Jubilant Taliban religious fighters riding tanks, firing guns into the air and chanting “God is Great” captured this stronghold of a north ern warlord on Saturday, the last obstacle in their three-year campaign to create a strict Islamic state.
With the Taliban in control of the ancient city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan was virtually united under one regime for the first time since the Soviet army left the country in 1989.
Taliban soldiers ripped down giant posters of warlord Rashid Dostum from traffic posts, pillars and public buildings as the remnants of his army fled toward the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan borders, 35 miles to the north.
Troops in jeeps, tanks and personnel carriers chanted “God is Great” as they rumbled through the mostly unpaved streets just before dusk. Male residents looked on glumly; women retreated into the shadows and their homes.
On the lead tank was Gen. Malik Pahlawan, Dostum’s second-in-command whose defection to the Taliban on Monday marked the beginning of Dostum’s downfall.
The Taliban victory was a boost to Pakistan, which had supported the group amid the chaos of feuding Afghan militias that followed the ouster of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992.
But Saturday’s advance could bode ill for Central Asian republics to the north, which had backed Dostum in the hope that he would shield their Muslim populations from the Taliban’s influence.
In a statement issued through the ITAR-Tass news agency, Russia pledged to intervene if fighting spread to former Soviet republics who belong to a loose federation known as the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“The Russian leadership states that if the CIS border is violated, the mechanism of the CIS collective security treaty will be immediately activated,” the statement said.
The Taliban foreign minister quickly sought to quell fears of further conquest, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.
“I assure the world and neighboring countries that the Taliban government is strictly adhering to a policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries,” Mullah Mohammed Ghous said.
Earlier Saturday, Pahlawan seized Dostum’s home town and western military headquarters at Shebergan. The commander of Dostum’s air force, Gen. Jamil, and three other pilots flew their fighter planes to Kabul and defected.
The Taliban, which grew out of Afghan refugee camps, began their march across Afghanistan three years ago from their base in the south, capturing territory from local warlords and guerrilla forces usually without a fight. They reached the capital, Kabul, on Sept. 27.
In the areas they control, they have imposed a severe version of Islam that bars women from working, bans alcohol and most entertainment, and forces men to pray in the mosques.
As the Taliban forces approached Mazar-e-Sharif, panic spread through the city. Hundreds of people clogged the streets trying to flee. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms seized cars at gunpoint to escape.
Dostum escaped Friday to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a spokesman said. Uzbekistan had propped up his regime for years by selling him cheap power and goods.
Map: Afghanistan update