The main highway is “enemy territory” for the Taliban, a busy two-lane road where U.S. troops race down the middle, trying to steer clear of suicide bombers. The guerrillas drive it like they own it.
Grinning with contempt at a convoy of Polish troops trying to plow its way through traffic the other day, three Taliban fighters with guns and long knives concealed under their heavy woolen cloaks calmly eased into the other lane and beat the jam.
When they reached the edge of this provincial capital just an hour and a half south of Kabul, the driver pulled onto a dirt track into the desert, coaxing the creaking old van over a speed bump and past a nervous-looking Afghan army sentry. The fighters flashed him a dirty look.
Just 30 yards from the American-built highway, we were entering Taliban country.
The speed bump presumably makes it easier for soldiers or police to stop vehicles and search them for guerrillas or weapons. But government troops usually stand back and look the other way as Taliban fighters move in and out of their vast desert stronghold.
“Police and soldiers can never come to our territory,” said one of the fighters, a 28-year-old who identified himself only as Ahmadi. “If they do, they won’t go back safe and sound.”
Seven years after a U.S.-led invasion routed the Taliban regime, hard-line Islamic fighters who had scattered under massive bombardment to their villages and rear bases in Pakistan once again govern large swaths of Afghanistan. Although they are strongest in the south and east, they have launched attacks in all regions of the country -- and are well dug in across regions that surround Kabul, the capital.
The U.S. military says it may need up to 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan by summer, almost doubling the number of American forces there. Commanders say that the number of U.S. deaths, which rose by more than a third last year to 155, according to icasualties.org, is likely to rise.
Despite their increasing strength and confidence, Taliban fighters rarely welcome foreign journalists. The guerrillas are hyper-alert to potential spies.
And, among the Pashtun who dominate the Taliban, an ancient code of honor called pashtunwali demands that a host protect the life of a guest as if it were more important than his own. That’s a tall order when the visitor is a foreigner traveling through countryside rife with kidnappers and competing militant factions during an escalating war.
Some Taliban commanders considered The Times’ request for safe passage into their territory, only to reject a visit as too risky. But the Ghazni Talibs, eager to show the extent of their control, finally agreed.
With a bunch of plastic grapes and a Koranic verse as rearview mirror ornaments, the guerrillas’ vehicle blended in with hundreds of minibus taxis that shuttle passengers through the Afghan countryside.
The Talibs, whose thick, black beards and large turbans are as much emblems of a proud Pashtun heritage as symbols of allegiance to the militant mullahs, said they make regular trips to and from Ghazni city, and up the highway to Kabul.
In Ghazni province, at least, the Taliban militants are not frightened fighters skulking in caves, sneaking out to ambush and then scurrying off to another mountain hide-out. They live comfortably in the farming villages where many of them were born, holding territory, recruiting and training new troops, reveling in what they see as God’s gift of inevitable victory against heathen foreign occupiers.
“In the early days, there were many spies, so we had to move around in small groups,” Ahmadi said. “But now we are in groups of 300 or 400. We have no problems.”
During their downtime, they watch satellite TV and stay current with each day’s news. Lately, they’ve seen a lot of bombing and corpses on Al Jazeera television coverage of the Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Ghazni guerrillas said the images made them more determined than ever to fight, and if necessary die, to expel U.S. troops and their allies, whom they consider Crusaders bent on destroying Islam.
“We are ready to give our blood for the freedom of our homeland, and also to end the oppression by the Americans,” said Ahmadi, who masked his face with a black-and-white kaffiyeh, more commonly worn by Palestinian Arabs than his fellow Afghans.
“The Americans support Israel, and when they come all the way here, we must at least be ready to defend our land. Death in youth would be a matter of pride for us.”
Satellite TV has also kept the Talibs up to date on preparations for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, whom one dismissed as “just another infidel,” and the impending U.S. troop buildup.
The Talibs say any increase would only give them more opportunities to kill non-Muslims in jihad, or holy war, just as U.S.-backed mujahedin did in almost a decade of war to drive Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“The Russian army had hundreds of thousands of troops here and lost. Now it’s the Americans,” said a second Talib, who refused to identify himself. “If they increase their force to 100,000 or 200,000, we’ll never lose our morale. We will continue our jihad. The more soldiers they send, the happier we become.”
Some accuse the Taliban of press-ganging villagers into the fight. But the Ghazni Talibs claim that eager volunteers swell their ranks by 10% a month, and insist that they turn many away.
“There is no need for all of them,” Ahmadi said, and the second Talib added with a confident smile: “There isn’t so much logistic support available either.”
Despite efforts by the U.S.-led military coalition to disrupt Taliban commanders’ ability to direct military operations from a distance, the guerrillas appeared to be in regular contact with their leaders, and acted on their orders.
After a back road rendezvous, the Talibs’ van headed for the two-lane highway that links Afghanistan’s two biggest cities, Kabul and Kandahar. Our driver paused a minute to let a convoy of Polish troops pass in Humvees.
Soldiers swiveling in turrets scanned us through their gun sights, but the troops kept moving slowly northeast to the relative safety of the city. We headed in the opposite direction, toward Qarabagh district, notorious for kidnappers.
