Taliban kicked out of town after 3 days

Barely 72 hours after sweeping victoriously into the key city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban were in full retreat yesterday, apparently driven out by a well- organised resistance who fought them with guns and artillery for 18 hours.

Artillery and machinegun fire shook the city throughout the night and lit up the sky. By morning, when it tapered off, at least 10 bodies were seen on a small stretch of road. Abandoned Taliban vehicles had been smashed by rockets.

The newly invigorated opposition forces also claimed they had arrested the Taliban Foreign Minister, Mullah Mohammad Ghous, and their northern military commander, Mullah Abdul Razzaq, after they retook the town, a Pakistan-based Afghan news service said.

The reports of the fundamentalist militia's sudden defeat in Mazar showed that nothing can be taken for granted in the country's tortuous civil war.

Like the rest of the world, the Taliban had written off the opposition, a shady alliance of ex-Mujahedin and former com- munists which appeared to crumble over the weekend. The alliance's leader, General Rashid Dostum, fled into exile following the apparent defection one of his most trusted lieutenants, Abdul Malik Palhawn.

Pakistan immediately recognised the Taliban as Afghani- stan's legitimate rulers and urged other countries and organisations to do the same.

It now seems that Mazar was nothing but an elaborate trap, in the most classic Afghan style. If so, the Taliban fell into it headlong. They made two mistakes. First, they underestimated the strength of Dostum's one- time ally, former defence minister Ahmed Shah Massood, who continues to control the mountainous east of the country from his headquarters in the Panjshir Valley. The counter attack in Mazar seems likely to have been organised, at least in part, by Massood's battle-hardened commanders who would not have taken kindly to the Taliban's arrogant demands that they lay down their arms.

Second, the Taliban made not one concession to local sensitivities. Within hours of their arrival, the mullah assigned to control the city, Abdur Razzaq, had installed himself at the central mosque and began to broadcast the ground rules of the new fundamentalist regime from the south: hanging for murderers, amputation for thieves, domestic incarceration for women.

Until then, many Mazaris had dismissed what they had heard about Taliban law as so much northern propaganda: the broadcasts from the mosque proved that it was not so. Mazar is a liberal city, well-known in Afganistan for its openness in educating both sexes; many of its inhabitants are addicted to gambling on quail fights, a sport that the new masters would surely abolish. Public opinion has been swayed by far less.

Anything could happen next. Mazar stands in the centre of the plains of Turkestan, where the mountain guerrilla tactics at which Afghans excel are of no use. The Taliban might rally and drive the counter attack back; or the counter attackers could take heart from their recent success and sweep all before them.

Another possibility is a Panjshir-based attack on Kabul. With Taliban forces committed to the north, this might be General Massood's moment, but such an action would depend on the loyalty of his troops.

Into the mix must be thrown the possibility of a mass exodus of refugees from Mazar itself. If fighting in and around the city continues, its 1.8 million inhabitants would have little choice but to flee, probably north to Tajikistan. The effect of such immigration on that vulnerable country only now emerging from a five-year civil war between communist nationalists and Islamic insurgents, is incalculable.