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Taliban Prisoners on Bin Laden

Jawid smiles nervously as he recounts his escape from a Taliban jail and his flight across the front line to safety in territory held by the Afghan opposition.

A taxi driver in Kabul, Jawid, 21, was arrested two weeks ago at a Taliban checkpoint in the city. His crime, he says, was being a Tajik, a minority that makes up a quarter of Afghanistan’s population. Possibly he was caught up in a Taliban sweep to find men avoiding military service.

He spent 10 days in Kabul’s notorious Day Mazang prison, where his salvation may have been the overcrowding, as well as the Taliban’s determination that prisoners should fulfil their religious obligations.

Early every morning they were sent to bath houses at the rear of the jail for ritual washing before prayers. But, because so many people had been arrested, not enough guards were on hand to keep watch.

“I climbed on to the roof of the bath house with three friends,” Jawid recalled yesterday. “We jumped from that on to the top of the prison wall, which is about four metres high. We were able to climb down on the other side without anybody seeing us.” He went home and then immediately left Kabul with his parents, three brothers and a sister.

Their destination was the territory just north of Kabul controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance, which is mainly Tajik. They reached it by taking the safest route across the front line ? a 150-mile drive north-east of Kabul to a bleak mountain called Giawa, which they crossed on foot.

Jawid and his family have joined a growing army of refugees, but they are luckier than most. We met him in a grove of trees beside an irrigation channel in an attractive village called Bagram, where he was surrounded by his relatives. His white-bearded uncle made a scything motion and said: “Old as I am, I would like to cut off the heads of all those Taliban.”

If war starts, a flood of refugees will probably try to escape to safety. But, at least on the roads north from Kabul, the outflow is still only a trickle. This may be because it is a difficult and dangerous route. More direct roads are said to be impassable unless refugees have friends among the Taliban who let them through.

A feeling is growing among the refugees, and Afghans of all ethnicities, that the Taliban are finished because the forces arrayed against them are too great. Mohammed Shaqer, a policeman in Bagram, said: “It’s simple. Because the Americans are so strong, the Taliban will be defeated by the US.”

So far, however, there is little fighting, according to Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance’s foreign minister. He said the Taliban had launched a counter-attack near Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest city of the north, and had used two jets for bombing. But the scale of the fighting seems limited, with few casualties on either side.

Dr Abdullah did hint at talks going on with tribes and groups allied to the Taliban about changing sides. If there is a successful offensive by the Northern Alliance, it will probably be in association with defections from the Taliban. Nobody here likes to back a loser.

Dr Abdullah fears that Pakistan will retain its predominance over Afghanistan by helping the US to get rid of the Taliban. He suspects it wants to install a new government as dependent on Pakistani wishes as the Taliban are. “My fear would be that the Pakistanis would divide the terrorists into the good and the bad, and keep the good terrorists for use later,” he said. CP

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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