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Taliban Agrees to Surrender Remaining Afghan Territory

By John Pomfret
THE WASHINGTON POST -- quetta, pakistan

The Taliban agreed Thursday to surrender its last pockets of control in Afghanistan in return for guarantees of safety for its top leaders, including Mohammed Omar, the reclusive cleric who founded the radical Islamic movement and has been hunted for two months by U.S. forces and their Afghan allies.

The deal with the Taliban was negotiated by Hamid Karzai, the newly appointed head of a post-Taliban interim government. Karzai said that the Taliban had agreed to surrender in Kandahar, Helmand and Zabol provinces in southern Afghanistan, where they have faced mounting pressure from U.S. airstrikes and tribal forces led by Karzai and others.

It was unclear whether the agreement, and especially its handling of Taliban leaders, would satisfy the various forces fighting to destroy the Taliban. In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States stood by its demands that Omar and other Taliban leaders be brought to justice for their support of accused terrorist Osama bin Laden.

But the Taliban offer appeared to signal the imminent collapse of a movement that just a month ago controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan. Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, said Thursday after the deal was announced that the Taliban was finished as a political movement. “I think we should go home,” he said.

Omar and other Taliban leaders had publicly exhorted their forces to fight to the death, but the leaders of the Pashtun militias and some Taliban field commanders had been negotiating toward a peaceful end to the conflict. Throughout the two months of fighting, similar deals had allowed the Taliban to fall back from several cities with a minimum of fighting, and the pact announced Thursday appeared to herald the Taliban’s final retreat.

The dissolution of the Taliban would increase the chances that a new interim Afghan government, agreed to on Wednesday and due to take power on Dec. 22, could get off to a smooth start. But several Afghan factions Thursday repudiated the new leadership, saying it did not fairly represent Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. Particularly troubling to supporters of the interim arrangement was the pronouncement by an ethnic Uzbek military leader, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, that he would boycott the new government.

Even a deal for the Taliban’s surrender would not mean the end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, the leading suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, remains at large and is believed to hiding in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

But the destruction of the Taliban would be a significant advance in the U.S. campaign. The Bush administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Haass, declared in testimony on Capitol Hill: “The Taliban regime no longer exists ... This military victory is the basis for all else that we may try to accomplish in Afghanistan.”

The deal for Kandahar was hammered out during two days of talks between Taliban commanders and Karzai. Karzai said he offered Taliban fighters amnesty if they surrendered their weapons and turned over control of Kandahar, Helmand and Zabol provinces. He left the door open for an amnesty for senior Taliban leaders if they repudiated their past and rejected terrorism, he said.