Taliban-al Qaeda Break out of Konduz and Head for Road to Kabul
Negotiations for the evacuation of Taliban-al-Qaeda forces from their last Afghan strongholds of Konduz and Kandahar are shuffling forward sluggishly.
Tuesday morning, November 20, the United States paused in its massive bombardment to give the Konduz negotiators a chance to wind up three days of palaver in an abandoned airstrip in a no-man’s zone within range of both battling sides.
Two more sessions were scheduled for Tuesday, November 20, for the purpose of arranging a peaceful withdrawal of the defending force to the 25,000 ft. high Hindu Kush mountains, when the Konduz defenders broke the stalemate. To show they still have options and are far from encircled, al Qaeda troops made a dash Tuesday for Khanabad and are threatening Taleqon on the road to Kabul.
This might even be the opening shot in a Taliban counter-offensive against the capital.
debkafile ‘s military sources list four sticking points as holding up a conclusion of the battle of Konduz:
A. Deep mutual suspicion between the two parties; neither trusts the other to make good on any deal and not make it a trap for the other side.
B. Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Konduz, as they demonstrated forcibly Tuesday, are not encircled. Rebel forces pin them down on the west and east of the embattled city, but the northern and southern exits remain open. Heading south must bring them on a collision course with the Northern Alliance forces and, further down the road, with the American and Russian special forces gathering in the Kabul area.
The Taleban and al Qaeda commanders evidently decided that abandoning Konduz from the north was a less palatable option than fighting their way out from the south. The harsh terrain makes it impossible to move fast with heavy weapons. They would have to leave by night and melt into the mountains without their tanks, artillery, mortars, and heavy machine guns, carrying nothing but sidearms. Judging by their breakout Tuesday, their commanders did not view their situation as desperate enough to force them into precipitate flight without their armory.
C. debkafileestimates that a total of 20,000 Taliban and 3,000 al Qaeda fighters are under assault in Konduz. The Americans are reported disinclined to allow a force on this scale get away to fight another day.
D. The Northern Alliance is demanding high-ranking Taliban hostages left behind when the main force leaves, as surety against Taliban traps for the incoming rebel troops.
Kandahar Linked to Pakistan
The Taliban and el Qaida retain full control of their southern stronghold of Kandahar and its environs. Some 15,000 Taliban and 2.500 al Qaeda fighters remain there with an outer ring of 3-4 thousand soldiers commanding a 15 sq km radius around the town. Their hold on territory 90 kms east of Kabul, including the routes from Jalalabad to the capital is far from being confined to “pockets of resistance” in the midst of rebel-held lands and amounts to full control.
The four journalists ambushed and killed Monday November 19 were misled into believing they were traversing Northern Alliance-controlled routes between Jalalabad and Kabul. The four, Harry Burton, an Australian cameraman and Azizullah Haidari an Afghan-born photographer – both Reuters, Julio Fuentes with the Spanish El Mundo and Maria Grazia Cutuli of Milan’s Corriere della Sera, were pulled out of two cars at a checkpoint and shot by gunmen, not far from Sarobi.
In Kandahar itself, negotiations for the handover of the city continue between the Taliban commanders and Pashtun tribal leaders, whose forces are concentrated in Jalalabad. A leading voice on the Pashtun side is the extremist Mullah Sufi Muhammad, who is based in Kunhar, Pakistan and commands the 15,000 tribesmen who crossed over from Pakistan and are encamped in Jalalabad and around Kandahar.
The mullah, who has himself crossed into Jalalabad several times, is backed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Kandahar’s military situation is therefore complicated by the impact of the political state of play between the Pakistan’s ISI and the military factions still loyal to Pevrez Musharref, between whom frictions are growing..
debkafile‘s military sources believe that the Kandahar deal awaits a decision in Konduz and will most probably follow the same lines. However a flareup of fighting in the northern town will also cue an upsurge in the violence in and around Kandahar
As to the hunt for Osama bin Laden, for whose capture the US has now posted a $25 million bounty (“in the hope of Afghans creeping through caves” – Rumsfeld), debkafile‘s military sources believe that to say the search is closing into a narrowing area south of Kandahar is an overstatement. The search goes on all over the country, without specific intelligence leaning to any one area.
Kabulin Russian Military Hands
debkafile‘s military sources report that the most professional and efficient military force in the Afghan capital at the moment is the Russian special forces, who began arriving lat last week. By Tuesday morning, November 20, their number had expanded to 1200 Russian commandoes in Kabul, one battalion each of Spetsnaz troops attached to the Russian General Command and the 201st Mechanized Rifle. Two more battalions are due by the end of the week, one for Kabul, and one for Bagram Air base, doubling Russian strength in the Afghan capital to 1200. They will serve alongside elements of US Special Forces units and 75 British commandoes.
By the end of this week, Russian strength in and around Kabul will rise to 6,400 soldiers, roughly the same number as the British commandos, whose dispatch to Afghanistan has been called off at the insistence of Northern Alliance chiefs.
Given the unruly situation in most of Afghanistan, the prospects are extremely dim of a broad-based multiethnic government emerging in Kabul from the UN-sponsored conference of tribal and factional leaders taking place in Berlin this coming weekend.