QUETTA, Pakistan – Desperate Taliban troops are taking thousands of boys and men from their families and forcing them into the military in an attempt to bolster their thinning ranks, according to recently arriving refugees in Pakistan.
"Eight members of my family have disappeared and been taken away to fight," said Said Anwar, a 40-year-old Kabul resident who staggered into a refugee shanty town here just three days ago. "They were young people, 12 or 13. The older ones, the teenaged boys, are being taken away, too."
Anwar and dozens of other refugees have arrived here in the last week telling disturbingly similar stories of how Taliban forces, faced with hundreds of defections, have abandoned the towns, looted the markets and are turning on their own people.
Muhammad Zahir, 22, who traveled to in a Pakistani refugee camp from Kabul earlier this week, said the pattern of forced conscription and harassment escalated sharply after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
"They started grabbing people as soon as the World Trade Center was hit," he said, "and they haven't stopped."
Officials with several humanitarian agencies have also heard such reports, but cannot confirm them because there are no Western aid workers left in Afghanistan.
"We have no idea if it is getting worse," conceded one frustrated spokesman. "We know fewer people are coming to the borders. Whether they are being grabbed by the Taliban before they get there, we just don't know."
Anwar Ghazni, who arrived five days ago from Sarangar Province, said he believed the Taliban were panicking, scrambling to train and equip as many fighters as possible in advance of a U.S. attack.
"It's because they are terrified of America. They are taking people and doing whatever they want with them. The situation is out of control.
"Several of my relatives were taken away," he said, including two brothers, aged 18 and 24. "Others have run off to join the Northern Alliance. They are so sick of the Taliban they want to stay and fight. But most of us are just so sick of it, we had to get out."
Pre-teens as well as older boys and men were being taken, many refugees said.
"They are taking children my age," said 10-year-old Aziz Unrah, who arrived from Bamiyan three days ago. "My friend Ahmad was taken," said Aziz, who described his friend as "like my age." He had no clue where Ahmad was, but said "I think he is going to fight. I do not know."
Many refugees said morale and discipline among Taliban troops was also breaking down. Evictions of civilians from their homes is common, the refugees said, as is theft by Taliban troops. Refugees said they did not think the Taliban seizing property were acting on orders from their commanders, but were breaking off into renegade groups or small gangs and grabbing whatever they could.
Ghazni accused the Taliban of torching his grandfather's home north of Kabul when the elderly man refused to leave. He doesn't know if his grandfather survived the attack, or where he may have gone if he had.
Refugees also reported that Taliban troops were defecting across the country, from the front lines north of Kabul to the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Many Afghans were staying in those areas, particularly in Kandahar, as the defections increased.
"Kabul is almost empty. Many people have taken to the mountains and want to leave," said Arif Mir Hussain, who arrived in Quetta on Tuesday. "Those who can get out of the country are doing it. The others wait."
Another boy, Tahir, 13, said the Taliban were just "grabbing people off the street" to make up for the defections. He said the Taliban were losing "many of their soldiers. People are leaving them, and that is good," he said.
Refugees also said the breakdown of authority within Afghanistan has sparked wild rumors, many of them unsubstantiated, of U.S., British and even Russian troops air-dropping all over the country and engaging the Taliban in open battles. None of the refugees could say they had seen any foreign forces, however.
Kemal, a refugee from the city of Zabul, were among those predicting large numbers of Taliban fighters would not hold their ranks in the face of direct attacks by American or other Western troops.
"Nobody supports the Taliban now," he said. "The only people they have are the ones they are taking from the streets. And how long do you think they will fight when the Americans come?"