How the Taliban prepare for battle
KARACHI - After the Taliban's successful spring offensive there are calls from Kabul for reconciliation with them, indications from the US and recognition of the fact from Pakistan that without striking a major deal with the Taliban, there can be no peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, though, forced out of power by the US-led invasion of 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, are already planning for next year's offensive, the central aim of which is to retake Kandahar, their previous spiritual capital.
Afghans know their traditions well and are aware that the current insurgency has the ability to turn into a mass rebellion against foreign forces, but most people do not know exactly how this will happen.
Asia Times Online traveled deep inside Taliban territory to get some answers.
Huge swaths of the Pashtun heartland in southwestern Afghanistan are now sympathetic to the Taliban-led resistance against foreign troops and the Hamid Karzai-led administration in Kabul. The Taliban have strongholds in most villages and they prove their presence through daily attacks. More than 4,000 people, mostly civilians, are believed to have died in fighting this year, including more than 100 foreign soldiers.
The soul of the southwest is the town of Kandahar, in the province of the same name. All surrounding districts are highly volatile, especially the Panjwai area, the strategic center of the Taliban near Kandahar.
There have only been a few isolated attacks in Kandahar itself, and driving through the city it appears to be very much a stronghold of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO vehicles are everywhere, and when they pass through the main arteries they occupy both lanes to cut off potential suicide vehicles. Taxi drivers and private motorists immediately pull off the road when they see NATO vehicles approaching.
All major roads and intersections are manned by Afghan police and the Afghan National Army. On the surface, Kabul appears to be in full control of Kandahar and its administration under no threat.
Appearances can be deceptive, though.
A son of the soil
Abdul Jalil lives in a middle-class neighborhood of Kandahar, although he is regarded as a true son of the soil. He was a middle-ranking official during the Taliban regime of 1996-2001.
After the fall of Kandahar he chose to lie low; when he did visit his family he did so in secret. Over time he started to move around Kandahar more openly, but always declined any renewed association with the Taliban. In the past few months, though, the situation changed dramatically.
"We used to avoid visiting public places. We were afraid of speaking in favor of the Taliban. Now you can see I move all around. I go to the marketplaces and openly introduce myself as a Talib," Abdul Jalil told Asia Times Online at his home, where several other Taliban also live.
But these men are not fighters. They have been assigned by the Taliban's command center in Panjwai district to provide logistical support.
For obvious reasons, Abdul Jalil was not prepared to go into too much detail about precise Taliban activities. But what can be gleaned is that hundreds of others in Kandahar like Abdul Jalil have been drawn back into the ranks of the Taliban.
The main reason for this is the change in mood in the Pashtun areas, from being ambivalent - if not even hostile - toward the Taliban, to fully supporting them.
Almost all the tribes of the Pashtun heartland of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, the traditional rulers of modern Afghanistan since the 18th century, feel that they are now politically deprived and that the occupying forces do not trust them.
Repeated aerial bombings of civilians have also played right into the Taliban's hands and ordinary people, tired of being innocent targets over the years, now welcome the Taliban's foot soldiers.
Thus people like Abdul Jalil, who had been prepared to abandon the Taliban, are once again active in the movement.
Two of Abdul Jalil's house guests were Mehmood and Hamid, both in their late 20s, about the same age as their host, who appeared to be senior to them in matters related to the Taliban. All three were educated in Kandahar madrassas (seminaries) and, from their appearance, were obviously clerics.
Mehmood and Hamid had been assigned to collect donations from Afghan philanthropists, traders and businessmen and arrange money, satellite-telephone pre-paid cards, blankets, clothes and food for Taliban fighters in various districts around Kandahar and Panjwai.
"Brother, the situation has changed now," said Mehmood. "We go out and ask for contributions for the resistance and come back with our pockets full of money and resources. Some traders have taken on the responsibility of recharging credit in satellite phones and they supply prepaid cards worth Rs3,000 [US$50] every month. Others purchase blankets and jackets, vegetables, meat and flour, and some contribute cash. We supply all this to different fronts."
Hamid and Mehmood pointed out that the restoration of these networks had made the Taliban much more effective, organized and in good morale.
