Taliban Foe Fears Daunting Cave War

Times Staff Writers

The battle to rout hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters from the deep caves of this craggy region of northeastern Afghanistan will be long, hard and messy, the anti-Taliban commander in the area said Sunday.

"The location is very, very difficult," said Haji Mohammed Zaman. "It's too deep in the mountains."

Officials believe that Osama bin Laden may be hidden somewhere in Tora Bora along with other leaders of his Al Qaeda terror network and as many as 2,000 followers. Zaman said he was "100% sure" that Bin Laden was still living in the rocky fortress.

But Zaman's pronouncement was a sharp departure from the local opposition's previous pledges to flush out the Al Qaeda holdouts in a few weeks. As the first week of fighting here drew to a close with little to show for it, the complications of the campaign were becoming evident.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, efforts continued Sunday to stabilize a nation left exhausted and prey to rival warlords after the Taliban regime fled its final bastion, the southern city of Kandahar, on Friday.

In one of the first important tests of his leadership since he was named head of an interim government last week, Pushtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai appeared to have brokered an accord between two rival commanders--raising hopes for peace in Kandahar, at least.

Meanwhile, a train crossed the sole bridge from Uzbekistan into northern Afghanistan for the first time in four years with relief supplies for millions of displaced Afghans battling cold and hunger.

In addition, the Pakistani army reportedly won permission from tribal elders to move several thousand troops to the border region today to cut off possible escape routes.

For the second time in eight days, U.S. warplanes bombed a hilltop encampment of anti-Taliban fighters Sunday morning, killing three and wounding three others, Zaman said. Last week, eight of his tribal soldiers were killed in a nearby bombing, and the commander's frustration was evident.

"Several times we have talked to them and said, 'If you want to shoot somewhere, you must understand where the moujahedeen [holy warriors] are and where Al Qaeda are,' " he said. "Are these chickens or people?"

A Pentagon spokesman late Sunday had no comment on Zaman's assertions.

After the midnight bombing Sunday, the soldiers abandoned the hilltop, which Zaman said was strategically important. Still, he acknowledged that his soldiers would be unable to take Tora Bora without the intense aerial assaults that have pounded the hills south of Jalalabad for more than three weeks.

"We need the bombing," he said.

In an effort to seal off Tora Bora on all sides, Zaman added, he had sent 100 soldiers to hike as close to the nearby Pakistani border as possible. Thick autumn snows have filled the mountain passes leading into and out of Afghanistan--but the relentless bombing might drive some Al Qaeda fighters to attempt the crossing anyway, Zaman said.

Although the Taliban made a show of refusing to turn Kandahar over to Karzai, he entered the city late Saturday and immediately launched talks among tribal elders meant to soothe the frayed emotions of two tribal groups that each sought to control the city.

Ex-Provincial Governor Will Reassume His Post

Under the agreement worked out by Karzai, Gul Agha Shirzai will reassume the post of governor of Kandahar province, which he held before the Taliban took over in 1994. And Mullah Naquibullah, whom the Taliban surrender agreement had designated to govern the city, was offered the post of military commander. Naquibullah said he would not take the position but would designate a member of his tribe.

"Naquibullah said to Gul Agha, 'I am a very old man, I don't want to be governor of Kandahar, so I am very happy with Gul Agha as the new governor of Kandahar,' " said Bashir Shirzai, a relative.

The talks, aimed at forming a governing council for Kandahar, were expected to last two more days. But despite a continuing standoff at the airport between Gul Agha Shirzai's forces and about 300 Arab soldiers--which reportedly left a large number of Arabs dead Sunday--the city itself appeared relatively calm.

"Soldiers will be on the street for a while. You cannot avoid that. We have removed a major obstacle in Afghanistan . . . mainly through peaceful means," Karzai told CNN, the only television network to have made the risky journey to Kandahar from Pakistan.

"You will have for a while some chaos. It's inevitable," he added. "We have to establish a fresh order, and until that comes, there will be and there are some differences. But overall, things are very good."

The complex give-and-take at the discussions about a ruling council also included a deal to divide up territory and positions in he strategic town of Spin Buldak near the Pakistani border. Spin Buldak sits on the main road between Quetta, Pakistan, and Kandahar, and unrest in the town threatened to disrupt the movement of people and goods.

The town was peaceful but tense before the deal was brokered Sunday, as fighters of the Noorzai tribe took posts in trenches on hillsides and along the main highway. A curfew was imposed between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., and residents said they feared a return to the years of tribal warfare that characterized Afghanistan before the Taliban took over.

Habibullah, a fruit vendor in Spin Buldak, said there was looting at security offices as the Taliban left town last week.

"Everyone wanted to steal weapons, and they took them to their own houses," he said. "People are afraid."

Atta Ulla, owner of a medicine store, said residents couldn't see any benefit from the Taliban's departure.

"Before there was one government, and now there is no unity. We are expecting at any time a fight among the commanders, and there will once again be looting and it will go back to the way it was before," he said.

But Karzai worked out a plan to give each of the two dominant tribes in Spin Buldak a significant role in governing. It remained to be seen whether the compromise would win acceptance.

Trouble also arose in neighboring Helmand province Sunday as tribal fighting over control of the province in the wake of the Taliban's departure left about seven people dead, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.

Dealing with the fractious tribes, ethnic groups and warlords is likely to be the greatest challenge in the near term for Karzai's interim administration.

Although Karzai--who briefly served as deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan--is known in the West as an urbane speaker of foreign languages who favors double-breasted sports jackets, he wore long robes and the dark turban of a tribal elder at the negotiations Sunday.

Omar, Bin Laden Likely to Still Be in Afghanistan

At least some of the talks took place in the former compound of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, whose location remained a mystery.

In Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all said the best available information is that both Omar and Bin Laden are still in Afghanistan.

Cheney said the United States will demand custody of both men if they are taken prisoner by Afghan troops or any of Washington's other allies.

"If either are captured alive, will we insist that they be turned over to the American authorities?" Cheney was asked on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"Yes," he replied.

"No international court?" he was asked.

Again he replied with a single word: "No."

But Wolfowitz, interviewed on ABC's "This Week," said that both the United States and the new interim government in Afghanistan would have reason to want to put Bin Laden and Omar on trial. He said negotiations would be required to determine which government would get to go first.

"We would want to be sure that the justice they received in Afghanistan would be similar to what they would get in this country," Wolfowitz said. Afghan justice, he added, can be harsh.

Cheney said the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan will end as soon as Bin Laden, Omar and other top officials of Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been killed or captured, although he said the U.S. will provide economic aid to the new Afghan government and might provide technical assistance to an international peacekeeping force.

"I would expect we'll have a continuing role there, but not as an occupying military force," he said.

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Stack reported from Tora Bora and Murphy and Daniszewski from Quetta. Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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