Some Taliban warlords reported ready to defect : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

October 20, 2001

Some Taliban Warlords Reported Ready to Defect


QUETTA, Pakistan, Oct. 19 Exiled Afghan politicians in Pakistan said on Thursday that a delegation of tribal leaders and clerics had gone to Afghanistan for talks with disaffected Taliban warlords who were ready to turn against the governing faction.

The mission, to Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, was one of the clearest signals yet of potentially significant disarray among the movement as the American bombing continued. Numerous reports have circulated that members of a Taliban faction were ready to defect to spare the country and themselves.

The disaffected Taliban appear to be among the more moderate supporters who have lost ground in recent months to the hard-liners around the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and his brand of Islam. The delegation visiting the potential defectors was sent from Quetta by Afghan leaders and fighters aligned with Gul Agha Shirzai, who was governor of Kandahar before the Taliban took over that city in late 1994. Mr. Shirzai spent 10 years fighting the Soviet occupation, from 1979 to 1989, and remains in contact with men he knew then who joined the Taliban.

Mr. Shirzai said a delegation was sent to Kandahar on Wednesday to meet with the moderate groups in response to their questions about what they should do to surrender. "We will tell them to wait until the time is right to turn on the Taliban fundamentalists," he said.

Those comments hinted at the extreme local nature of politics in Afghanistan, where tribal and regional leaders have frequently switched sides in accordance with the changing fortunes of 22 years of war. Central government has virtually ceased to exist.

Mr. Shirzai said more than 12 clerics, tribal leaders and former military commanders have arrived in this southwestern Pakistan city from Afghanistan in recent days. Jamil Karzai, an Afghan exile leader who is not associated with Mr. Shirzai, said he spoke recently with a Taliban leader who reported that five commanders, with 950 troops, had contacted him about defecting.

Assessing the depth of disaffection among the Taliban is difficult because few outsiders have direct contact with Taliban officials. Many exiled leaders, however, know the Taliban from their years fighting together against the Soviets. Taliban leaders have dismissed reports of defections as propaganda. Mullah Omar appealed to his followers by radio on Wednesday to stand and fight.

Some of the tribal leaders and former fighters who arrived here carried reports that airstrikes on communications centers had isolated many units, adding to the potential for defections. Mr. Shirzai and other leaders of the opposition to the Taliban described in interviews a widening split between moderate and fundamentalist Taliban factions. They estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the Taliban members would back a move to overthrow hard-liners.

The consensus among those leaders was that even widespread defections would not eliminate the need to send troops to Afghanistan to wipe out resistance and hunt Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda members. "Even if the Taliban gave up," Mr. Shirzai said, "the terrorists will go to the mountains and have to be tracked down." The exiles said they were certain that Mr. bin Laden remained in Afghanistan, probably near Kandahar.

Anti-Taliban leaders are split on whether foreign troops should enter Afghanistan in an effort to capture Mr. bin Laden or whether they should be aligned with resistance fighters who are being organized in Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. Some argue that allied troops would fail because they do not know the rugged terrain and because Taliban defectors would not join non-Muslims.

Another faction says the United States should conduct the ground war alone to avoid alliances that could come back to haunt America. "People would prefer that American troops go in alone," said Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun who distrusts the Northern Alliance, which ethnic Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks dominate.

The ethnic splits are one of many delicate issues for the Western coalition. American officials said this week that the Central Intelligence Agency had made little progress in organizing resistance to the Taliban among the Pashtun tribes in the south. However the question of ground forces is resolved, the United States military could use information from Taliban foes.

American troops, the Taliban opponents said, would confront enormous problems around Kandahar, 130 miles from Quetta. The city is protected on three sides with mountains laced with caves where, the opposition leaders said, Taliban fighters and Mr. bin Laden's troops are stationed.

On the fourth side is the harsh Rigestan desert. War has left few roads intact, hundreds of thousands of Soviet-era mines remain. Troops might also find water scarce. After three years of drought, rivers are dry, and wells have to be drilled 100 feet or deeper. "American troops need help from people who know the terrain," Mr. Shirzai said. "It is how we beat the Russians."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

-- Swissrose (, October 20, 2001

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