Loyalty, defection are key to victory

Shifting alliances are traditional face of Afghan warfare

War On Terrorism : The Nation

October 11, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SALANG, Afghanistan - The Taliban commander in Kabul was asking a lot of nervous questions. That's how the agent from the opposition knew that he had him in the bag.

The agent had been wooing him for more than a year, but it was only after the United States threatened to bomb Afghanistan that the commander finally decided to switch sides.

In Afghanistan, shifting alliances between regional warlords always have played a key role in war. Betrayals, defections, intrigues, promises and payoffs decide who wins and who loses. The war for control of Afghanistan today is no different.

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, their forces swept through the country very quickly, often buying off regional warlords, reportedly even using Osama bin Laden's money at times.

Because commanders bring their men with them, defectors hold the key to entire provinces, strategic roads and supply routes. If the opposition Northern Alliance can attract Taliban defectors to its side, it can win big chunks of territory without a shot being fired.

The Northern Alliance claims that more than 1,000 Taliban fighters have defected already.

Many potential defectors might be waiting to see which way the wind blows, and who emerges as the strongest force.

The Northern Alliance sent an agent, Jalil, 50, to woo the Taliban commander. His name cannot be published because he is still in the Taliban-controlled capital.

Jalil looks out narrowly from beneath a black-and-white Afghan head scarf, his eyes flickering sideways, always watching warily.

"He wants to come over to us as soon as possible," Jalil said of the Taliban commander. "Most of all, he's afraid of the bombing. The way I realized he was scared was that he was asking too many questions. He's much more nervous now."

Jalil, who knows that he risks capture by the Taliban every time he goes into Kabul, last met the commander shortly before airstrikes began against Afghanistan Sunday night.

The Taliban commander used to be one of Gen. Abdul Basir's subordinate officers. Basir, 36, is a genial, charismatic opposition commander who rules the Salang Gorge with all the arrogant paternalism of a feudal warlord.

In addition to his troops, he has a collection of spies and messengers, sent out to sift through information and return with reports on what the enemy is up to.

Even when Basir defected to the Northern Alliance several years ago in return for getting a commander's rank, he kept in touch with the Taliban soldier, occasionally paying him for information.

"I sent money for every report and piece of information. Now he's so scared that I don't even have to pay money to him," boasted Basir, seated on a typical Afghan floor mat, lounging back on a cushion as comfortably as a lion.

He says people such as the commander went over to the Taliban in recent years, often for money, "but in their hearts they are still our people."

"There are hundreds of commanders who keep in touch with the other side," he said. "All the information is accumulated." It is not clear to what extent the Northern Alliance shares its intelligence with the United States.

Though fighting on different sides, Basir and his former subordinate are similar men. With each commander, the fighters are men from the same district, deeply loyal. By defecting, the Taliban commander brings with him all his soldiers - about 200 men - to fight for the opposition cause.

Convinced that the Taliban will fall, all the commander wants, Jalil says, is a guarantee that his life will be spared. In return for that promise, Jalil conveyed Basir's condition: When the Northern Alliance launches an offensive to take Kabul, the commander has to capture as many still-loyal Taliban fighters as possible.

"We're preparing an insurgency," said Basir, who spoke to the commander on a satellite phone Tuesday.

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