A fighter and a financier
KUNAR VALLEY, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's troubled recent history, which spans the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the vicious post-Soviet civil war and then Taliban rule, has thrown up a number of men who have obtained "legendary" status - whether through their tribal followings or from connections with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) .
These mujahideen resistance figures include Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ismail Khan and the late Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The new leaders of the anti-American resistance in Afghanistan, however, are cut from a different cloth. They are despised and victimized by the ISI and often condemned by tribal elders. They are the sons of a global ideology which is orphan all over the world except in the merciless border terrain of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Take Qari Ziaur Rahman, commander of the Taliban in Nooristan and Kunar provinces, which border Pakistan. He is not the son of a legendary mujahideen commander, but of a cleric named Maulana Dilbar. His ties do not lie with the ISI, but with Osama bin Laden, having instructed bin Laden in the lessons of the Prophet Mohammad's life.
Ziaur, in his early thirties, was raised in the camps of Arab militants, who instilled in him the passion to fight against the Americans - not only in Afghanistan, but across the globe. Ziaur did not get his command as any hereditary right. First he had to prove himself on the battlefield, which he did by taking on US troops in Kunar and Nooristan. He was the first to mount operations against the US in the Karghal district of Kunar and he engineered the second-biggest encounter ever in Nooristan.
His exploits drew the attention of the coalition forces, which placed him on a wanted list and distributed flyers from the air offering a reward of US$350,000 for his arrest or killing.
With the heat on, Ziaur tried to take refuge in Pakistan, but in a coordinated move by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the ISI, he was arrested. Fortune smiled on him though and under a scheme brokered by Pakistani tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud he was released in a prisoner exchange for Pakistani military officials. Otherwise, he would certainly have ended up at the US's Bagram air base near Kabul, or even at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
After his release, Ziaur was elevated from a military operations commander to the overall in-charge of the Taliban's affairs in Kunar and Nooristan. His duties include devising regional battle policies and arranging budgets. He also represents Kunar and Nooristan in Taliban leader Mullah Omar's shura (council).
Ziaur is widely tipped to become one of the most important Taliban commanders in the whole region. Asia Times Online spoke to him, and somewhat unusually - even brazenly - he allowed his picture to be taken.
ATol: Which Afghan province do you come from?
Ziaur: I come from the province of Kunar.
ATol: What madrassa (seminary) education do you have?
Ziaur: I memorized the Koran. Before that I studied in a primary school. Then I acquired education in the Arabic language. I did a diploma.
ATol: From which institution?
Ziaur: It belonged to some Arab fellows. The institution was supported by an Arab country.
ATol: At present you are the in-charge and commander of the Taliban in Kunar and Nooristan provinces?
Ziaur: I administer the Taliban's affairs, mainly finance.
ATol: So you mainly look after the Taliban's financial matters, not their military affairs?
Ziaur: I do look after military matters, but the main emphasis is on finance.
ATol: This means you are the in-charge of both financial and military operations in Nooristan and Kunar provinces.
ATol: NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] has made Kunar and Nooristan a hub of its operations. How do you assess NATO's plans and what is your counter-strategy?
Ziaur: From the Soviet days in Afghanistan, Kunar's importance has been clear. This is a border province [with Pakistan] and trouble here can break the central government [in Kabul]. Whoever has been defeated in Afghanistan, his defeat began from Kunar. Hence, everybody is terrified of this region. The Soviets were defeated in this province and NATO knows that if it is defeated here it will be defeated all over Afghanistan.
ATol: How many NATO troops are there in Kunar?
Ziaur: Thousands ...
ATol: How many bases do they have?
Ziaur: I tell you ... They have a central base which is called Topchi. Then in Pechdara they have a big presence in Maragai ... then they have many other bases like Koranghal ... then in Tarla ... on another side of Kunar there is a pass called Zarokas ... they have a big base over there as well, also in the Souqe region ... then in Sarkano ... in Nooristan they have a base in Kamdesh ... Rawat ... then in western Nooristan in the Doab district.
ATol: Can you compare the Taliban's strength with that of NATO, as they have so many bases. I witnessed Taliban rule in many districts in Helmand [province]. Do the Taliban rule any districts in Kunar?
Ziaur: Thank God that this is a mountainous region. NATO has a presence in the bases only, other than that they do not control anything. The mujahideen patrol everywhere and they carry out attacks freely.
ATol: How many mujahideen attacks are there each day?
Ziaur: Many small-scale attacks are carried out every day.
ATol: What are the main areas of attack?
Ziaur: Koranghal is our main operation theater in Kunar. It is a slaughterhouse for the Americans. Many Americans have been killed there. Kamdesh in Nooristan is our main operation front. We killed many Americans there as well. Similarly, we are very active in Sarkano, beside many other areas.
ATol: What is the Taliban's strength in these areas of Nooristan and Kunar?
Ziaur: I cannot disclose the numbers. The main thing is that the masses are with the Taliban and the Taliban are in huge numbers.
ATol: Nooristan has a very strategic position. It goes up to Kapisa province, from where a route goes to Kabul from north. Do you have any plans to mobilize a Taliban attack on Kabul from this route?
Ziaur: The Taliban will apply all sorts of strategies.
ATol: Kunar and Nooristan were the strongholds of the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan led by Hekmatyar. Do they still have a presence in the region? Do the Taliban have some sort of joint venture with them?
Ziaur: They just have the name. They are only a little bit active, and not to the extent that is mentioned in the press.
ATol: There were reports in the Western press that on April 19, Hekmatyar, commanders Abdul Ghaffur and Kashmir Khan were spotted by NATO in Nooristan and there was a fierce encounter in which NATO forces sustained losses. What is your take?
Ziaur: This is a lie. NATO attacks here and there. It claims it attacked in Nooristan because of Osama bin Laden, as if Osama is omnipotent in Nooristan. They claim [al-Qaeda deputy] Dr [Ayman] Zawahiri is in Bajaur [Agency in Pakistan] and then attack that area. This is all gossip.
ATol: It is said that the Taliban's real strength lies in Arab and Punjabi fighters. What is the proportion of Arab and Punjabi fighters in your total strength?
Ziaur: We are all one, all faithfuls are brothers. Whether they come from the East or from the West, Arab or Pakistani, we are one and for each other.
ATol: You look after the Taliban's finances, so where do they raise resources?
Ziaur:Through contributions by the people.
ATol: I witnessed poppy cultivation in Kunar. I was told by the local population that clerics have now issued a decree that the mujahideen can buy weapons from the sale of poppy. Can you shed any light on that?
Ziaur: This is not true. Indeed, it is a controversial issue whether poppy cultivation is prohibited in Islam or not. But the Taliban are not dependent on poppy cultivation at all.
ATol: NATO has offered reward money for the arrest or killing of Taliban commanders. What amount is on your head?
Ziaur: There is some. I do not know how much.
ATol: Yesterday in Kunar I observed constant flights of [US Predator] drones and B-52 aircraft. Why are they so active?
Ziaur: Because of the daily attacks [by the Taliban] in Kunar province. They are aware that this year there will be a decisive battle and they know they cannot fight in the mountains.
ATol: NATO bombs the Nawa Pass [leading to Pakistan] and in the process a few shells also hit Pakistan's Bajaur area. What is happening here?
Ziaur: This is because recently the mujahideen carried out a huge operation in the Nawa Pass, which was successful. Therefore, NATO is terrified and is trying to pre-empt any more attacks by bombing the area.
NEXT: A revolution of guns and culture
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]