Just as American media and pundits began showing signs of war fatigue, the center collapsed. The Taliban on Nov. 9 evacuated 8,000 soldiers from Mazar-e-Sharif, its key holding in northern Afghanistan. Northern Alliance fighters moved in and, with the help of U.S. special forces, took the city in under two hours. The Alliance fighters moved through the city they had once called their capital. They executed at least 100 Taliban, stuffing Afghan currency bills up their noses in a traditional sign of condemnation.
From the west, independent commander Ismael Khan then moved on Herat, forcing its 6,000 Taliban troops to surrender on Nov. 12. U.S. fighter jets bombed fleeing troops, leaving a trail of destroyed vehicles and bloodied bodies visible from the air. At an airfield Mr. Khan's soldiers found mass graves of Taliban prisoners, some with ears cut off and bullet shots through the mouth.
The same day another militia retook its former headquarters at Taloqan in central Afghanistan after a 12-hour battle with the Taliban. The win provoked the first mass defections of Taliban fighters.
By evening, the sound of tanks and truck engines could be heard all over Kabul as Taliban fighters prepared to retreat. The Alliance fighters, asked by the United States to hold off entering the capital until a new government could be formed, found themselves looking at a cakewalk. When they entered the city the next morning, they faced only sporadic resistance.
The surprisingly swift offensive answered pundits who said U.S. attacks were not succeeding. Six weeks ago the Taliban controlled nearly 90 percent of Afghan territory; now it is at 20 percent and shriveling.
With the Taliban in retreat, the Bush administration also found vindication of its charges of overlap between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Hundreds of Pakistanis and so-called "Arab Afghans"-Muslim fighters from Arab countries trained in bin Laden camps-were among the Taliban's killed or captured. One report said Chinese were among the fighters. Inside a gated home in Kabul abandoned by two foreign doctors, soldiers found instructions for preparing chemical weapons.
On the plus side, U.S. special forces in Kabul discovered that a U.S. aerial attack on buildings housing al-Qaeda probably took the life of Mohamed Atef. He was Mr. bin Laden's chief military strategist and is believed to have been a key planner of attacks on the United States on Sept. 11.