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Publicly defiant Taliban were planning their escape

Publicly defiant Taliban were planning their escape

Author: Kathy Gannon
Publication: The Times of India
Date: December 1, 2001

It was 6 p.m. on Monday, November 12. The U.S. bombing had been punishing. The fighting outside Kabul was intense. In the capital, the Taliban decided it was time to go.

The Islamic militia's hierarchy in the capital called the decisive meeting. About a dozen men in turbans and beards gathered in the dimly lit sitting room of Mullah Mohammed Hassan, the Taliban prime minister and second-most powerful man in the religious movement.

Their situation was pressing. Less than 10 km away, American bombs were blasting Taliban defences, and Northern Alliance tanks were being ordered to encircle the city.

What unfolded next was recounted in detail in a recent interview by Mullah Mohammed Khaqsar, a Taliban official. He said that he was called to the meeting by a leadership that didn't know he had been in secret contact with the Northern Alliance for months.

Publicly, the Taliban were defiant, vowing to fight to the death to defend the capital they had held for five years. But behind the bravado, Taliban government ministers had already been planning their escape, Khaqsar said.

Days before, they had quietly stacked old couches, beds, and other furniture onto trucks and sent them south towards Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold.

Shortly after sunset, key Taliban figures gathered at Hassan's house in the Wazir Akbar Khan district. Interior Minister Abdul Razzak was there along with Khaqsar, his deputy. So were Qadratullah Jamal, the culture and information minister, and Mullah Mohammed Abbas, the health minister.

Also present was Abbas' deputy, Sher Mohammed Stanikzai, a small man with a wispy black beard who spoke perfect English and was often put forward by the Taliban to talk to Western visitors.

The decision was taken by consensus, Khaqsar said - the Taliban would leave Kabul by night. The leaders agreed to meet again four hours later at a small place called Durrani in Wardak province south of Kabul, Khaqsar said.

There was no time to waste. Ethnic Tajik troops from the Northern Alliance were advancing from the north; a Shiite Muslim faction was coming from the southwest. The mullahs had to make sure they would get past the town of Maidan Shahr, capital of Wardak province about 32 km south of Kabul, before the Shiites cut the escape route. Khaqsar said the Arab allies from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida movement were not present at the Kabul meeting. He said their leaders had gathered separately for a meeting with a representative of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former ally of the U.S. in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

"Haqqani was in charge of the Arabs and it was this man who told them to leave Kabul," Khaqsar said.

Initially, plans called for the Taliban and Al-Qaida, to establish new front lines to the south and southwest of Kabul - at Durrani and at Sang-e-Nowishta. Once the decision was taken, the mullahs left, to spread the word that it was time to leave the city. Taliban leaders began heading out of the capital shortly after the meeting broke up.

Those who had already shipped their personal belongings drove straight from Mullah Hassan's house to the road out of town, Khaqsar said.

When word trickled to the front line that the leaders were leaving, fighters clambered aboard trucks to join the escape. Some even drove away in their tanks.

As the Taliban left, they ran into intense American airstrikes, Khaqsar said. The fallback front quickly collapsed, and by I am, seven hours after the Kabul meeting, the Taliban were scattered and fleeing farther south and southwest. The next morning the Northern Alliance entered Kabul.

The whereabouts of other officials at the last meeting in Kabul are not known, making it impossible to obtain firsthand corroboration of Khaqsar's account. But it is detailed, and some of its details correspond with what is known about that night. (AP)

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