ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- In the end, the Taliban lost more than half of Afghanistan in much the same way that it came to power: with barely a fight.
Tuesday, with the opposition Northern Alliance in control of Kabul and roughly half the country, the Taliban's estimated 40,000 troops have scattered. According to military officials and witnesses' accounts, the fighters are melting into craggy Afghan mountains, streaming south toward Kandahar, their movement's birthplace, and returning to their home villages.
Some of the Islamic militia's fighters quietly vanished from city streets days before Northern Alliance forces arrived. Others waited until combat seemed imminent, then gathered their weapons and pulled their vehicles into retreating convoys that seemed to dissipate in the desert dust. Intelligence officials said Tuesday that the majority of troops have become phantoms in the Afghan landscape.
When the Taliban formed in 1994 amid the chaos of factional warfare, it swept across the country with remarkable swiftness -- not by annihilating its enemies but by buying them off, co-opting them or outsmarting them. Persuasion, treachery and momentum brought them to Kabul in two years, far more quickly than prolonged combat would have.
With most of the Taliban forces now in retreat, military officials and Afghanistan analysts here said it is unclear how many are regrouping in preparation for guerrilla warfare in the countryside and how many have simply deserted the militia that imposed one of the world's harshest interpretations of Islam on its impoverished people.
Military officials and Afghan specialists watchers said a broad confluence of events spurred the unexpected pace of the Northern Alliance's success.
Daily air strikes by U.S. warplanes, intensified in recent weeks around key cities, ravaged the Taliban's ability to communicate, move and fight. Intelligence officials and reports from inside Afghanistan described the Taliban communicating by handwritten commands dispatched with couriers on horseback and getting battlefield intelligence from BBC news broadcasts.
U.S. aerial attacks reportedly also had damaged ammunition reserves, supply lines and -- in the past week -- had unnerved front-line troops with large scale-bombing not used in the first month of raids.
"They're in total disarray," said one Western diplomat here. "Their military backbone is apparently broken."
But Pakistani military officials and representatives of aid organizations who have worked with the Taliban are far more cautious.
"They are making a tactical retreat," said an official of a foreign aid group with extensive experience in Afghanistan. "By moving out of the city and into the mountains, they can decide the terms of engagement for themselves."
Aid organizations monitoring Kandahar reported that large numbers of troops appeared to be collecting in the city from across Afghanistan Tuesday, only to leave quickly with sacks of food and weapons which they appeared to be stockpiling in surrounding mountains.
In addition to the bombing, other factors also sped the Taliban's retreat.
Interviews with commanders on several fronts over the last several days suggest that the northern Afghans -- an ethnic mix of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras who resent the southern, Pashtun-dominated Taliban -- were eager to oust their rulers.
A short time before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Taliban executed five officials in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif for plotting a coup. Last Friday, Mazar-e-Sharif became the first city to fall to the Northern Alliance.
While opposition commander Ismail Khan was still making his way toward the western Afghan city of Herat on Monday, thousands of the city's residents already had taken up arms and were trying to force Taliban troops out of the city, according to Northern Alliance officials.
With Khan's force still five miles from town, "they called and said 'Come on in,' " said Mohammed Hasham Saad, the opposition Northern Alliance's envoy to Uzbekistan.
"What did the Taliban do for Afghanistan?" Khan said Tuesday by satellite telephone in Herat, where he was governor until the Taliban ousted him in 1995 without much more of a battle than he needed to reclaim the city Monday. "They killed people, they had a terrible regime."
Khan reportedly told the city's residents that he would reopen girls schools that the Taliban had shut down and would radio and television programming banned by the radical Islamic militia.
Rapid shifts of allegiance also have occurred within the Taliban's ranks. Many of the same local commanders who joined the Taliban during its rise in the 1990s are now reportedly turning their backs on the movement.
"Afghans never want to be on the losing side," said a longtime Afghanistan observer here. "Everyone is staking out positions."
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