Several hundred mujahedin commanders knelt here Monday and prayed for victory in the coming battle for Kunduz, the last major town in northern Afghanistan that remains under Taliban control. Gen. Daoud Khan, the leader of the forces that captured this town Sunday night, prayed with them. As the fighters gathered to receive their orders, which were written on white slips of paper and handed to them directly by Khan, the townspeople of Taloqan celebrated.
When Daoud's forces arrived Sunday, they were greeted with great enthusiasm, with crowds of children and adults throwing paper money and coins at the passing trucks as fighters yelled "Allahu Akhbar" ("God is Great.") When the trucks stopped at Taloqan's main traffic circle, the fighters were besieged by hundreds of well-wishers.
Even in this very conservative province of Afghanistan, the strictures imposed by the Taliban, which controlled Taloqan (the name means "pool of blood" in Uzbek) for a year, were considered draconian. During their rule, townsmen said, they were forbidden to shave their beards and subjected to frequent turban inspections. If their beards were not long enough to emerge from a closed fist, the religious police would beat them with an 18-inch leather strop, a much-hated punishment. People here also said the Taliban officials banned music and cassette tapes, as well as English language radio broadcasts.
Women suffered the worst under the religious edicts. Unable to go to school, forbidden from walking outside without a close male relative, their situation resembled house arrest at best, slavery at worst.
A few minutes after the column of fighters occupied the city, a crowd of men knocked over a white metal sign inscribed with the names of the martyred Taliban mullahs. Placed at the entrance of town, the names of the dead were written in letters made to resemble dripping blood.
Early Tuesday morning came word that the Taliban had retreated from Kabul as well. In just 24 hours, the Northern Alliance made unexpected gains, although more Taliban resistance is expected.
There have been several independent but unconfirmed reports of gratuitous killings by retreating Taliban soldiers. A student at the United English Language Center told a visitor that a 19-year-old boy was shot by a Taliban fighter while riding his bicycle, but this also couldn't be immediately verified.
Atrocities were claimed on both sides. On the front near Kabul, Northern Alliance troops who had broken through the Taliban lines executed four Taliban soldiers, including one wounded, helpless man who was gunned down brazenly under the eyes of journalists, the New York Times reported Monday.
Rausuddin Howaida, a retired religious studies teacher, said, "The practices of the Taliban have nothing to do with the Quran. Islam is a very developed religion." When asked how he fared under the religious regime, Howaida said, "We are civilians and remained calm and did not resist them, so they told their superiors that there was no problem here." He went on to express hope that the United Nations would assist in the creation of a broad-based government that included all ethnic groups. "Conquering the country without a political unifying force will be very difficult," he said.
Just down the street from Howaida's house, evidence that life was returning to normal came in the form of 20 women in white burkas, celebrating a wedding. It was a strange sight in a city that had not been completely secured. Sporadic automatic weapons fire, along with the sound of exploding artillery shells, could still be heard over the sound of the drum.
Although the Northern Alliance has enjoyed a string of major victories in the past few days, victory in the struggle for Kunduz, roughly 30 miles from here, is not assured.
Retreating Taliban fighters, including Pakistani and Arab volunteers, have converged on the area of Kunduz from other parts of this province. They are surrounded by Northern Alliance fighters. Some here have speculated that the Taliban will be weakened by defection and will surrender quickly. But Monday afternoon, during a final gathering of his commanders before attacking Kunduz, Gen. Daoud Khan said, "I do not think the Taliban will surrender, because they have many good commanders."