Taliban forces swap allegiance in a very Afghan surrender

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The Independent Online

For a man who had just surrendered with 2,000 of his men Haji Gholam Mohammed Khan, a tough-looking Taliban commander with a black spade beard, was looking unnaturally confident and cheerful.

It turned out he had reason to be. It was a very Afghan surrender. "I was in control of this area before and I will be in control in future," said Gholam Mohammed, a bulky man with cruel eyes, as he stood yesterday with his men, all armed, just outside the town of Maidanshar. His men had held off the troops of the triumphant Northern Alliance for two weeks.

A young Northern Alliance commander called Abdul Rashid said: "We have taken away some of their heavy weapons, such as tanks and rocket launchers, but they will keep their personal weapons."

In effect, Gholam Mohammed, previously accused by the Northern Alliance of taking a $200,000 (£140,000) bribe to change sides and then welshing on the deal, retains control of his fiefdom and has simply changed sides.

Not everybody was happy with the surrender. Sitting not far from Gholam Mohammed was one of his men, Mohammed Said Kouchai, nursing a rifle with telescopic sights. He said he might have left the Taliban, but he certainly would not fight for the Northern Alliance. Asked if he had joined the Taliban out of religious conviction he laughed loudly and, pointing to the Northern Alliance soldiers round about, said: "I cannot speak about it. Let us say I fought as a hobby."

Mohammed Said had some reason for bitterness. He complained that his back was hurting him. We asked him what was wrong and he explained that some years ago he was captured by the Northern Alliance in a battle.

He said: "I was a prisoner in the Panjshir Valley for three years. They forced me to work on the roads and to clean irrigation ditches. One day I sat down because I was tired and they beat me on the back. It has hurt me ever since."

The speed of the Northern Alliance advance has been so swift that their authority is spread very thinly. Often they have reached accommodations with local commanders such as Gholam Mohammed.

Mohammed Assan Nawa, a teacher in Kabul, said: "Everybody is worried that now the Taliban have gone there will be anarchy with every local commander controlling his part of Afghanistan. That is why we need an international force like the UN in here."

Gholam Mohammed had no doubt that the days of the Taliban were over. He said: "They could not stand up to American bombing." His own forces had not been bombed by the Americans, though we had seen a pilotless drone overhead the previous day. He claimed that he was in contact with American officers by a satellite phone "they gave me two months ago".

The fall of Maidanshar and the impending loss of Kunduz are heavy blows to the Taliban. The crucial question now is whether their positions in Kandahar and neighbouring provinces, which are their traditional strongholds, unravel as quickly as elsewhere.

Part of the Northern Alliance's problem at Maidanshar is that it is a Pashtun town and all its troops there are Tajiks. This means that the Alliance has to deal gently with Pashtun commanders who are willing to change sides.

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