A revitalized Taliban army is drawing recruits from militant groups in Pakistan, including Al Qaeda loyalists, as it fights an escalating guerrilla war against U.S. forces and their allies across the border in Afghanistan.
These fighters are answering the call from Muslim clerics to wage jihad, or holy war, against U.S.-led forces, according to Taliban members and supporters as well as Pakistani militants interviewed on both sides of the border. The Taliban is also exploiting the alienation felt by ethnic Pushtuns in Afghanistan because of continued insecurity, a scarcity of development projects and ongoing U.S. military operations.
But even as fighting increases, a relatively moderate element of the Taliban is said to be interested in participating in national elections next June, and discussing a replacement for Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s fugitive leader. He is believed to still be in Afghanistan despite a $10-million reward for his capture.
Afghan authorities have blamed the Taliban for a string of attacks in eastern and southern Afghanistan that have killed more than 60 Afghan civilians, pro-government Muslim clerics, police and soldiers since mid-July. U.S. and Afghan forces say they have killed at least several dozen suspected Taliban fighters in the same period.
Despite the presence of thousands of U.S. and other international troops, the Taliban fighters and their allies hope to eventually retake the southern city of Kandahar, once Omar’s seat of power, said a local Pakistani commander of Harkat-ul-Moujahedeen, a longtime ally of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
The commander, who was interviewed in this mountain town near the Afghan border, spoke on condition that he not be identified. As a member of a group banned by the Pakistani government, he fears arrest.
He runs a madrasa, or Koranic school, and says he has crossed into Afghanistan seven times since late 2001, to aid the Taliban’s war against U.S.-led forces. In one case, he said with a sly smile, Pakistani soldiers guarding the border saw him and did nothing.
In any case, he said, borders are irrelevant for him and like-minded Muslims.
“We don’t believe in any boundaries or separate countries for Muslims -- there is only one Islam,” he said. “These people are going [to Afghanistan] because there is a fatwa from religious scholars that says there is a jihad against Americans there.” A fatwa is a religious edict.
“The fact is that now the situation in the Pushtun belt is very critical compared with other parts of Afghanistan,” he added. “Now all Pushtuns are reuniting against the Americans.”
Afghan government officials speak of hundreds of Taliban members and their allies filtering back and forth across the border from Pakistan. The Harkat commander, who wore brown-tinted rectangular sunglasses and a small, tightly wrapped black turban, declined to provide a figure.
However, he added: “People sitting in government offices can’t imagine how many Pakistanis are still operating inside Afghanistan, supporting the Taliban.”
Local residents say other Pakistan-based militant groups crossing into Afghanistan include the Al Badr militia and Hizbul Moujahedeen. The latter is an old ally of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received large shipments of weapons from the United States during the war against Soviet forces in the 1980s. But after the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Washington accused him of plotting against President Hamid Karzai and targeted him with a missile strike in May 2002. He survived.
Harkat, Hizbul Moujahedeen and Al Badr are among the main militant groups fighting in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. But under U.S. pressure Pakistan has curbed those infiltrations, leaving militants ripe for recruitment to the pro-Taliban jihad in Afghanistan.
Harkat was one of the founders of Osama bin Laden’s “International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” announced at a news conference near the Afghan frontier town of Khowst in 1998.
Khowst remains a power base for the Taliban. U.S. fighter jets and helicopters patrol day and night here in support of ground troops searching for weapons and militant fighters. Often the enemy is close -- but invisible.
Taliban member Nadir Khan recently sat in the back seat of a reporter’s car not far from a U.S. base and described how he and other Taliban members move back and forth across the Pakistani border, about an hour’s drive away. They carry out attacks and return to their bases in Pakistan, he said. Khan was contacted through an intermediary and agreed to talk on condition that the precise location of the interview not be revealed.
He said he attended a meeting of Taliban commanders in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan’s largest city, on July 12.
“It was like a Cabinet meeting,” he said.
“The people I met in Peshawar even had guns with them,” Khan said. “Pakistan is not stopping all these meetings because Pakistan does not like the government in Afghanistan. And they will work hard to destroy the government here.”
The Taliban also crosses the border to silence informants aiding the U.S.-led coalition, such as a man beaten unconscious outside his Khowst home on July 19 because he spoke to U.S. troops based at the airport, Khan said.
Taliban defector Mullah Khaksar Akhund, who is now Afghanistan’s deputy intelligence chief, agrees that fighters are crossing the Pakistani border to launch attacks.
Karzai recently joined those accusing Pakistan of harboring Taliban fighters. “Definitely there are Taliban coming from across the border [to] conduct operations in Afghanistan,” he told a Pakistani television interviewer on July 30.
The Afghan government has provided Pakistani and U.S. authorities with a list of Taliban officials and where they live in Pakistan, said Khaksar, who was the Taliban’s deputy interior minister until he switched sides toward the end of the U.S.-led war against Afghanistan in 2001.
“It isn’t possible anywhere in the world for leaders of one country to live in the territory of another country without its leaders knowing,” Khaksar said.
Kabul’s list of Taliban leaders said to be in Pakistan includes Haji Abdul Kabir, the former Taliban deputy prime minister of Afghanistan who is No. 3 in the Taliban hierarchy.
