It is early morning, and a group of men are squatting on stones by the trickle of a river that runs through Tanali, a village outside Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province in south-central Afghanistan. Some wear turbans; some do not. A few have long beards; others a few days' growth or none at all. The differences are trivial, though, given what unifies them. This village is their home. And, says Mullah Muramza, a slight, young man gently cradling a small bird in his hands: "Everyone here was with the Taliban."
Muramza, 24, fought the Northern Alliance in and around Kabul. Asked who his commander was, he points to a heavy-breathing bear of a man, who angrily responds, "Why did you tell them that?" Several Tanali men are being held at Sheberghan prison in the north, and several more died in the fighting in Mazar-i-Sharif. One who made it home is Nurzai, 24, who straggles by, carrying a blanket full of long grass over his shoulder, food for the sheep he tends. He says he was captured in Kunduz and, like thousands of other prisoners, stuffed into a shipping container and ferried to Sheberghan by troops loyal to warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Hundreds died in the heat inside those metal boxes. Shown pictures of the prisoners, Nurzai names three he recognizes. "I was an innocent," he says, claiming he had been conscripted into the Taliban army months earlier. But moments later he admits he volunteered for service four years ago.
To date, the story of the war in Afghanistan has focused on the ones who got away, chief among them Osama bin Laden, Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and, according to an Afghan intelligence official, "99% of the hard-core leadership" of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But if Tirin Kot is any indication, most of the Taliban rank and file are not in hiding. They are back in their hometowns, farming, opening shops in the bazaar or just looking for work. The intelligence official estimates there "could be as many as 10,000, maybe more." Where? "Man, just look around you," says Steve, a member of the U.S. special forces stationed in Tirin Kot.
The ex-Taliban in town are being monitored by the new local authorities loyal to President Hamid Karzai, and special forces regularly patrol Tirin Kot. Despite some reports of harassment and beatings by the town's police force, Talibs say their return has caused little friction. They are quite open about their Taliban affiliations. Afghan security officials admit they have neither the budget nor the reach to fully investigate these men for abuses during the Taliban period. Sardar Mohammed, head officer of Tirin Kot's district police force, says the Taliban foot soldiers are not a problem. "They surrendered and gave us their weapons. The senior commanders have all left." Secret police watch the bazaars for any sign of subversion, sharing what they find with the special forces, which are focused on the big fish. "If it's a leader, then we got a problem," says Steve. "If we see one or two guys, we're not too concerned." For his part, President Karzai has called for national reconciliation, out of concern that mass arrests and trials are unfeasible and would be an invitation to further conflict.
It's evident among the men in Tirin Kot that not all members of the Taliban were equal in their devotion to the movement. As the Taliban swept across the country in the mid 1990s, the group became an amalgam of true believers and those who sought protection, a salary and food. Many non-Taliban commanders capitulated to the movement rather than fight, in order to retain their power and their men. Among the people of Tirin Kot, there is a binding dedication to Islam but not to the specific brand preached by the Taliban and especially not to the extreme forms of punishment the group meted out in the name of Islam. And they distance themselves from any ties to bin Laden's al-Qaeda. "People who joined the Taliban had no idea what the leadership was doing," says Timoor Shah, an elderly teacher of religious studies in Tanali. "But now all Taliban stand accused of these crimes."
Many of the ex-Talibs in the area now say they support Karzai's government and even the presence of the Americans. Their attitude is born of pragmatism. Karzai and the Americans represent the best hope for now, just as the Taliban did when they wrested control of most of the country from feuding warlords who had delivered only chaos. In the village of Babar Koli, a 22-year-old says he was a guard at Mullah Omar's Kandahar compound. The young man, who would not give his name, says he would not fight again if the mullah himself asked him. He instead wants to continue his religious studies in Kandahar.
No doubt some of the talk is sanitized for a Western visitor. (A Talib in Tirin Kot refuses to point out his shop "because you'll tell the special forces.") Less restrained is criticism of the reconstruction effort. Shah says that despite Karzai's promises of new roads, schools, hospitals and a reliable source of power, none of these have been delivered in the Tirin Kot area, nor has work on them even begun. As a state, Afghanistan still has little to offer its people. This, perhaps more than loyalty to the former regime, could nurture existing threats. Almost everyone interviewed cited one reason or more that fighting could start again: if promises go unfulfilled, if more civilians are killed like those who died in nearby Deh Rawod when American planes bombed a wedding party in July, if Karzai acts like an American puppet, if Islamic law is not part of the new constitution, if there is a crackdown on poppy farming. With soldiering still the most viable career option, these men will be available when someoneanyonecomes looking for muscle.
Ideologythat is, the strict fundamentalism practiced by the Talibanis still a motivation for some of the ex-Talibs. Afghan officials say that the man who tried to kill Karzai three weeks ago by firing on his car in Kandahar was a Taliban soldier who had been released from the Sheberghan prison camp two months earlier. According to some reports, the man changed his name from Abdul Razaq to Abdul Rahman in order to get hired as a compound guard for the Kandahar governor, who was with Karzai when Rahman struck. Government authorities suspect Rahman, 22, who was shot dead by U.S. special forces guarding Karzai, was part of a larger Taliban conspiracy, and are holding his entire guard unit while they search for concrete proof. Neighbors in his native Helmand province say the young man appeared unhinged when he returned from Sheberghan.
In any case, it would be a mistake to think the hard-core Taliban have completely disappeared. Mullah Omar sightings have been reported in Uruzgan, and his devoted followers are still around. On one of Tirin Kot's two main streets, 15 or so men sit together on the platform outside a tea shop, looking as Taliban are expected to look. The turbans are almost uniformly black or white, as are the shalwar kameezes, the baggy trousers and long shirts that Afghan men favor. Eyes are shadowed with surma, a carbon-based paste, and the stares are unwelcoming if not hostile.
"America be damned," says one of the men. "They have no respect for human rights." He pauses. "There is much I would like to say, but I cannot because we are Taliban and they want to arrest us." He agrees, however, to talk inside the shop. He wears brown from his turban to his sandals, and a long beard speckled with gray. He would not say his name, but he acknowledges that he was a Taliban commander. Later he was identified by people outside the shop as Esmatullah Akhond. In a room with pictures of flowers along the walls, he is joined by a second man with a wide face and short beard, identified by bystanders as a Taliban commander called Mullah Sayfullah Akhond (they are not related; akhond is an honorific). They sit cross&-legged on the threadbare carpet as dust floats through the dull afternoon light. "We have to hide ourselves because the government is going from house to house looking for us," says Esmatullah. "If they find us, they send us to Kandahar to be questioned by the government and the Americans." He's wearing brown, he says, because he threw away his black turban and shalwar kameez to deflect suspicion.
"It is dangerous for us to gather," says Sayfullah, who claims he was arrested and imprisoned in Tirin Kot but later released. "We live alone or in groups of two because if there are more, the government will think we are plotting something." They are clearly distressed by the new government, which they see as an un-Islamic, American puppet regime, and appalled by the return of movies and music to Afghan streets. Furthermore, Esmatullah says, "We hear on the radio that Americans are calling the Koran the book of terrorism. If this is true, there will be another holy war."
Midway through a question about whether they are actively planning for a new jihad, a third man rushes in and says something that causes Esmatullah and Sayfullah to quickly head for the door. The police are said to be on the way. Seconds later, the group that was in front of the tea shop has vanished. Across the street, Esmatullah and Sayfullah are visible, striding quickly away into the dusty shadows.
With reporting by Ebaidullah Ebadi/Kabul