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Battle Creates a New Taliban Legend

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LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

A U.S. B-52 bomber streaks over the Shahi Kot mountain range

Nobody's seen Mullah Omar lately, but the Taliban and their supporters have a new icon. Saifur Rahman Mansoor, the youthful commander of the Shahi Kot fortress, has emerged as something of a celebrity among anti-American elements in Afghanistan since his men downed a U.S. helicopter and killed seven American soldiers Monday.

Before that, Mansoor had lived in the shadow of his more famous father, Maulvi Nasrullah Mansoor, a mujahedeen commander against the Soviets in the 1980s. But while the father had backed the government of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani before being killed by political rivals in a 1993 car bombing, the young Mansoor joined the Taliban and served as deputy commander of the garrison at Kargha near Kabul until last November. Following the movement's collapse, Mansoor returned home and reactivated the base at Shahi Kot, which had served his father so well against the Soviets.

Mansoor's mountain stronghold appears to have been a magnet for Taliban die-hards and al-Qaeda fighters, a number of whom made their way to Shahi Kot — some with the families in tow — to avoid capture by the U.S. and its allies. That had caused consternation among local tribal leaders already made edgy by a bloody, unrelated power struggle between rival warlords. Shortly before the battle at Shahi Kot began, Mansoor had reportedly been negotiating terms for his surrender with tribal elders sent by Taj Mohammed Wardak, the new governor of Paktia, the province where Shahi Kot is located. Wardak wanted Mansoor to leave his mountain base, expel his al-Qaeda guests (the governor believes they number about 60) and declare support for Hamid Karzai's interim government in Kabul. But those talks broke down, and U.S.-led coalition forces launched their attack on the mountain fortress last Friday.

The fierce resistance being mounted by Mansoor's men has elevated him to an unlikely hero status among the Taliban and other anti-American elements in Afghanistan. A former Taliban diplomat told TIME that Mansoor was a pious and emotional man of limited education and vision, na´ve and easily misled. He doubted Mansoor's ability to lead so many men in battle against the U.S.-led coalition forces.

Still, whether or not Mansoor is actually leading the battle, Taliban supporters throughout the region are lionizing him as its hero. A statement attributed to Mansoor has him preferring to die fighting rather than living a "shameful" life under "U.S. occupation." It's not even clear whether he made the statement, but there appears to be a substantial Taliban and al-Qaeda propaganda operation in eastern Afghanistan looking to stir up hostility to the U.S. and its allies. And that propaganda machinery is spinning Mansoor as a new Afghan icon.

The emerging anti-American agitation among Pashtuns is confirmed by the appearance of leaflets called "shabnamas" (night-letters) in Afghan cities such as Kandahar and Jalalabad and in various parts of Khost and Paktia provinces. The authors proclaim "jihad" against foreign troops and urge Afghans to evict the "occupation forces." Some express support for Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and also threaten serious consequences for Afghans cooperating with the U.S.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda elements that have regrouped in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan want to use the casualties inflicted on the U.S. at Shahi Kot to embolden anti-American forces throughout the region. Even before this week's clashes, British peacekeepers had been fired on three times in Kabul, while U.S. forces had come under attack more than once in both Kandahar and Khost. Despite the setbacks at Shahi Kot, however, the U.S. still holds the initiative there, and defeat of Mansoor's troops will presumably be a setback for anti-U.S. forces. Still, there are emerging signs of a new assertiveness on the part of the Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants put to flight last November.

Mullah Omar wasn't taken seriously when he vowed to wage a guerilla war against the U.S. military in Afghanistan. After all, his men had failed to put up much resistance and had lost control over most of Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. And the one-eyed cleric was last seen fleeing for his life on the pillory of a motorcycle. Still, the ferocity of the fighting at Shahi Kot is a reminder that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not yet finished in Afghanistan.