The Making of a Taliban Commander

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Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images

Taliban soldiers hold weapons they took during an ambush of French soldiers on patrol in the Uzbeen Valley of Afghanistan, August 18, 2008.

When he visited Afghanistan on Monday, Senator John McCain declared that success in the nine-year long war could be achieved on the back of a victory in the southern province of Kandahar. "The Taliban know that Kandahar is the key to success or failure," McCain told a news conference at the airport in Kabul. "I am convinced we can succeed, and will succeed, and Kandahar is obviously the key area. And if we succeed there, we will succeed in the rest of this struggle."

To be sure, Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban — that's where leader Mullah Omar launched his movement in 1995 — but the insurgency has since diversified. Taliban shadow governors operate in all but one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, and the movement has expanded into territory that it didn't even possess at the peak of its power in 2001. TIME spoke recently with a Taliban commander based in the country's northeast, near the border with Tajikistan. Until last year, the district of Yangi Qala in Takhar Province had never seen the Taliban. These days the Taliban roam the streets and dispense justice from village squares. Even though it cannot be independently verified, the story of this one commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Mohammad Khalid, helps illustrate how widespread the Taliban has become, and why defeat in the south will achieve little unless it is accompanied by better governance and a robust security force throughout the country.

Like many of the other boys in Yangi Qala district, Mohammad Khalid, 35, spent his childhood in the refugee camps of Peshawar, while war against the Soviet occupation raged in his homeland. He went to school in a madrassah, where he was taught an intolerant and fundamentalist form of Islam. By the time he returned to Afghanistan, the Taliban had taken over. He joined the movement, but was uprooted again when the Taliban fell to American forces in 2001. He returned to Pakistan and waited for the storm to clear. It didn't take long. By 2003, American attention had waned, distracted by war in Iraq. Khalid was summoned by the Taliban leadership back to Afghanistan, where he was tasked with carving out a foothold in the northern province of Kunduz. In 2004, Khalid launched an attack on a Korean NGO, which he claimed was illegally proselytizing. "We told the government that this is not a charity organization, that they are converting people to Christianity," he said over the phone from his hiding place near the Tajik border. He was arrested and sent to Kabul's infamous Pul-i-Charkhi prison. Even so, Khalid says his mission had been achieved. "After I was arrested, the NGO ran away from Afghanistan."

For more than two years Khalid wasted away in Pul-i-Charkhi. He complains of torture, of being denied sunlight, of being served inedible food and of being forced to wear clothing "that was against Afghan culture and against Islamic culture." But he also forged strong links with senior members of the Taliban, with whom he shared quarters. It was the company of these men that strengthened his ideological stance against the government of Afghanistan. "We still think that this government is a puppet [of the West]," he says. "The laws that this government is implementing are against Shari'a [Islamic law]. We don't consider the current government to be Islamic."

Radicalization in Pul-i-Charkhi has long been a concern of both Afghan and international forces. Even though common criminals are now separated from Taliban insurgents, many of the "Ten-dollar-a-day Taliban," as those who fight for money are called, become strident ideologues while in prison. In some cases the Taliban plant missionaries within the prison population, by dispatching suicide bombers rigged to fail, according to security officials. One such suspected Taliban prison proselytizer told TIME last year that "Pul-i-Charkhi is our best recruiting ground."

In late 2006, Khalid, along with several of his newfound colleagues, was released by presidential decree as part of an early reintegration program. The years in prison had taken their toll. Khalid, who had left behind a wife and three children, returned to mountains of debt. He says that he decided to end his career with the Taliban in order to pursue a normal life, one in which he could earn a little cash. "I had lost so much during the time that I was in prison. I did not want to get involved in anything," he says. "I wanted to have an ordinary life and work like a normal person."

But the security forces in his home town wouldn't leave him alone, says Khalid. He was continuously harassed by the local police and members of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's FBI. They showed up at his house at all times of the night and day, even when he had guests. They interrogated him about his visitors. In fact, the NDS may have had reason — Khalid had started leading Friday prayers at his village mosque and often railed against President Karzai's "puppet government" and the fact that the country was occupied by infidels. Still, says Khalid, the police demanded bribes, and threatened to arrest him again if he didn't pay up. He became the scapegoat for all the crimes in his town, from robberies to kidnappings.