Militants often ignore the steady traffic of military helicopters clattering overhead, or patrolling ground troops, and brazenly set up daytime checkpoints to search for foreigners, aid workers and government employees.
In July 2007, militants abducted 23 South Korean Christian aid workers along the highway as the bus they were on passed through a district bazaar. Two men were killed; the others were later released.
By a roundabout route, trundling through the stubble of harvested fields and across streams fed by snowmelt from mountains on the horizon, we reached a village within clear sight of a small white observation blimp floating on a tether above a Polish base.
A pair of Talibs, their faces obscured by head scarves, met the van with fingers on the triggers of their Kalashnikov assault rifles. After a quick frisk and a handshake, they escorted us by motorcycle to a large compound with towering mud-brick walls.
The building hardly had the feel of a besieged guerrilla hide-out. The small reception room had new white curtains, clean cushions for guests to recline on and a well-kept wool rug. A few framed photos of family elders decorated the white-painted walls.
In keeping with the Pashtun custom of generous hospitality, the guerrillas served glasses of steaming hot sweet tea and a bowl of white candied almonds. In no hurry to end the conversation, they laid out bowls of chicken broth, yogurt, a shaker of salt and freshly baked flatbread for lunch.
As the discussion progressed, and the Talibs relaxed, most unwound the cloths covering their faces. One reached into a camouflaged vest bulging with a bayonet and banana clips of ammunition for his AK-47 and pulled out a small round tin to enjoy a pinch of chewing tobacco.
Any indulgence that harms the body is haram, or forbidden, to strictly observant Muslims. But in Taliban-held villages, the guerrillas’ taste for chew wasn’t the only hint that the mullahs may be taking a softer line on at least some of their old edicts, though they continue to execute people deemed un-Islamic enemies, such as teachers and other government workers.
The Talibs’ van carried a selection of music cassettes for their tape deck. When the Taliban ran most of the country, cassettes were seized at checkpoints, and countless strands of shiny brown tape were strung up on poles to blow in the wind like raffia dolls.
Taliban enforcers used to grab men’s beards, and anything less than a fistful of facial hair warranted a severe beating on the spot. But several men walking the roads in Taliban territory were cleanshaven. Even one who attended the meeting was without a whisker. The others called the bashful, baby-faced Talib “The Doctor.”
The Talibs admitted burning government schools, but argued that doesn’t mean they are against education, as long as it conforms to their idea of proper Islamic schooling.
“Now the government is doing voter registration in schools, and we are against elections as long as foreigners are in the country,” said the second Talib. “They are using schools as trenches against us. So when schools get burned, it is their fault.”
The Taliban’s courts mete out justice under Islamic Sharia law. It is harsh, yet popular with many Afghans tired of seeing justice go to the highest bidder in government courtrooms, and angry that Western donors have pressured President Hamid Karzai to stay the executions of most convicted criminals on death row.
Some of the Ghazni Talibs said they had participated in the early effort to support the elected government of Karzai, a fellow Pashtun, only to become disillusioned and take up arms against it.
One Talib showed a voter registration card with his photo on it. Another said he used to work as a laborer for the American military in Ghazni on a Provincial Reconstruction Team.
The Talibs’ interpreter was a village teenager home on vacation from high school in Kabul. The boy said he wants to be a doctor, and was eager to find out about scholarship opportunities in the West, but he also boasted about his readiness to fight foreigners.
The Taliban is also benefiting from foreign reinforcements, and the guerrillas’ ranks include Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Chinese and other fighters, said Maulavi Arsalan Rahmani, who was minister of higher education in the ousted Taliban government.
Now senator in the Afghan parliament, Rahmani said senior Taliban leaders who answered Karzai’s call for reconciliation, and moved to Kabul and other government-controlled cities, feel betrayed by the promise of rapprochement. Anger is simmering among almost 60 high-ranking Taliban defectors because the U.N. Security Council refuses to lift sanctions against them.
They include the Taliban’s former foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, its commerce minister, Abdul Razaq, and Qazi Habibullah, who served as ambassador to the Taliban’s closest allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
That discourages other Talibs from dropping their weapons, Rahmani said.
“They don’t trust the promises,” he added. “They openly keep saying, ‘What good have those who have gone to the other side done? They are not given the rights of an Afghan.’ ”
Still, members of the Taliban are ready for peace and have proposed a three-stage plan to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and other leaders, Rahmani said, that would culminate in talks about what role the Taliban should play in the government.
Rahmani, who vowed to leave the country if the Taliban ever controlled it again, said the Taliban should only share power, and not run a government itself, because few of its leaders are qualified.
“We have indirect relations with the Taliban. They will accept our proposals and the government will too,” he insisted. “But what we are not certain about is whether the international community really wants the war to end. We doubt it, we doubt it.”
Emerging again from the desert, the Ghazni Talibs showed no fear of being tracked from their village base as the van kicked up a long, high tail of dust. They casually parked at the side of the highway, waiting for their guest’s pickup car to make its way through an Afghan army checkpoint.
Their passenger safely transferred, the Talibs, waving and smiling into the city, headed off toward the waiting troops.