Encountering the Taliban

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WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Taliban soldiers last November

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If anyone doubts the ardor of grass-roots support for the anti-American militancy in southern Afghanistan, Kandahar's cemetery for al-Qaeda fighters bears unequivocal testimony. Hundreds of mourners have descended on the graveyard from as far away as Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul and Uruzgan province. What began as daily homages have grown into all-night vigils. Men, women and children sleep by the graves. Devotees recite the Koran throughout the night. The paralyzed, ill and blind flock to the site seeking miracle cures, which many claim to receive. Men mumble, repeating scripture until they fall into a trance, swaying and convulsing, talking in tongues. "Do not speak English here," says a Talib accompanying a TIME correspondent. "They will kill you the instant they know you are a foreigner. These people are so angry."

In its propaganda from the underground, the Taliban has subtly shifted tack, redrafting its cause from a religious to a nationalist one. Hajji Mullah Sahib makes sure he hits the buttons. "Those working against America now are not Taliban," he insists. "They are Afghan." Kandahar's bazaars reverberate with claims that former Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, who is thought to be in hiding, has issued a secret call to arms. True or not, the tale is meeting with approval in many quarters. "For the moment, we need food and more weapons, but we are willing to fight," says a former Talib. "When America goes, we will take back Kandahar in three days."

From his Pakistani hideout, Hajji Mullah Sahib claims that former Taliban who have been absorbed into the Kandahar government--and there are many--maintain the rage. "They still do not want America in Afghanistan," he says. "No one does. I can tell you these commanders are working against America now and always will." Murmurs of endorsement rise up from the chorus of elders around him. "If all those with the government were happy with America, how could anyone be attacking the U.S. air base [in Kandahar] and getting away with it with such impunity?" he asks, referring to at least six probes of the airport's defenses in the past three months.

Although the Kandahar government has made dramatic announcements of Taliban surrenders, many of the trumpeted capitulations have turned out later to have been shams. In Baghran in the southwestern province of Helmand, formidable Taliban General Abdul Wahid, known as Rais the Baghran, was said to have given up around Jan. 5. The next day, TIME met with the resolute Wahid. Most of his arsenal and troops remained intact. To this day he controls the district. After surrendering to the Kandahar governor, Jalalabad commander Mullah Salam Rakti retreated to his home base in Qalat. A day later, government soldiers sent to his residence found it locked and abandoned. "He has gone into hiding with his men," says a Qalat local. "Even his own village doesn't know where he is." At one point the Taliban's Herat police chief Mullah Abdul Samad and, later, Mullah Obaidullah entered negotiations to turn themselves in. "They were told by the governor that they could go home, but then the Americans wanted to take them, so they escaped again," Hajji Mullah Sahib says. "So we have no intention of surrendering."

U.S. and British forces will spend the coming weeks and months trying to pin down those with a similarly recalcitrant view--if, that is, they can be found, sifted from the supporters who hide them, feed them and join their ranks. This fight is likely to be patchy, frustrating and drawn out. "The world again sent the firewood for fighting in Afghanistan," says Hajji Mullah Sahib. "And sure enough it ignited. The smoke of this fire will linger for a long time."

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