November 13, 2001
Executions of P.O.W.'s Cast Doubts on Alliance
By DAVID ROHDE
They searched him and emptied his pockets. Then, one soldier fired two bursts from his rifle into the man's chest. A second soldier beat the lifeless body with his rifle butt. A third repeatedly smashed a rocket- propelled-grenade launcher into the man's head.
The killing occurred minutes after Northern Alliance soldiers, advancing toward Kabul, surged deep into Taliban territory. They chose to celebrate with executions.
Ten yards away lay the body of a younger man who alliance soldiers said was a Pakistani. He was on his side with his arms extended. In the side of his head was a bullet hole.
Two hundred yards away, the soldiers who had minutes earlier shot the older man searched the possessions of a motionless Taliban soldier on the ground. After emptying the man's pockets, a soldier fired a burst from his rifle into the man. The soldiers moved on quickly, showing no emotion. A few minutes later, someone laid an unused mortar round across the man's throat.
A fourth body a mile away had a bullet wound in the side of the head. The Taliban soldier, flat on his back, had his hands up, as if he had been surprised or surrendering when shot.
Looting was widespread. Alliance soldiers, who have received extensive backing from the United States, plundered Taliban bodies and bunkers, stealing shoes, bags of sugar, flashlights and anything else that they could find. "I got 700,000 afghani!" a soldier who was leaving an abandoned Taliban bunker shouted, flashing a wad of bills worth $20. "I got 700,000!"
The killings here suggested that alliance soldiers might prove difficult to control as their victories build.
The looting and executions were an ugly ending to what began as a well-executed tank and infantry assault. Alliance forces broached Taliban lines near the Bagram Air Base and Khalazai on the western edge of the line.
Taliban lines broke after a two-hour bombardment and an hourlong tank and infantry attack. The alliance reported few casualties, with one soldier killed and eight wounded near Bagram.
Alliance soldiers reacted to the corpses in different ways. Nearly all stopped and gazed at the dead. Some searched for valuables. One, in a more dignified gesture, placed a cloth over a corpse.
Attitudes on looting varied. One soldier bragged about his take, showing off a bag of sugar and a pair of sneakers that he had found in a bunker. Another showed off the identification card of a Pakistani, Ahmad Bakhtiar, 22.
Some told other soldiers about their take, particularly when it involved weapons. Others were more discreet. At one point, an officer screamed at his soldiers to stop and rejoin the fight. "Let's go!" he shouted. "Let's go!" Carrying sacks of loot, the soldiers followed.
Taliban soldiers appeared to have left their posts quickly. In one compound, the freshly cooked head of a goat sat on a piece of wood waiting to be carved.
At other sites, bags of clothing and transistor radios were left. The defenses appeared crude but formidable, with a six- foot-deep trench along the front line and machine-gun nests and mortar positions behind it. The Taliban soldiers lived in simple mud huts and cooked food in large vats over open fires.
Three Afghan refugees who left Kabul on Sunday and arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Monday said they were met at three separate highway checkpoints east of Kabul by tense Taliban soldiers. They described the Taliban they saw as disorganized, rattled, cowed by passengers who refused to be searched, and hungry for news from the capital. "They were terribly nervous," said Muhammad Azim, a pediatrician who fled Kabul with his family.
Why the Taliban lines broke so quickly was unclear. American planes carried out their heaviest bombing before the attack in the afternoon. Six B-52's conducted broad-scale bombardment while fighter-bombers hit individual targets.
As Taliban forces fled later in the day, American jets bombed their vehicles. Low morale after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north may have been a factor in the hasty retreat, alliance officers said. Some defections were also reported.
The American raids appeared to have destroyed enough Taliban tanks and artillery to swing the battle in favor of the alliance.
Alliance tactics were simple. Two groups of assault troops, called Zarbati, attacked with tanks across plains in Bagram, in the center of the line, and in Khalazai, on the western edge. The units were created by Ahmed Shah Massoud, the alliance commander who was assassinated in early September, to give his force more offensive punch.
In Bagram, the Taliban fired scores of mortars at the armored vehicles, but appeared to lack the tanks and heavy weapons to destroy them. The tanks, backed by infantry, attacked along asphalt roads that cannot be mined.
Officers on nearby roofs coordinated tank, artillery and infantry units in the attack. At 3:05, a voice shouted over the radio: "We're past the house! We're past the house!"
That was a signal that alliance forces had broached Taliban lines.
An armored personnel carrier rushed to the line to help out arrived at a chaotic scene. Alliance soldiers shouted at one another as shells and bullets whizzed overhead, and the troops struggled to find pockets of resistance.
Twelve Taliban soldiers were seen running across a field. A soldier fired his machine gun.
Slowly, order was restored, and pockets of resistance were identified and attacked by tanks.
As night fell, alliance officials said a large group of Taliban soldiers, many of them Arab and Pakistani volunteers, had been surrounded on the northern part of the Shamali Plain. Alliance forces on the western side of the plain advanced 10 miles south, to Qara Bagh, which is 15 miles north of Kabul.
Alliance forces that were attacking from the center of the line advanced six miles, to Poluborikau, which is 25 miles from Kabul.
Throughout the night, rockets and artillery from the two sides intermittently fired on each other. Alliance commanders said they would continue advancing toward Kabul in the morning.
The commander of 300 soldiers in the special Zarbati units, "Captain Habib," who took part in the attack, seemed unconcerned when told of the killings. "The soldiers must have been very angry," he said, and he shrugged.