After the worst night of U.S. airstrikes around the Afghan capital, Akmad Samim and his family of nine finally fled Kabul at dawn Friday, but not because they were afraid of the bombs.
They packed up and left because soldiers with the extremist Islamic Taliban regime, despite all the bombs and missiles, were still plying the streets of Kabul to round up young men as conscripts.
In fact, some people in the capital have so much faith in the accuracy of U.S. missiles and bombs, they wander around in the open watching the fireworks as the ordnance falls.
Although refugees from some other cities bring rumors of destroyed houses and civilian casualties, the panic in Kabul has subsided, according to the trickle of Afghans traveling north to opposition-held territory.
Refugees from Kabul report that no bombs or missiles struck the center.
Student Gulam Gaus, 18, joined a crowd of people who stayed outside and watched, enthralled, when U.S. planes roared over at 2 p.m. Thursday and twice struck the Kabul airport.
The Khainkalla district in north Kabul, a hilltop area where many ethnic Tajiks live, offered a spectacular seat for the action.
"People walk around the streets, and they're not panicking anymore," said Gaus, an ethnic Tajik. "There was a very good view when they bombed the airport. Everybody was watching.
"We sat near a shop, and when the planes appeared, our eyes were glued to it. We were not afraid because everyone knew the American planes would only hit military targets. In any case, American bombs and missiles are better than the Taliban yoke."
An Ethnic Tajik Escapes the Taliban's Clutches
Most of the nation's minority ethnic Tajiks despise the Taliban, which draws its support from ethnic Pushtuns, who make up 38% of the population. The civil war has a strong ethnic element: It pits the predominantly Pushtun Taliban troops against the Uzbek and Tajik minorities who form the opposition.
Samim, the young man who fled with his family, is an ethnic Tajik. He said he had a lucky escape Thursday night, walking home from the bazaar with his friend Farid Alsoo.
They stumbled across a Taliban patrol roughly shoving young men into a minivan. About five or 10 young men were already captive. The Taliban men seized Alsoo and pushed him into the van.
"They tried to get me, but I ran," Samim said. "They chased me for a few meters, but I got away," he said, speaking in English. As the family breadwinner, he couldn't afford to be arrested or press-ganged to fight.
"When I came home, I said to my father: 'The situation is bad. We should leave,' " he said.
Like Samim, student Gaus left the city fearing not bombs, but Taliban roundups and arrests.
"If they see a group of five or six people sitting together and talking," he said, "they'll round them up and take them away."
Gaus said that residents watched the U.S. strikes with a quiet sense of jubilation but that no one expressed their feelings openly.
"We felt glad, but we didn't show it because there might have been a Taliban spy in the crowd," he said.
Samim said many Taliban members had taken shelter in bases in the center of the city, where no bombs fell. But a military base in the east of the city, known as Sherpur--the Lion's Den--was hit.
"I saw 12 to 15 dead bodies of Talibs there," Samim said. He and others fleeing north from the city, mainly Tajiks, said people were pleased that Taliban forces were being killed.
Although there is no way of verifying casualties among the Taliban, many people in Kabul believe that considerable numbers have died.
But the figure they generally cite, 150 to 200, seems to be based on rumor, not clear evidence.
Samim said he and friends stood and watched the airport burning after Thursday's airstrikes.
The Kabul refugees arrived in northern Afghanistan as the military situation here was changing rapidly, with signs of disarray on the Taliban side and numerous defections to the opposition.
But the Afghan Islamic Press, a pro-Taliban news agency in Pakistan, claimed Friday that the Taliban had won back one district in Badghis province, western Afghanistan, and had attacked opposition positions 21 miles west of Bamian.
Opposition Forces Eager to Storm the Capital
Generals in the Northern Alliance opposition forces fighting the Taliban are eager to surge into Kabul once the U.S. bombing ends. But their plans are at odds with those of President Bush, who suggested Thursday that the United Nations should take over the role of nation-building after the U.S. military campaign.
The Northern Alliance is already making plans for a police force in the capital.
Optimistic about a rapid victory in Kabul, alliance officials met Thursday to set up a commission that would oversee the campaign to take the capital and govern the city once it's occupied.
But even among Tajiks, who generally support the Northern Alliance, there isn't universal support for the opposition storming the capital.
Samim said there was a feeling that an American ground force would materialize in Kabul, possibly parachuting into the city, an idea that doesn't mesh with the picture U.S. officials have painted.
"It would be better if the Americans came in to establish security and peace," Samim said. "If the Northern Alliance comes, there'll be a lot of fighting with the Taliban."
But Gaus, the student, said he doesn't believe that there will be much of a fight for the city because the Taliban's bases and weapons have been destroyed.
He said people support a Northern Alliance push into the city, and he predicted a popular uprising in support of the opposition.
"Soldiers with empty hands will not be able to resist," he said. "They'll surrender and run away."
With the Northern Alliance champing at the bit, Mohammad Zaher Shah, the exiled former king based in Rome, appealed for restraint. He insisted that there should be no attempt to storm Kabul.
But Northern Alliance generals are impatient with the delicate political maneuvering.
Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah told Reuters on Friday that the opposition wants a political settlement as soon as possible, but that wouldn't stop it from launching a military advance.
One Northern Alliance commander, Gen. Abdul Basir, bluntly rejected the former king's appeal.
"We don't accept this. We have a program to enter Kabul. We're organized, we have an army, a government, and we're right. We don't agree with the king's proposal to introduce U.N. troops to Kabul. That's just four or five people sitting around thinking in Rome."
Basir said it would be difficult for U.N. forces to occupy the city before Northern Alliance troops moved in and defeated the Taliban.
"Kabul is not yet liberated. It's still occupied by the Taliban, and it's us who face them. How can the U.N. go in? First we need to liberate Kabul, then if the U.N. asks us, we can withdraw," he said.
Sergei Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report. Dixon and Loiko reported from Afghanistan.