Jubilant Mazar falls to Northern Alliance again

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The Independent Online

The people of Mazar-i-Sharif are celebrating their sudden liberation from Taliban rule by queuing at barber shops to have their beards shaved and by playing music for the first time in three years.

The Pashtun-dominated Taliban were always outsiders in Mazar-i-Sharif, whose population is mostly Tajik and Uzbek. A foreign aid worker told Reuters in Islamabad yesterday: "I was in Mazar just before 11 September and the place felt like an occupied city."

General Mirwaiz Shahin Shah, a commander under Abdul Rashid Dostum, told The Independent: "They banned the city's great religious festival and people were not allowed to follow their religious customs. They tramped through the Shrine of Hazrat Ali [the city's holiest] with their boots on."

So the reaction to the Taliban's defeat was jubilant. Women ventured outdoors without the burqa for the first time in years, and music blared from shops. "The people were very happy," said General Mirwaiz, who is in daily telephone contact with his chief. "They went out to General Dostum's camp and pleaded with him to come out and talk to them, and when he did they showered him with money."

Mazar proved treacherous for those defending it, as it often has in the past. When the Northern Alliance seized back the town from the Taliban in 1997, hundreds of Taliban fighters were trapped in its narrow lanes and butchered there. Later the Taliban captured it again, and again the defenders were massacred. When the opposition troops poured into the city on foot and horseback on Saturday, the Taliban had fled, leaving to their fate hundreds of pious volunteers recently arrived to fight alongside them from Pakistan, according to a Northern Alliance envoy in Tashkent. Mohammed Hash-am Saad said: "[The Pakistanis] didn't know the city and they didn't know where to go." They took refuge in two buildings abutting the city's central square, one a girls' school and the other the house of a former rebel commander.

Another bloody Mazar massacre loomed but Mr Saad insists this did not happen. "We didn't want to kill them," he said. "We surrounded the Pakistanis and waited for them to come out. We took them to jail. Our courts will deal with them." General Dostum himself said merely: "Some were captured and some were killed."

Taking Mazar set the scene for opposition forces to seize a huge swath of territory that the Taliban have only ever held tenuously because they are seen as strangers in this part of the country.

General Mirwaiz said: "I knew that if one northern province fell, all the rest would collapse." He is in Peshawar, with his 100 mujahedin fighters impatiently awaiting orders to move to the front line (and cash for travelling expenses) from General Dostum. General Mirwaiz named five northern provinces where he claims the Taliban have been defeated in the past couple of days by General Dostum, and said that in two other provinces the Hazara warlord Ismael Khan is close to victory – whereupon his forces and those of Dostum will meet up.

He also claimed that Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun commander who entered Afghanistan from Quetta a week ago, was in Farah province in the far west and had captured several towns. That is important given the execution by the Taliban on 21 October of Abdul Haq, the only other Pashtun commander who has so far challenged the Taliban's domination.

General Mirwaiz believes the American bombardment has been largely responsible for the "weakening of the Taliban's morale", which paved the way for the opposition's victories. He gave one example of the way General Dostum and other commanders had managed to capitalise so fast on the pummelling the Taliban had received from the air in the past week. "When Dostum captured the town of Shulgar in the province of Balgh," he explained, "he found his old commanders Sayed Asad Agha and Amid Jan Khalochair. They had reluctantly gone over to the Taliban when the Taliban seized the province.

"They had formerly governed the province with Dostum. The commanders had a secret meeting in Shulgar with Dostum and agreed to defect to his side."

Defections also precipitated the fall of Mazar, according to General Mirwaiz: in this case a commander called Amid Jhan defected, as he had previously defected to the Taliban. "The Taliban seized Mazar thanks to Amid Jhan, and they lost it thanks to Amid Jhan."