Bandits roam roads as 'Arabs' pay to escape

After the Taliban

By Patrick Cockburn,Afghanistan
Sunday 09 December 2001 01:00

Across southern Afghanistan, local Taliban soldiers are negotiating their final surrender and the foreigners among them are desperately seeking ways out of the country. In Zabol province, east of Kandahar, an Arab Taliban paid a taxi driver $3,000 to take him to the border with Pakistan.

Amid popular relief that Taliban rule is over, there are sudden gusts of panic. Driving out of Ghazni yesterday, an ancient tumble-down city on the road to Kandahar, we were waved to a stop by a soldier with a sub-machine gun who said: "Don't go any further! We have just had a report that Arabs have come out of the mountains and are on the road ahead." It turned out to be untrue.

The process of disarming the Taliban is a delicate one. Dr Mohammed Shajahan, the leader of the Harekat e-Islami party representing the Hazara Shia Muslim minority in Ghazni and commander of a powerful militia, said: "The Taliban still control about 50 per cent of this province. I have just had a meeting with them and they have promised to surrender by 3pm today. If they surrender their weapons and cars and go home, then we guarantee their security."

Part of the problem for the negotiators is the sheer speed of the victory of the anti-Taliban forces. Suddenly, Afghan exiles are returning to their home provinces to take power and displace Taliban members and their allies.

Dr Shajahan, an avuncular man who seems amused by the rapid change in his fortunes, explained: "Just three months ago, I was working in a gas station in Virginia in the US. After 11 September, I came back here, where I used to be a commander, with a plan for raising 1,000 men."

In a heavily guarded palace in the centre of Ghazni, the new governor, Qari Baba, a heavily built 60-year-old man who looks like Sidney Greenstreet and conveys a sense of natural authority, has not even bothered to tear old Taliban propaganda posters off the walls. One shows Afghanistan, inspired by a verse from the Koran, bursting the chains the US has placed around it.

Not surprisingly, the new carve-up of power has already produced fighting between the anti-Taliban factions in Kandahar. In Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north of the country, Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek commander who is officially a member of the Northern Alliance, is threatening not to co-operate with the new interim government because he was not made foreign minister as promised.

Efforts by powerful Taliban commanders to keep at least some of their authority under the new regime is also delaying the surrender. In Zabul, an arid province known only for its almond trees, negotiations have gone on for three days between Hamidullah, a famous local resistance commander against the Communists, and Mullah Rokketi, a notorious Taliban leader, without agreement.

But surrendering Taliban are not necessarily the people most to be feared in southern Afghanistan. Their collapse has led to the instant appearance of robber bands which have put up checkpoints on many roads.

One reason for the outbreak of banditry is that villagers, already malnourished because of the prolonged drought, are on the verge of starvation because of the disruption caused by the war.

Ghazni is overlooked by an ancient citadel where a small garrison of anti-Taliban fighters man heavy machine guns which point down at the city below. The men had a famished look when I saw them which I at first thought was because it is Ramadan and they were fasting during the day. But their commander Mohammed Omar, a teacher turned soldier, explained there was a simpler reason. His men were starving.

"If people in the city did not give us rice we would have nothing to eat at all," he said.

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