters representing three different commanders vied for authority. One was from the Northern Alliance, a second represented an anti-Taliban local warlord and a third was in the service of a former Taliban commander who had switched sides. "Why are you talking to someone introduced by that other guy?" a red-bearded fighter demanded of a NEWSWEEK correspondent. As the fighter bashed a few bystanders with his clipboard to get them away, he fumed: "Why don't you interview one of my people?" A rival checkpoint guard named Abdul Razak fiddled with his handheld radio and glared. Razak, a former Taliban supporter, confessed to feeling "unsatisfied with the current situation." If an appropriate balance of power isn't achieved in the makeup of Jalalabad's government, said Razak, there will be conflict "just like 1992, and I will feel like killing 10 people." Still glowering at his red-bearded rival, Razak added: "Right now, I only feel like killing one."

It's tempting to write off the Afghans as bloodthirsty warriors trapped in a web of ancient hatreds, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Even many Afghans sense impending catastrophe. But Afghan warriors are also weary. A Northern Alliance soldier named Amanullah is a case in point. Now a wiry vet with a well-trimmed beard, he was just 13 years old--not old enough even to have a beard, he says--when he took up a gun in the battle against the Soviet Union. He never learned how to read or write, and isn't exactly sure how old he is now. He's been wounded three times--twice by bullets, once by a shell fragment. "Of course I'm tired of this war," he said before the assault on Kabul. "How could I not be tired of it? But it's hard to imagine it ending. It's been going on for so long."

Amanullah says "he doesn't entirely trust the Americans because they are still linked very closely with the Pakistanis," but quickly adds that if U.S. forces "don't stay in Afghanistan, then it will be OK." He hopes there will be an election, sponsored by the United Nations, when the fighting ends. "We have a lot of different leaders in this country, different commanders," he says. "So for that reason it would be very good if the United Nations sent their soldiers here to maintain security--above all, the security of Kabul."

Many Afghans see no hope without a long-term international commitment to rebuild their country. Roya, a 20-year-old woman fidgeting with the edges of her scarf in a room at the hospital in Taloqan, fears Afghanistan again will be abandoned--as it was after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. "Please don't forget us," she pleads. For some in the international community, that's an argument for rushing peacekeepers in to stabilize the situation. But the United Nations, with the support of the Security Council, wants first to convene a meeting of rival Afghan parties to piece together a transitional government. A Security Council resolution last week called for a new Afghan government to be "broad-based, multiethnic and fully representative of the Afghan people and committed to peace with Afghanistan's neighbors."

One key may be getting the Northern Alliance to surrender territory it believes it earned--no matter that Washington made these victories possible or that they seemed like a cakewalk. "It will take a lot of pressure from the United States and other coalition governments to make the Northern Alliance as flexible as they were before," says a senior diplomat in Islamabad. Several nations--including Muslim countries--have troops ready for a peacekeeping force should they be needed. Turkey has put a mechanized infantry brigade of roughly 3,000 men on standby, and Indonesia has also offered troops. But Northern Alliance commanders, as well as other warlords, were telling some of the peacekeepers to stay away, unless they ask permission and stick to strictly humanitarian tasks.

At the very least, international forces will be used to secure airports and other facilities needed for the import of emergency food and relief supplies that had begun flowing in by last weekend. About 100 British commandos have already landed at Baghram air base outside Kabul. Their task is to hold the airport, check it for mines, make any repairs and generally prepare it for use--to bring in additional troops, supplies and diplomatic teams. (Britain had an additional 4,000 troops on standby.) Millions of people face hunger and perhaps starvation in a country that has only the most threadbare and ruined health facilities. Taliban forces looted food and vehicles before their retreat and, in some cases, Northern Alliance forces have picked up where the Taliban left off. After the fall of Mazar-e Sharif, Northern Alliance forces twice looted U.N. offices. Armed men took all the furniture that hadn't been looted by Taliban fighters, then returned to take windowpanes and bathroom fittings.

The Bush administration, for now, wants to keep focused on its military objective--getting Osama bin Laden and destroying his Qaeda terrorist network. Never enthralled by the prospect of sorting out other people's internal divisions, it hopes to leave much of the complex peacekeeping and nation-building to the United Nations. But given that Washington launched the war, it will inherit responsibility (or at least take the blame) for whatever emerges. The road out of Kabul, in any case, will prove tougher than the road in.