Following two days of negotiations with the new Afghan interim president Hamid Karzai, the Taliban agreed to surrender its last stronghold of Kandahar.
Reporters on the ground say the Taliban has already transferred control of the Kandahar airport, the stage of particularly brutal fighting, to ethnic Pashtun armies.
Hamid Karzai, poised to take power of Afghanistan Dec. 22, said the Taliban in Kandahar and its surrounding regions would begin turning in weapons to anti-Taliban commanders Mullah Naqib Ullah and Sher Agha, both leaders of Pashtun armies, tomorrow.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, said the Taliban agreed that Ullah, a member of the Jamiat-e-Islami party of the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani and current leader of an anti-Taliban army, would become governor of Kandahar following the Taliban’s surrender.
Zaeef said that the Taliban conceded Kandahar to prevent further civilian casualties from intensifying U.S. bombing.
“Both sides, the Taliban and Karzai, agreed to the surrender of Kandahar for the welfare of the people to decrease the casualties to life and to protect the dignity of the people,” Zaeef told reporters.
Karzai and Zaeef, however, gave conflicting accounts on details of the surrender agreement, particularly pertaining to the fate of the Taliban’s supreme leader. Since the U.S. military campaign began nearly 60 days ago, Mullah Mohammad Omar has vowed a fight till the death, calling on all Muslims to join the jihad, or holy war.
Zaeef told reporters that Omar agreed to surrender Kandahar and put himself under Pashtun protection.
“His life will be saved and he will be allowed to live with dignity. He is a mujahid [Afghan fighter]. He has worked for the people of Afghanistan and he is not guilty.”
Karzai later specified that Omar will be protected only if he denounces terrorism.
The Taliban’s supreme ruler could receive amnesty only if he “clearly denounce[s] terrorism and make[s] explicitly clear that terrorism has brutalized Afghanistan society and destroyed our country,” Karzai told CNN Thursday.
“I have offered amnesty to the common Taliban,” he said, referring to Taliban soldiers in general, which includes many young men from rural regions of southern Afghanistan, home of his own Popolzai tribe.
Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke confirmed that Washington knew of the surrender talks, but did not elaborate on the Pentagon’s response.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has stressed that amnesty would not be offered to senior Taliban leaders or to any al-Qaida or Taliban members believed to be responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Althought the FBI does not cite Mullah Mohammad Omar as one of its most wanted terrorists, Rumsfeld today emphasized that Omar should not be “allowed to live with dignity in the Kandahar region.”
Rumsfeld told reporters that he was not aware of any surrender negotiations that were inconsistent with U.S. interests in its war on terrorism.
U.S. bombing of Kandahar paused Thursday, possibly to allow for surrender negotiation or in response to Wednesday’s errant smart bomb that killed three U.S. soldiers.