Khalid wasn't just a former member of the Taliban, he was also Pashtun, in an area dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks. According to local residents, Pashtuns have always had problems in the area. Government officials are biased against the ethnic minority, they say, and judicial issues rarely go in favor of Pashtun plaintiffs. Ethnic bias is common across Afghanistan, and preferential treatment by government officials for their own tribe or ethnic group has long been the source of Pashtun grievances. Even though President Hamid Karzai is himself Pashtun, (as are Mullah Omar and most of the Taliban), Pashtuns largely feel that they have been left out of the political process, and are victimized by a bureaucracy made up by Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Members of the Taliban have used these kinds of grievances to justify their struggle — with the militant group then capitalizing on these emotions. Khalid was not exempt from the frustrations. Though he had written several letters of complaint to the central government and had letters of support from the government department in charge of reintegrating former Taliban, the harassment continued. After three years, Khalid says, he just couldn't take it anymore. He decided to rejoin the Taliban. "Because of these wrong policies of the security people, I was obliged to fight them. I thought if the complaints commission of the presidential palace could not solve [my problem], who else can do it? So I left my village and took up guns against the government."

Last week, President Karzai approved a plan intended to win over low level Taliban commanders and foot soldiers as part of a larger strategy for reintegration that includes making peace with high-level insurgent leaders. But similar efforts have failed in the past. As demonstrated by Khalid's case, the Afghan government lacked the funding and the organization necessary to protect fighters who switched sides, not just from their former bosses, but also from predatory security officials and enemies. While Karzai's new strategy attempts to address some of those issues, the reality is that until corruption in the security sector is taken care of, similarly reintegrated Taliban fighters will suffer the same fate as Khalid, and may even follow in his footsteps.

Khalid maintains that his decision to return to the Taliban and fight the government was supported by his community, one that was equally frustrated by the predations of Afghanistan's notoriously corrupt security forces. "Today, Alhamdulillah [thanks be to God], the people support us," he says. "When people compare us with government security people, they are happier with us." Now the commander of as many as 400 men, Khalid presides over impromptu courts in front of his mosque, where he dispenses justice based on Islamic law. His petitioners are largely made up of Pashtuns, who feel marginalized by government judges.

Returning to the Taliban was easy, says Khalid. He had contacts from his time in the Pakistani madrassahs, as well as from his days as a Taliban commander in Kunduz. But for new recruits it is just as easy to join. "The representatives of the Taliban go to every province," he says, describing a process that is equal parts proselytizing and economic incentive. The representatives start conversations about grievances, the presence of foreign forces and the government; they suggest that it may be un-Islamic. Then, the potential recruits are "asked what they think about the current government. Is it Islamic or un-Islamic?" says Khalid. If they pass that test, "the delegates tell them Taliban leadership will financially support them."

Every new recruit gives an oath of loyalty to his local commander, and the movement at large, says Khalid. When he rejoined, he was given a basic set of rules to follow. "I perform my duty based on a job description that I have been given. I perform military, political, cultural affairs and invite more people to our front." And while he admits that recruits are paid (though he won't say how much) on the basis of their activities, "we do this job because we expect God almighty will give us awards." He emphasizes, however, that his fight against the government and foreign forces is ideological. "The ANA [Afghan National Army] and ANP [Afghan National Police] soldiers are contractors. They believe only in this world. We believe in Judgment Day."

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as Khalid calls the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan under that name in the 1990s, does not provide weapons. Instead, members capture weapons in battle, or take "donations" from the local community. Khalid differentiates himself, and the men under his command, from suicide bombers and those who lay the roadside bombs responsible for the deaths of so many NATO soldiers and government officials. It is likely, according to counter-terror investigators, that such suicide and IED teams are more closely linked to the central Taliban leadership, which can provide basic ingredients for bombs, as well as the instruction to make them and the coordination to plant them.

Khalid's group, based on his own descriptions, is more likely to engage in gun battles with security forces, or in attempts to win the local population away from the government. As such, his men are most likely the kind that will be targeted by Karzai's reintegration program. However, the idea that some Taliban members might be lured back to the government side is something he dismisses outright. "From what I have heard from [my leadership], either directly or through radios, is that the Taliban will never negotiate in the presence of foreign forces. Withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is the first and most important condition."

Khalid does wish to see the end of violence in Afghanistan. How it will happen, though, he is unsure. The distance between what the Taliban demand and the Government wants is too far, he says. "The government says we should lay down our arms," he says. "This is not peace. When you do peace talks, both sides should accept some of the demands of each other." At least he acknowledges that compromises will have to be made in order to bring peace. Many former members of the Taliban, who now either serve in Parliament or in advisory roles to the Presidency on reintegration and reconciliation, agree that demands for the withdrawal of foreign forces may in fact be something the Taliban can compromise on. But the laying down of weapons may be harder to achieve. Without concrete assurances that they will be protected if they discard their weapons, the Taliban is unlikely to come to the negotiating table. Says Khalid, "Laying down arms is in fact surrender. We consider surrendering to the enemy a sin." With reporting by Ali Safi/Kabul