After a prolonged stand-off, about 2,000 Taliban soldiers surrendered yesterday at Maidan Shar, an impoverished town in a dry valley south of the Afghan capital Kabul, where they have been holding out for a fortnight.
Weary Northern Alliance soldiers had waited all day to see if the negotiations would succeed. "Probably they will surrender; otherwise, we will have to fight them," said one, slumped in an old chair that had been dragged out of a house nearby.
A local commander said the Taliban troops were due to give up their weapons this morning. He believed that there were no foreign fighters among them, although previously the Northern Alliance had claimed there were 400 Arabs and 300 Pakistanis in Maidan Shar determined to fight to the last. Most had probably slipped down the road to Ghazni and Kandahar, both still firmly under Taliban control.
The leader of the Taliban force at Maidan Shar is Shir Mohammed, a powerful local leader. Some soldiers from the town said that his resistance, long after the rest of the Taliban had fled Kabul, was all to do with his hope of retaining his local influence. Others argued that his resistance had been stiffened by the presence of "Punjabis and Arabs".
All day yesterday veteran Northern Alliance troops – all Tajiks from the Shomali plains north of Kabul with long years of fighting behind them – had been arriving by truck on the main road behind the hills that marked the front line. They were supported by half a dozen tanks and armoured personnel carriers, clouds of smoke pouring from their exhausts when they revved their engines.
The use of these troops, who broke the Taliban to take Kabul, reveals that the Northern Alliance's military resources are thinly stretched. Some of their trenches appear to be held by troops who had recently defected from the Taliban. There are also divisions in the alliance's own ranks that may have delayed the final surrender. In addition to the Tajiks – the Northern Alliance's main source of recruits, along with the minority Uzbeks – there were soldiers at Maidan Shar loyal to Abdur Rab Rasool Sayyaf, the deputy head of the Northern Alliance Leadership Council. He is one of the few leaders of the alliance from the Pushtun community, which makes up 42 per cent of the Afghan population.
His men, a scruffy-looking band with battered weapons from Maidan Shar (itself wholly Pushtun), appeared to disagree with the surrender agreement and kept journalists away from the point on the road where it was being negotiated. When the press tried to move closer they opened fire, sending photographers diving for cover.
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