Colours of the cornered chameleon are changing rapidly, Taliban style

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The Independent Online

You could call it the smell of surrender, the mullah talking of compromise, the young Taliban fighters vainly seeking asylum as the wind blew the dust and faeces of this filthy frontier road into their faces. But I rather suspect we were watching the colours of the chameleon change, Taliban-style. One turban for another, you see.

Take Mullah Najibullah when he turned up at this grubby border post yesterday. "We're not surrendering Spin Boldak,'' he announced, this from the man who admitted to me inside the Afghan border town just 24 hours earlier that the Taliban had ordered him not to spend the night there. "There are no negotiations going on for the surrender because the tribal commanders want too much from us. They want a complete surrender of the Taliban along with our heavy weapons, and that's not an option.''

This wasn't quite the spirit of Kandahar whose possession, so the Taliban tell us, will never be forfeited to the Northern Alliance, nor to the US Marines who yesterday landed at the Province's sporting club at which Saudi Arabia's princes once arrived to hunt animals with the Taliban. We're still hearing about a "last stand" for Kandahar, 66 miles down the main road from here. And, say the truck drivers we chatted to today, still very much in the hands of the world's most obscurantist militia.

But the local Pakistanis, Pashtus like the Taliban, suggested that Mullah Najibullah might be pulling a bit of a fast one. One Pakistani official stated bluntly that negotiations were going on between the mullah's men and those "tribal commanders", presumably the same bunch of warlords and murderers who ran this place before the Taliban, a dab hand at killing, took over in 1996. Furthermore, he hinted, the surrender of heavy weapons might be enough to secure the transfer of Spin Boldak to new masters, the Taliban being allowed to exchange black turbans for brown ones, a la Kunduz and keep their Kalashnikovs providing they headed home to their villages.

Will Kandahar fall? True to Afghan tradition, the locals created a little detour yesterday, driving to the Pakistan border from their home city by trekking through the sand and muck around the town of Takhta-Pul and avoiding the Northern Alliance gunmen who have been shooting at the place, along with their US Air Force chums, for the past 48 hours. When they turned up at the Pakistan border, there was disappointing news for the Stalingrad-hunting press. Yes, the Taliban were still in control of Shah Durani's first royal capital. Yes, the Taliban were still in the city's airport (so much for those first Pentagon reports) and men and women were still shopping in Kandahar's market. This, remember, in a city that is supposed to be feeling the pinch of real famine.

But things are never what they seem in Afghanistan. At the roadside yesterday high in the Koja mountains, it was possible to look far across the plains of Kandahar, to its distant mountains in the grey midday heat, its roads fading in the white and brown sand, untouched by smoke or the sound of gunfire. It had looked like this, of course, back in the early Eighties, when the Russians were killing the "terrorists'' and civilians of Afghan-istan. And I'm sure it looked like this when Alexander the Great's armies tramped across it. Who could believe, as the warm breeze drifted up from this antique landscape that the Americans were also killing the "terrorists'' and civilians of Afghanistan today.

There was a touch of reality later, when seven young Taliban men sans SANS guns, of course, arrived at the Chaman crossing and begged to be allowed to enter Pakistan. They said they needed food and medical help. Whey-faced, they were probably hungry, but the Pakistanis didn't buy the "medical" bit. The Taliban boys didn't have the right documents, whatever papers these are supposed to be, and were pushed back across the border. Mullah Najibullah, it should be added, was given permission to cross. Just as the local military commander, Mullah Haqqani, was received and sent on to Quetta on Sunday.

What were they fleeing? Surrender? Ignominy? Or had they heard the US news reports of the Mazar prison slaughter, where Taliban prisoners were, I use the casual phrase of a US satellite channel, "executed"? In our war for civilisation, it is now apparently normal for people to be executed while trying to escape. War crimes? Atrocities? Think not of it. But I bet you Mullah Najibullah does.

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