Death by the light of a silvery moonNAWA PASS, Pakistan border with Afghanistan - Sitting with four key Taliban commanders deep in a labyrinth of lush green mountains, I could see the Sarkano district of the Kunar Valley in Afghanistan, which is the provincial hub of the American military and a base for the Afghan National Army and Afghan intelligence.
Scores of guerrilla groups, each comprising a few dozen men, hide on the fringes of the Kunar Valley and launch daily operations into Kunar and Nooristan provinces, and with each passing day they receive new recruits and their attacks grow in intensity.
A year ago, I spent two weeks with the Taliban in Helmand province (including a few days in captivity - see A 'guest' of the Taliban, Asia Times Online, November 30, 2006 ), but since then there has been a sea-change within the Taliban.
Without legends such as the slain Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Akhtar Osmani, and with an extremely ill Jalaluddin Haqqani, a neo-Taliban movement has emerged with a new leadership, new zeal and new dynamics. The revitalized and resupplied Taliban are geared to enter a new phase of war without borders to fight coalition forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistan army.
In a way, all that has gone before in the "war on terror" in the past six years since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul has been a dress rehearsal.
For its part, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders are preparing to take up the fight. According to Asia Times Online contacts familiar with developments, a joint Pakistan-NATO operation was approved at a meeting of Pakistan's corps commanders at the weekend. Significantly, they agreed that the boundaries would not necessarily be drawn between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Whether a conventional force such as NATO can contain the Taliban is another matter. Obviously, the Taliban are confident. I asked Shaheen Abid, the Taliban's head of guerrilla operations in the strategic Sarkano district, what was behind the group's revitalization.
Shaheen smiled in response and turned his gaze to three of his subordinate commanders - Zahid of the Nole region, Mohsin of the Shonk Karey district and Muslim Yar of the Barogai region.
"I only know how to fight. Answering complicated questions is beyond my ambit," Shaheen said apologetically, and immediately signaled for the Taliban's media relations officer of the Kunar Valley, Dr Jarrah (a jihadi name), to respond.
Jarrah began, "Before answering you, I will ask you a question. Who is qualified to claim that he has actually seen world?" Before I could reply to this rather strange question, Jarrah answered himself, "The one who has experienced true love, the one who has lived in an alien atmosphere and place, and the one who has spent time in captivity.
"The mujahideen have experienced all three things in the past seven years. We have been reared on a true love for our global struggle, we were forcibly displaced from one place to another and we spent lots of time in the detention centers of Cuba [Guantanamo], in Pakistan, Bagram [Afghanistan] and Abu Ghraib [Iraq] and braved the brutalities of the CIA [US Central Intelligence Agency], the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence] and Afghan intelligence," Jarrah said.
"We actually see the world now. We are seasoned and therefore you will see actual fireworks against the one which claims to be the global superpower."
Shaheen then excused himself and joined his subordinates Zahid, Mohsin and Muslim Yar, all in their early 20s. "Please don't mind them, they are discussing their previous operations and planning fresh ones," Jarrah told me.
"We carried out attacks on a daily basis until last Thursday [November 8]. We assign a particular group for a particular assignment. There are different sorts of attacks. We do send attackers called fedayeen in which fighters loaded with rockets and hand grenades and AK-47 guns attack an American base or the Afghan National Army or the intelligence headquarters in Sarkano.
"In such fedayeen attacks, there is zero chance of survival [for the attackers].
"Then we carry out specific attacks based on precise information provided by pro-Taliban elements within the Afghan establishment or by local people. And then the third and the most expensive attacks are those in which we fire missiles on an enemy position from a distance. It costs us 250,000 Pakistani rupees [about US$4,000] per operation.
"We launch all three kinds of operations many times a month. At present, due to the dim moonlight, operations have stopped for few days. We only launch operations during moonlight because Kunar is all jungle and mountains and without such light there is a strong chance of falling into the crevasses," Jarrah explained.
