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Tuesday, 13 November, 2001, 06:05 GMT
Analysis: The Taleban collapse
Taleban fighters
The Taleban relied on Pakistani support for years
Daniel Lak

It took the Taleban nearly four years to capture much of northern Afghanistan and the capital Kabul - between 1994 and 1998.

It has taken just a few days for the Islamist militia to abandon its hard-fought gains.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First and foremost, of course, is the relentless pounding of Taleban positions by American bombers and Cruise missiles. This, in a sense, is a mirror image of the Pakistani support the Taleban received during their conquest of Kabul and the north in the 1990s.

Afghan woman in traditional burka shroud
The Taleban enforced strict rules for women
Pakistan did not bomb from the air, or provide overt ground troops.

But funding, logistics and irregular military support proved crucial for the Islamic students' militia to take territory outside of its ethnic heartland in Kandahar.

With that support from Islamabad withdrawn after the 11 September attacks, the Taleban became vulnerable to Northern Alliance forces they had once repulsed with ease.

Then there is the ethnic factor.

In general, especially in the bitter, warlord-ridden days of the mid-1990s, Pashtun Afghans welcomed the Taleban advance.

Even if they did not share the group's austere and rigid version of Islam, Pashtuns were pleased with the peace and security that accompanied the Taleban.

The group disarmed and often punished local warlords who had plagued Afghans for years.

Restrictions on women

The restrictions on women and other strictures in the name of Islam were not particularly different from tribal and village practice in many of these places.

Only the urban population had ever allowed women a role in public life.

Northern Alliance fighters
Northern Alliance fighters: Advancing after years on the defensive
It was only the gradual disappearance of foreign development aid - as agencies found Taleban restrictions unworkable - that made ordinary people aware of how damaging the Islamist militia's policies were.

The Taleban did not consider Kabul a particularly important place. All important decisions were made in Kandahar, the militia's southern stronghold, by Mullah Omar Akhund, the group's reclusive leader.

In fact, Taleban officials sent to be government ministers in Kabul were often seen as slightly suspect, too urban or cosmopolitan, and were often reshuffled or sent back to the provinces.

The machinery of government - ministries, buildings, civil servants - were in the capital, the power lay in Kandahar.

Taleban grip weakens

In the end, the Taleban did what every other group to rule Afghanistan has done - concentrated on a power base and cobbled together support in other areas by using money, military might, terror, and in some cases, improvements in government and development activities - at least, relative to the past. It is not a formula for stable government.

Thus, when the Americans bombed and the Northern Alliance advanced - flush with new weapons and presumably cash from Russia, India, Iran and other allies - the Taleban collapsed.

First Mazar-e-Sharif, a largely Uzbek and Tajik city that was never comfortable with Taleban rule, then other towns like Pul-e-Khumri, Taloqan, Maimana, Dast-e-Qila and Herat.

None of these places were taken by Taleban forces without immense logistical support from Pakistan and funds from Saudi Arabia. Neither of those countries support them anymore.

The question now, and the real fear of neighbouring countries, donor nations, the United Nations and Afghan civilians - is whether the Northern Alliance will be magnanimous in victory or triumphalist and vengeful.

Threat of more chaos

Looting is already being reported. The question is how long it goes on.

Alliance soldiers have fought with minimal resources for years and can hardly be expected to ignore the temptations of a well-stocked bazaar in what was once an enemy-held city.

So far - as American bombs rained down - the political side of the Afghan equation has made little progress.

Attempts to put former King Zahir Shah at the centre of things failed, and attempts to set up a Pashtun alternative to the Taleban are still at an early stage.

Now the advance of the Northern Alliance has added a huge sense of urgency to this process. The coming days will be crucial if Afghanistan is not to sink into another round of warlord-driven civil war.

Or worse - the de facto division of a proud and ancient land into mutually hostile ethnic enclaves.

The BBC's John Simpson, Kate Clark and William Reeve
report on the fall of Kabul
See also:

12 Nov 01 | Americas
Powers search for Afghan settlement
22 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: The world's plans for Afghans
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who are the Taleban?
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