Taliban lose invincible reputation

FROM TIM McGIRK

in New Delhi

Like every other episode in Afghanistan's savage history, when peace has been delivered at last to the capital, Kabul, it has not happened through kind words or compromise but because one of the combatants has managed to pulverise all the others. Finally, after three years of civil war, the army of President Burhanuddin Rabbani has freed the city from its attackers.

This does not mean that Mr Rabbani now rules over all Afghanistan; far from it. His ethnic and tribal rivals still control more than 20 of the country's 30 provinces, but Mr Rabbani no longer has to worry - this week, anyway - about rockets slamming into his presidential palace in a wooded parkland in the middle of Kabul. In a dawn attack on Sunday, his troops drove off militiamen belonging to the Taliban - an Islamic student movement - from their artillery nests on the craggy ridges south of Kabul.

For the first time since Islamic guerrillas toppled the pro-Soviet Communist government in 1992, nobody is in a position to shoot at Kabul. As a Defence Ministry spokesman explained: "Now the Taliban are out of rocket range. This was our initial objective."

The surprise assault against the Taliban stronghold at Charasyab, 15 miles south of Kabul, raged for just an hour before the Islamic militiamen fled, leaving behind artillery pieces, tanks and stockpiles of ammunition. The Taliban may have lost the battle but they are not finished. The Islamic students retain power in eight provinces and, because they refrain from the looting and banditry that other mujahedin factions engage in, the Taliban have wide popular support among the ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan's south and eastern regions.

It is doubtful that Mr Rabbani's hard-fought peace can last long in Kabul. The Taliban are reported to have launched a counter-offensive on Tuesday, halting the government troops' advance at Mohammad Aggha, only 21 miles from the capital. Taliban sources in Pakistan also said that the student militia captured the strategic Shindan air base, under control of Mr Rabbani's chief ally, the governor of Herat, Ismael Khan. More than 16 aircraft, which earlier had been used with lethal effect against the Taliban, were reportedly seized.

The Taliban's flight from the Kabul hills may make its Kandahar-based religious chiefs forget their qualms about forming an alliance with the other mujahedin factions to rid the capital of Mr Rabbani. Until now, the Taliban has insisted that all mujahedin factions responsible for the civil war which has killed more than 30,000 Afghans were "criminals", and the Islamic students refuse to deal with them.

Mr Rabbani was supposed to hand over power on Tuesday to a United Nations- sponsored interim council, but after his fresh victory against the Taliban he changed his mind. The UN cannot force him to leave. The President now says the UN must revamp its peace plan. Most observers expect more fighting and believe Mr Rabbani will try to cling to power.

Kabul's people are still recovering from the latest fighting against the Taliban, which has left hundreds dead. Few Afghans believe that this latest peace can be anything more than a brief intermission before the next round of Afghanistan's murderous civil war.

Indeed, yesterday the Taliban issued a statement from their frontline bunkers south of the ruined capital, vowing to avenge their defeats and launch a new attack on Kabul.

"Our strategy is not only to capture Kabul but we want to capture all of Afghanistan to bring peace to our country," said the Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Qadir.

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