Betrayal led Taliban to bloodless triumph

Slippery deals enabled regime to capture north, writes J J Ferguson
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The speed with which the end came flabbergasted everybody. Only three weeks ago, General Rashid Dostum, the defeated leader of the anti- Taliban alliance, stood on a podium in the centre of Mazar-i-Sharif for two hours as his forces, including 70 tanks and a squadron of MiG-21s, rumbled by or dipped their wings overhead in salute. Not one of those tanks or jets fired a shot against the Taliban as they advanced from the west this weekend, prompting General Dostum to flee to Tashkent and then Ankara. Never in Afghan history has so much territory been won with so little bloodshed.

The collapse of the north is not complete. Ahmed Shah Massoud, General Dostum's main ally and former defence minister in the government expelled from Kabul by the Taliban last September, still controls two or three provinces in the north-east. The territory he holds in the mountains and high passes of the Panjshir valley is a very different military prospect to the flatlands of Turkestan. He commands about 20,000 seasoned troops, whose loyalty to their leader appears to be of a different order to that of General Dostum's men. What Massoud and his forces do next is of crucial importance to the peace and security not just of Afghanistan but of Central Asia.

Massoud is an ethnic Tajik, whose inspired guerrilla campaign against the Taliban throughout last winter has been supported by Tajikistan and probably by Russia as well, principally from an airfield at Kulyab, in the southern Tajikistan. This weekend the Tajik President, Imomali Rakhmonov, called an emergency meeting to discuss the burgeoning crisis to the south. He has frequently expressed fears that Afghan conflicts may trigger an uncontroll- able influx of refugees into Tajikistan, which shares an 800- mile border with Afghanistan and is only now emerging from a five-year civil war of its own.

There are already an estimated 1.8 million people living in Mazar, far more than its ordinary population, and a large proportion of these are fugitives from the Taliban. With the fall of the city, those people with reason to run have nowhere left to go now but north.

Massoud, or so the theory goes, could lead some or all of his army with them if the Panjshir Valley proves untenable; the arrival of 20,000 battle- hardened former Mujahedin would upset the fragile status quo between Tajikistan's ex-communist nationalists and Muslim hard-liners, especially if the Taliban decided to pursue them across the border.

Russia, which still commands 25,000 border troops in the region, shares the fears of President Rakhmonov. Moscow believes the conflict may spread to Tajikistan's neighbours to the west and north. This weekend Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's Foreign Minister, said the a collective security treaty would be "immediately activated" if the border was violated. However, at the same time the Taliban foreign minister, Mullah Mohammed Ghous, tried to reassure the world that his government "strictly adhered to a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries".

But the word of an Afghan leader is often worthless, as the Russians found to their cost during their 10-year occupation of the country. General Abdul-Majeed Rozi is a case in point. He was one of General Dostum's most trusted commanders and once famously accepted an $11m (pounds 7m) bribe to capitulate to the Taliban and then did nothing of the kind. Yesterday he was on the streets of Mazar, calling for the population not to be afraid of their new masters and to reopen their shops.

General Rozi was instrumental in the collapse of the western front that made the capture of Mazar possible. Interviewed at 18 Division Headquarters on that front line by The Independent only one month ago, General Rozi's antipathy to the fundamentalists from the south seemed sincere. "Maybe the Talibs are not good Muslims," he said. "What Muslim would hit women with sticks?"

Who knows what slippery deal the Taliban struck with General Rozi in order to get him to change his mind. "I've been a soldier for 27 years," he said last month. "My job is to take orders. I leave politics to the politicians." Yet he did not hesitate to betray General Dostum.

As the Taliban prepares to move east from Mazar for the final offensive, the world is watching to see whether Massoud will have the same problem with his commanders.