When the front line around Mazar-i-Sharif burst under relentless U.S. bombing, the retreating Taliban fighters knew there was only one option: to run fast and far. Retreating into Mazar-i-Sharif's maze of dusty alleys was certain death; the Taliban had made too many enemies. During its three-year rule of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban, who belong to the Pashtun tribes of southern Afghanistan, had mercilessly persecuted the Uzbek and Hazara ethnic minorities. After the city fell, they hauled up guns hidden under the floorboards and took revenge as the Taliban forces fled in disarray. "From the houses, the Uzbeks were picking off the Taliban stragglers," said an Islamabad-based aid worker in contact with the northern Afghan city.
The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif may be a heartening victory for the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, but it has sharpened the ancient feuds that bedevil Afghanistan. The Pashtun--a group of tribes that accounts for about 40% of the country's 26 million people--are almost sure to rally behind the Taliban, since America is now seen as backing the Pashtun's worst enemies. The Pashtun have ruled Afghanistan since the 18th century, and their will to fight may be steeled by the specter of marauding Northern Alliance troops--made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras--attacking with U.S. warplanes in the skies above. Fearing reprisals, Pashtun families have been fleeing the north.
The war cry in favor of the Taliban is also being raised among the Pashtun tribes of Pakistan's borderlands. Last week more than 11,300 Pakistani Pashtun, some armed with nothing more than single-shot hunting rifles and swords, crossed into Afghanistan over the high mountain passes near Bajour, north of Peshawar, to join the Taliban. Those with combat experience were rushed up to Mazar-i-Sharif. Pakistani officials at the Bajour checkpoint made no effort to stop the holy warriors. "These are mad people," said a security officer, shrugging. "Let them die."
U.S. and Pakistani efforts to forge a Pashtun opposition to the Taliban are falling behind the battlefield advances. With the death last month of prominent Pashtun war commander Abdul Haq--who was betrayed and executed by the Taliban while trying to recruit tribal elders for a revolt--U.S. hopes are pinned on Hamad Karzai, a pro-Western Pashtun nobleman who is in southern Afghanistan, urging tribal elders to back exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah.
But uniting the Pashtun on any side will not be an easy task. Afghan vendettas date back centuries. Not only do the Pashtun tribes despise the ethnic minorities of the Northern Alliance, but they often blast away at one another too. Feuds drag on for generations, with every man called upon to defend his tribe's honor. The Pashtun unite briefly when an outsider swaggers in, such as Alexander the Great, the Soviets and now the Americans. Left to themselves, they plant land mines to settle a property dispute. A youth from Peshawar was recently celebrated in the newspapers as a true Pashtun hero for shooting his father's assassin. The boy was six.
A deadly rivalry has been running since the 16th century between two main Pashtun tribes, the Durranis and the Ghilzais. The events since Sept. 11 have changed little. The Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is a Ghilzai, and so are most of his top commanders. The ex-monarch's supporters are all Durranis.