Led by a tank, they came across the front line yesterday in rusting Russian trucks and broken-down jeeps on two ropes, the Taliban in retreat. But they did not look like a beaten army. They waved their Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers in the air, and joked and smiled with us.
The siege of Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in the north, appeared close to ending last night as 2,000 Taliban troops streamed out of the city to surrender. The Northern Alliance said its troops would enter the city today to accept its formal surrender.
Among the troops giving themselves up yesterday, the Alliance claimed, were some of the foreign Taliban volunteers who have been trapped inside Kunduz. Six hundred surrendered according to some reports.
But there are still fears of potential bloodshed. There were unconfirmed reports last night that some foreign fighters were still inside the city, vowing to fight to the death. And the fate of those foreigners who surrender or are captured by the Northern Alliance is far from certain.
For the Afghans, it was all too easy. "Oh no, I'm not with the Taliban," one of the surrendering soldiers told us with a sly smile. "I'm with the Northern Alliance." Abdul Bashir had just left the besieged city where he had been holed up alongside thousands of foreign volunteers fighting on his side. "If we are asked to go and fight against the foreigners, we will," he said yesterday. Many of the surrendering Taliban hanging on to the tops of Russian trucks had already swapped their black turbans for the Alliance's pakoul caps, before they even crossed the front line.
This is how wars are won and lost in Afghanistan, through defections and changing sides, not through pitched battles. The Afghan Taliban we saw surrendering east of Kunduz yesterday were allowed to keep their guns, and drive into the nearby Alliance-held city of Taloqan. But as far as Afghans are concerned, the Taliban are not the enemy any more, the foreigners are. Few foreign fighters were expected to surr- ender. Under the terms of a peace deal agreed by General Dostum and Mullah Mohammed Fazil, leader of the Taliban forces in Kunduz, Afghan Taliban who surrender will be guaranteed safe passage home. But the foreigners will be taken prisoner.
There were signs of a growing split between Gen Dostum and the rest of the Northern Alliance yesterday as an Alliance leader accused Gen Dostum of allowing the foreigners to leave. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary, has said he would rather they were killed than be allowed to escape. But Gen Dostum and his allies said the surrendering foreign fighters were being held. "We will jail them, and treat them as human beings, in accordance with Islamic Sharia law," Mohammed Muhaqik, the leader of the Shia Hazara faction fighting alongside Gen Dostum, said. "If there are requests from the US or the UN or their home countries, we will hand them over," he said.
Many fear their fate could be worse. Alliance soldiers have been boasting of how they will kill the foreigners. There was no word yesterday on what had become of the thousands of other foreigners the Alliance claimed were in Kunduz, around 1,000 of them allegedly members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network.
Pakistan's ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has been begging for a solution that will prevent the slaughter of Pakistani nationals believed to be trapped inside Kunduz. There are continuing allegations that Pakistani military jets have been landing in Kunduz airport and ferrying Pakistani nationals out of the besiged city. It has been alleged they could be rescuing Pakistani military advisers to the Taliban. Refugees fleeing Kunduz have confirmed that planes have been landing in Kunduz.