The bigger picture
Abdul Jalil is also associated with the Taliban's logistics, but his responsibilities are more tactical in that he is helping prepare for next year's primary objective, the capture of Kandahar, and then in mobilizing all major forces in southwestern Afghanistan to unseat the Kabul government.
For this, Abdul Jalil is well suited. He is trained in guerrilla urban warfare, especially in the use of improvised explosive devices, a skill he learned in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area.
Abdul Jalil's multiple roles include coordinating between the Taliban and those government officials who are sympathetic to the resistance. He relates how, when he has to travel in high-risk areas, a friendly, highly placed government official from Kandahar takes him in his jeep - complete with official license plates. He adds that much of the material he sources comes from the government.
Commenting on the Taliban's tactics, he said, "We follow the techniques of remote-controlled explosive devices used by the Iraqi resistance. But our technology is different. The Iraqis improvise with various explosive materials and then link it to a remote control.
"Our source of explosives is anti-personal and anti-tank mines. These were in the possession of various warlords who looted them after the fall of the communist government in Kabul [early 1990s]. They either sold or donated the mines to us," said Abdul Jalil.
"These mines are our main source and we link them with remote controls and effectively blow up our targets. But this is not the only source - the other source is American bombs.
"Many of the bombs they drop from the air do not explode. I am an expert in defusing these unexploded bombs, and there are many others like me. We extract all the explosives inside the bomb shells and use them for sacrifice [suicide] attacks," said Abdul Jalil.
Over endless cups of tea, Abdul Jalil, Mehmood and Hamid discussed the various colors of the Taliban-led resistance.
"The Taliban will be ready to mobilize next summer, but the lead role will be played by local tribes and pro-government warlords. All tribes, including the one Hamid Karzai belongs to [Durrani], do not support the Kabul government. The Taliban will be a leader, but the main engine will be dissatisfied tribes and warlords," said Abdul Jalil.
The three men stressed that during the winter lull in fighting, the Taliban would focus on establishing better coordination among their rank and file and in improving their links in the government. Secret arms dumps would also be restocked.
On the road again
Along with colleague Qamar Yousufzai, we planned to travel to Musa Killa, where, after a prolonged fight and siege by the Taliban, British forces evacuated the area and handed over control to tribal elders.
Abdul Jalil pointed out that the two of us should not travel alone in a taxi. While this correspondent could pass for an Afghan, Qamar looked Pakistani. We therefore decided to share a taxi with several other people.
As soon as we left Kandahar, the driver began playing a cassette tape of Pashtu music. Immediately one of the passengers objected, and demanded that the tape be ejected and his played instead. So we then traveled along to the sounds of Taliban jihadist songs (but with no music) condemning the United States in particular and the West in general.
This was followed by a tape extolling the Prophet Mohammed and attacking cartoons published in the West that ridiculed him. The singer vowed that revenge would be taken by defeating the Americans in Afghanistan.
On the way to Helmand province we passed through several official checkpoints, but the Afghan police didn't check anything, only demanding that the driver pay 10 Pakistani rupees.
"This is not an octroi [toll]. This is pure extortion by the police and we pay because we do not have any option," the driver muttered. The Afghan police do not have a good reputation among the masses. They are notorious for being involved in extortion, and they love to shake down strangers. They are not beyond kidnapping, and even assassination.
As the taxi approached the district of Gerishk and the last police checkpoint before Taliban country, the passenger who had supplied the tapes asked with a smile, "Now tell me, who are you are and why you are going to Musa Killa?"
"I am a journalist and want to see how the Taliban manage their areas and how they operate," I told him, fully aware that he must be Taliban.
"Oh, a journalist ... you mean the people who play with danger. Meet me, I also play the same game," he said with a laugh but without providing his name.
But he was not joking. He turned out to be part of the Taliban structure in Helmand coordinating activities between Taliban strongholds in the province and Taliban pockets in Kandahar city.
The Taliban in Helmand are expected to play a central role in the planned fall of Kandahar. Many top field commanders are already concentrated there and Taliban leader Mullah Omar is expected to spend some time in the province making formal tribal arrangements that will unify all tribes under one pro-Taliban flag.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]