That Other War

  • Share
  • Read Later

BAGGED: An 82nd Airborne soldier keeps guard over an Afghan prisoner captured in eastern Afghanistan

In the mountains of Afghanistan, summer is the season for fighting. The past three months have seen more than their usual share of it as remnants of the Taliban, ousted from power by U.S. and coalition forces in 2001, have regrouped, attacked remote government outposts, held positions for a few days—and then, usually, vanished at the first whup-whup of approaching U.S. Blackhawk helicopters. Not last week. After ambushing a small garrison in Zabul province, several hundred Taliban fighters hid in a needle-thin gorge known as Moray Pass, waiting to attack U.S. troops and their Afghan allies. Shielded by overhanging rock, the Taliban were protected from U.S. bombers and helicopters, and fighting raged for several days. Local villagers reported seeing Taliban fighters scrambling up the hillside carrying their dead and wounded. Zabul's provincial governor, Hafizullah Hashami, said 40 Talibs were killed and several coalition soldiers wounded. Later the Pentagon said one American special-operations soldier died after falling during a night attack.

It would be tempting to say the Taliban is back, were the evidence not all too clear that it never went very far away. While the world's attention has been fixed on Iraq, the other war has sparked back into life. Having nursed themselves back to health in Pakistan, Taliban forces are re-energized and determined to avenge their defeat. The Taliban's old structures may still be largely intact; a Kabul-based security official says the "neo-Taliban" is guided by many of the same men who ran Afghanistan's theocracy from 1996 through 2001, when it provided protection for Osama bin Laden and the terrorist camps of al-Qaeda. General Garni, military commander of Zabul, speculated last week that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed Commander of the Faithful, might be hiding in the province's mountains with 800 men. The Taliban has deepened its alliance with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his fundamentalist, anti-Western Hizb-i-Islami Party, which remains potent in eastern Afghanistan. Hekmatyar used to have close ties to Iran, and Pakistani sympathizers of the Taliban say Tehran may be secretly bankrolling the rebels to tie down U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Washington has noticed the deteriorating situation. "Clashes with the Taliban are up," says a State Department official. "It's not sweetness and light. You've got warlordism, banditry, fighting. Those are serious problems." In response, the Administration is finalizing a plan to double its aid to Afghanistan, now running at around $1 billion annually.

Afghanistan would not be such a worry if Taliban fighters were not able to find a haven in Pakistan among fellow ethnic Pashtuns. With their beards trimmed and often without their trademark black turbans, they blend in easily. In the Pakistani town of Quetta, as in the border village of Chaman, pro-Taliban graffiti are common and copies of recordings made by Mullah Omar are available in the marketplace. Standing in the middle of a bustling street in Quetta, Aghar Jan, who fled Afghanistan in 2001, loudly proclaims his willingness to take up Omar's call to jihad and expel the "infidels" now in charge.  "I'm waiting for the order of the emir," he says, referring to Omar. "When the order comes," he says, "I'm ready to carry out a suicide attack."

That's not an idle boast. A year ago, says Massood Khalili, a senior member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance now serving as ambassador to  India, "the Taliban were scared, broken and disconcerted." But now, he says, they have re-emerged "slowly, gradually, like a photograph developing." The Taliban, says General Mohammed Akram, until recently police chief of Afghanistan's Kandahar province, are "stronger now than at any time since the fall of their government." They are certainly more adventurous. In July and August, Taliban gunmen briefly took over government offices in Zabul and Paktika provinces. Raiding parties from Pakistan can consist of hundreds of well-armed troops. They try to avoid U.S. military patrols, instead targeting Afghan soldiers and policemen. Aid workers and anyone else deemed to support the U.S. or Afghan President Hamid Karzai, including civilians and religious officials, are also fair game. Four anti-Taliban mullahs in the Kandahar area have been assassinated in the past two months, and 15 people, including six children, died on Aug. 13, when the bus they were riding was bombed in Helmand province.

In Afghanistan the blame for the Taliban's revival is laid firmly at Islamabad's door. Pakistani authorities have arrested roughly 500 suspected al-Qaeda members, but Karzai has charged that Pakistan shows little inclination to apprehend top-level Talibs. "If we had sincere and honest cooperation from Pakistan," declares a security official in Kabul, "there'd be no Taliban threat in Afghanistan."

Faisal Saleh Hayat, Pakistan's Interior Minister, insists that "our focus is equally on al-Qaeda and on the Taliban." But despite public pronouncements of gratitude to Pakistan, the U.S.'s ally in the global war on terrorism, some U.S. officials are growing increasingly frustrated at Islamabad's performance. Says a State Department official: "Even the Saudis are doing better than Pakistan in countering al-Qaeda. The only thing Pakistan does is skim 10% off the top of the al-Qaeda presence when we complain."

The margin decreases when it comes to the Taliban. A Pakistani intelligence operative stationed near Chaman says his orders are "not to harass or appease" the Taliban but to let them be. Pakistan's border provinces are controlled by Jamiat Ulema Islam, an extremist Islamic party, and Afghan intelligence officials claim that provincial ministers in Baluchistan help the Talibs find safe houses. "We feel much safer now," a commander told TIME in Peshawar. In Quetta, a local cleric says Taliban commanders meet openly and regularly to plan raids into their former domain.

Mullah Omar is believed to have spent the summer moving throughout southwestern Afghanistan. According to Taliban spokesman Mohammed Mukhtar Mujahid, Omar has formed a 10-man leadership council and assigned each lieutenant a region to destabilize. This guerrilla war cabinet includes Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a one-legged intelligence chief who in March ordered the execution of a Salvadorean Red Cross worker in Uruzgan province , and several top leaders. A Taliban field commander tells TIME that Taliban cells have been established and charged with specific responsibilities, such as bombings, preventing children from going to school or burning schools down, attacking government troops, assassinating progovernment mullahs, targeting foreigners and propaganda. Funding is believed to come from Pakistan, some Arab countries and al-Qaeda. Mullah Nik Mohammed, a Taliban commander captured in Spin Boldak, told his interrogators in June that he would have received $850 for detonating a bomb, double that if it killed a civilian, and $2,600 for taking a soldier's life.

For Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on al-Qaeda, the Taliban's revival spells trouble beyond the region. "Al-Qaeda is able to survive because of its link with the Taliban," says Gunaratna, arguing that a group of foreigners could not stay in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier province if the Taliban did not vouch for them. In this view, the Taliban is still harboring al-Qaeda—not, as formerly, in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. And al-Qaeda fighters may be joining with the Taliban in operations. A spokesman for Karzai insisted that Pakistanis and Arabs were part of the raiding party that killed seven Afghan policemen in Paktika province on Aug. 17.

On top of a ruined economy, continued banditry and the return of the opium trade, a revived Taliban is the last thing that Karzai's poor nation needs. In a speech last month on Afghanistan's Independence Day, Karzai said, "It is the duty of everybody to launch a holy war to reconstruct this nation." The Taliban has already launched a holy war of its own. Soon enough the snows will come and the summer's fighting will die down. But if the U.S. and its ally Pakistan do not crush the Taliban soon, next year promises more bloodshed. "We are waiting," says Qari Rehman, a Talib in Chaman. "You will see. The situation will get worse."

— With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington, Ghulam Hasnain/Chaman and Quetta, Tim McGirk/Kabul, Michael Ware/Kandahar and Rahimullah Yusufzai/ Peshawar