Tale of Two Taliban Reveals U.S. Dilemma

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Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, at a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan

Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef were both held by the U.S. at Guantánamo. Both were senior Taliban commanders, and both say they were subjected to solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, countless interrogations and beatings. But when they were released back home in their native Afghanistan, the two men's paths diverged radically.

Seared by the humiliations of Guantánamo, Rasoul immediately rejoined the Taliban insurgency, bent on revenge. Better known by his nom de guerre, Mullah Abdullah Zakir, he is now believed by Afghan and NATO intelligence officers to be the Taliban's new field commander, responsible for a string of bombings and ambushes in southern Afghanistan over the past year that have killed dozens of NATO troops (and which killed more than 30 people in a series of bombings in Kandahar over the weekend). He is believed to have assumed overall responsibility for Taliban military operations from the movement's No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is in Pakistani detention after being arrested last month in Karachi. Zakir is hardly an isolated case. In 2008, the Pentagon claimed that more than 60 former Gitmo detainees were suspected of having rejoined the insurgency.

Zaeef took a different route. The ex-commander with a scholarly side who had risen in the Taliban government to become a deputy minister of mines, and the ambassador to Pakistan shortly before 9/11, now writes books on the Afghanistan conflict. Published in five languages, Zaeef's latest book, My Life with the Taliban, has received noteworthy mention in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. And his message to the U.S. and his erstwhile Taliban comrades is that the conflict in Afghanistan will have to be settled through negotiation. "I believe that is the only solution," Zaeef tells TIME. "You are fighting an ideology. You kill one man, and his two brothers will join the Taliban."

The parallel stories of Zakir and Zaeef embody the complexities that exist within the Taliban. Their shared religious fervor may explain why — despite NATO's intention to extend its massive assault on Marjah into a sweep through the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan — it may take years to militarily defeat the Taliban.

Interviewed at his guarded home in Kabul, Zaeef says he never spoke to Zakir at Gitmo, because Zakir (identified as Prisoner No. 8) was kept in a different cell block. After a month of sleep deprivation ("The guards would force me to stand every time I tried to sit down," he says), the interrogations continued but the conditions of his confinement relaxed. Zaeef came to accept his captivity as a test from God. He memorized the Koran and brushed up on his English, which he now uses skillfully. He describes the Pakistanis, whom he says sold him to the Americans, as "impish."

Zakir, meanwhile, was engaged in hunger strikes to protest what he claimed was the guards' "disrespect to the Koran." Throughout his interrogation, he managed to hide the fact that he had been one of Taliban leader Mullah Omar's trusted deputies and a front-line commander against the forces of Northern Alliance chieftain Ahmed Shah Masood. Zakir duped his interrogators into believing that he was a nobody who had been dragooned into the ranks of the Taliban and who had never even heard of Osama bin Laden. All Prisoner No. 8 wanted, he told a military review board, was "to go back home and join my family and work in my land and help my family."

Zakir's Gitmo interrogators believed him, even while he was plotting revenge against his captors. In December 2007, he was flown back home, placed in an Afghan prison near Kabul and released shortly after, perhaps as a result of his tribal connections; his Ahunzada tribe from Helmand was considered a Karzai ally. Commenting on why such a lethal foe was freed from Gitmo, a NATO general — who asked not to be identified — replied with a shake of his head, "Human intelligence is guesswork at best. You never know if someone like this will go peacefully back to their tribe or to the madrasah."

Unlike other Taliban officials who defected after U.S.-led forces swept into Afghanistan, Zaeef still has credibility with Taliban fighters. He is said to be respected by Omar, whom he has known and fought alongside since he was a teenager in the 1980s, taking potshots at Soviet soldiers. Zaeef's views are said to reflect those of the Taliban leadership. As such, he may be poised to play a key role in any future peace talks between Karzai and the Taliban's governing council. And, according to Zaeef, there is room for maneuver. He insists that the Taliban are not fighting to regain power. "Mullah Omar says he doesn't want to destroy [Karzai's] government, but only to repair it." But, he adds, "Mullah Omar also wants to free the country from the foreigners."

Pentagon policymakers insist that peace talks can't be held until the Taliban has been militarily weakened to the point where they no longer believe they can win the war. Nonsense, says Zaeef: "If America is honest about wanting peace, they should negotiate with us now." Washington, he says, is sending contradictory signals. "On one side, they say they want to talk, and yet they are sending more soldiers." And until U.S. intentions are clarified, he says, men like Zakir will keep on fighting.

Even after his stretch in Gitmo, Zaeef finds Americans perplexing. He is considered a dangerous person, and is on a U.N. blacklist. But a few days back, he says, some U.S. diplomats arrived at his house in an armored SUV, carrying two copies of his latest book. "They wanted me to sign them," he says, laughing. "So I did."