KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) The rout of the Taliban accelerated yesterday with the Islamic militia losing control of Jalalabad in the east, once-loyal Pashtun tribesmen joining in the revolt in the south and many of their fighters fleeing into the mountains to evade U.S. airstrikes.
The Taliban is “in retreat virtually all over the country,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in Washington.
A day after seizing the capital, Kabul, elements of the northern alliance consolidated their power by taking over the defense and interior ministries temporary measures, the alliance insisted, until a U.N.-supervised political settlement representing all ethnic groups.
In the south, there were reports although impossible to confirm of fighting in the streets of Kandahar, the Taliban”s birthplace.
Many of Afghanistan”s 23 or more Pashtun groups appeared to have risen up against the Taliban, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said. “Whether or not they”re working in concert, we don”t know,” he told reporters in Washington.
The tribal leaders were Pashtuns members of Afghanistan”s largest ethnic group, which served as the backbone of the Taliban”s harsh five-year regime.
“It is time for the rest of Afghanistan particularly the ethnic groups in the south to join the uprising against the Taliban and throw off their oppressive rule,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London. “The sooner they act, the greater the benefit for all the people of Afghanistan.”
Cheney said the Taliban”s retreat was “a very good beginning to what”s likely to be a long struggle” which will end only with the capture of Osama bin Laden and the destruction of his al-Qaida terrorist network.
President Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to surrender bin Laden, sought in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Taliban officials insisted the Islamic movement remained intact in its southern strongholds despite its losses. A Taliban official, Mullah Abdullah, told the Afghan Islamic Press the movement”s supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his “guest,” bin Laden, were “safe and well.”
But by other accounts, the news was not good for the Taliban.
A U.S. official in Washington speaking on condition of anonymity said there was fighting in the streets of Kandahar between Pashtun tribesmen and the Taliban. The official asserted that the city would fall to anti-Taliban forces within days if not hours.
Many Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan were fleeing to rural, mountainous province of Helmand southwest of Kandahar, the official said.
Yunus Khalis, a Pashtun mullah in Jalalabad, between Kabul and the Pakistan border, negotiated a deal under which the Taliban left the city in return for safe passage with their weapons, according to sources there.
Khalis, who is anti-Western, deeply conservative and a friend to Arab militants, declared himself independent of both the Taliban and the northern alliance.
Witnesses said Khalis” followers also took control of the Torkham border station to the east of the city and were preventing anyone including Afghans from entering Pakistan or leaving Afghanistan.
U.S. jets reportedly pounded targets south of Jalalabad early yesterday. The area is suspected to contain al-Qaida hideouts.
Khalis” return to power fit into the larger trend: Afghanistan seemed to be reverting to the patchwork quilt of fiefdoms that controlled the country before the Taliban ascended in 1996. Already, warlords who previously ruled Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat have taken control of those cities.
Afghan sources in Pakistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the airport outside of Kandahar was held by about 200 fighters loyal to Arif Khan, a Pashtun tribal leader. The Taliban denied it, and officials in Washington said the situation was unclear.
There were other advances. Tribal elders took control yesterday of the town of Gardez, in Paktia province about 60 miles south of Kabul.