Kabir would probably be well known to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which helped train, arm and direct the Taliban before U.S. pressure forced Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to officially cut ties with the movement after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Afghan authorities say Kabir lives in Kohat, a Peshawar suburb that also is home to a Pakistani army base. A resident said Kabir was a regular visitor to Peshawar’s busy Khyber Bazaar and was seen there as recently as mid-August. But Kabir is careful not to give out a phone number or address, the resident said.
A source in another border city, Quetta, said the Taliban’s high-profile former consul general in Peshawar, Maulavi Najibullah, is now raising funds in Quetta for the guerrilla war.
The whereabouts of the two Taliban officials could not be confirmed independently.
Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, an aide to Musharraf, denied that the Taliban was operating from Pakistan, and said his government has asked Kabul and the U.S.-led coalition for any information that has led them to conclude otherwise.
Qureshi also said it would be impossible for provincial governments in Pakistan’s border areas to defy the federal government and aid the Afghan insurgency. Those areas are now run by elected hard-line Islamic parties openly sympathetic to the Taliban.
“If there is anyone trying to organize such an activity inside Pakistan, the government of Pakistan and the forces here will arrest them and try them in a court of law,” Qureshi said from Islamabad, the capital. “It is not possible that they would escape anyone’s attention in Pakistan.”
Khan, the Taliban member interviewed near Khowst, is a university-educated man in his mid-20s. He said he joined the Taliban four years ago when Omar was neutralizing warlords and winning a war to unite the country. Many of those warlords are wielding power again with weapons and money they received for helping the U.S. military defeat the Taliban.
“In the beginning, people liked Mullah Omar very much because he was the only man who could bring security to Afghanistan. And he did it,” Khan said. “But soon it was difficult to study for women, and boys as well, so people turned their faces away from Omar. Now he is not as popular as he was in the past.”
A new Taliban leadership is emerging under commanders such as Mullah Mohammed Hassan and Mullah Qadir, Khan said. Hassan was the Taliban regime’s deputy leader, but little is known about Qadir. The two are probably leading forces around Kandahar, Khan said.
The Harkat commander in Dir also said talks are underway to find a possible replacement for Omar. He said Omar might no longer have enough support among the growing number of allied groups fighting alongside the Taliban.
He suggested that Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, former head of the Taliban’s air force, might be more acceptable to allies such as Hekmatyar. Mansour was reported killed in a U.S. bombing raid October 2001, but his death was never confirmed and Afghan sources say he commanded Taliban troops against U.S. forces during Operation Anaconda in early 2002.
Some Taliban members and supporters say there is a strong faction within the movement that is more moderate than Omar, and wants to field candidates in Afghanistan’s national elections.
The idea of Taliban participation in an Afghan government that it does not control is not new. As the Taliban regime crumbled in late 2001, Pakistan pressed Washington to include moderate leaders such as Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel in a postwar government. Mutawakel turned himself in to U.S. authorities early last year.
Karzai, who like the majority of the Taliban is an ethnic Pushtun, said in a speech broadcast on Afghan television this summer that not all Taliban members were bad people.
But angry protesters took to the streets of Kabul, the capital, the next day, demanding a blanket denunciation of the Taliban. And ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, whose soldiers helped win the war and who now dominate Karzai’s government, refused to let the Taliban return in any form.
Regional powers such as Iran, Russia and India, which are maneuvering to increase their influence in Afghanistan, also staunchly oppose the Taliban.
Mullah Abdul Rahman Hotak, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of information and culture who now leads a pro-Taliban party in Peshawar, said no government could bring peace to Afghanistan unless it included Taliban leaders and Muslim scholars.
By refusing to allow the Taliban at least a share of power, President Bush is denying Afghanistan the democracy that he promised, Hotak said.
“Mr. Bush is always saying, ‘We are fighting for civilization in Afghanistan, a very important part of which is democracy,’ ” he said. “If this problem in Afghanistan is not solved, there would be a question for the people of the United States: ‘What does democracy mean?’ ”
Many Afghan Pushtuns now speak nostalgically of Taliban rule. Support is spreading among disaffected college students who once saw the Taliban as oppressors. A blast killed two Kabul university students in mid-August, and police said they were making bombs. The Taliban is increasingly popular on Khowst’s college campus, students there said.
First-year engineering student Abdul Qayom Zalan, 20, said that for all its failings, the Taliban’s severe Islamic rule kept the streets safe, and that the Taliban is now the only force defending Afghan nationalism. He said he is not a Taliban member, but supports its guerrilla war.
“If you look at history, nobody ever liked foreigners in Afghanistan,” Zalan said. “The Taliban are an enemy of the foreigners, and these Americans who have come to Khowst have not done anything for us. They only say, ‘We will bring you security,’ and that doesn’t even exist.”
Zalan lives rent-free with 15 other students in a two-story house with cracked walls decorated by United Nations posters warning of the dangers of land mines.
Most of the window panes are shattered, and there isn’t any furniture, so the students eat, sleep and study on the floor. They usually read by kerosene lamps because the electricity is off three nights out of four. It’s rarely on during the day. Zalan rarely goes out after dark because there are too many kidnappings.
“When the Taliban first came to power, they were a bit brutal and we didn’t like that,” Zalan said. “But the current government isn’t giving us anything either. If the situation continues like this every day, without security, more people will be interested in joining the Taliban.”