Jarrah said that the Taliban's operations are based on various tactics and are not only asymmetric attacks. "We have tribes and people who live in particular places. They openly resist foreign troops in the Kunar Valley. Then we have organized guerrilla groups - we use them as our special forces - and finally we have a missile battery. Not a single day passes without the enemy facing several of our attacks in various parts of Nooristan and Kunar provinces.
"The fighters have acquired a lot of confidence due to their successes and now they confidently play tricks. Recently, we used Afghan National Army uniforms and laid siege to American troops in Nooristan and killed and wounded many of them. In return, the Americans threatened to bomb a whole village. That's why the local people didn't spy on the Taliban's positions," Jarrah said.
Suddenly, in the far distance, we saw the dark skies of Kunar light up.
"That is a light bomb used by the enemy to trace the Taliban's positions. That is approximately 10 kilometers from here, and obviously a battle is going on between the enemies and the Taliban. We are not necessarily aware of such battles every time," Jarrah said.
After a dinner of rice and chicken curry and saying the final prayers of the day, we all slept in an isolated mud house of the village. The call to morning prayers marked the start of a new day and a new struggle. After saying prayers and eating breakfast, the men who had accompanied us the previous evening left, but within two hours a new group joined us.
"They rotate throughout the day and night. Some of the people will go back to Pakistan to stay with their families and new ones will join us. Some will finish their guerrilla operations in the Kunar Valley and join us here to rest, and then a new guerrilla group will be launched," Jarrah said.
"But do you sometimes have a serious dearth of fighters?" I asked.
"Not at all," said Jarrah, laughing. "Instead, the real issue remains how to accommodate all the guerrilla groups because people are flooding to us to join the jihad and we don't always have enough resources to provide for them all at the same time. But I think we will increase our resources soon, and then you will see a flood of fighters finding its way against the foreign occupying forces."
Before I could ask any further questions, a tall man who introduced himself as Maroof asked me, "What is your name, Mr Journalist?" "Saleem Shahzad," I answered. "What?" I repeated my name. "Aren't you the one who was detained by the Taliban last year in Helmand? I listened to your interview on radio after your release," Maroof said with excitement.
"He is with us now, what happens if he is killed?" I heard Maroof inquiring of Jarrah in a loud whisper. Jarrah chuckled, "If he is killed, it would be the will of God."
Maroof was in the Afghan National Army and was once detained by the Americans for being in the army but "facilitating" the Taliban. He says he did not cough up anything during interrogation, but when he was released he promptly joined the ranks of the Taliban.
"The mujahideen have now acquired such strength that neither Pakistan nor NATO can fight against us. The Taliban are standing on both sides of the border. More operations breed more Taliban, and this time the Taliban will rule the whole region," Maroof said confidently.
Jarrah summoned a few armed men and we took a long walk on a mountain trail, ending up at a goat farm.
This was the Taliban's missile battery, comprising about 200 Russian-made rockets, which the Taliban call Sakar 20. They are 2.5 meters long with a range of about 30 kilometers and the capacity to devastate an area of about 100 square meters. The Taliban's Sarkano district battery has six donkeys to carry the weapons.
"We use these donkeys to carry the missiles and other equipment when we attack an enemy installation. In this terrain, donkeys are the only 'vehicles' that can be used as transport," Jarrah said.
"These missiles come from old dumps of weapons the Taliban recovered after the fall of the communist government in Afghanistan [in the early 1990s]. Russian technology is far superior to American," Jarrah said, and illustrated his point by taking out his Russian-made pistol.
"This pistol works like a revolver and you don't need to cock it like American pistols. It belonged to the Russian special forces. We have mostly Russian weapons stocks, but we have recently started using American weapons recovered from American troops or the Afghan National Army," Jarrah explained.
Behind the simple structures, I see the formation of a very well-trained army which was non-existent even a year ago. Only three years ago, the Taliban did not have a central command, secure bases, and the motivation they now obviously possess.
The ideologues of the neo-Taliban were raised and trained by the Pakistani military to bleed India, and now, using the same techniques, they aim to bleed NATO and the Pakistani Army.
But it was time to run - I had an appointment that evening with these Punjabi ideologues.
Next: The Punjabis: From proxies to diehards
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]