Sunday Magazine --October 22, 2006
In the Land of the Taliban
By ELIZABETH RUBIN
One afternoon this past summer, I shared a picnic of fresh mangos and plums with Abdul Baqi, an Afghan Taliban fighter in his 20’s fresh from the front in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. We spent hours on a grassy slope under the tall pines of Murree, a former colonial hill station that is now a popular resort just outside Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. All around us was a Pakistani rendition of Georges Seurat’s “Sunday on La Grande Jatte” middle-class families setting up grills for barbecue, a girl and two boys chasing their errant cow with a stick, two men hunting fowl, boys flying a kite. Much of the time, Abdul Baqi was engrossed in the flight pattern of a Himalayan bird. It must have been a welcome distraction. He had just lost five friends fighting British troops and had seen many others killed or wounded by bombs as they sheltered inside a mosque.
Taliban fighters about to do battle in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, on July 9 (Veronique de Viguerie/WPN)
Battle Ready Taliban fighters washing their feet before saying the prayers that will precede the attack (Veronique de Viguerie/WPN).
He was now looking forward to taking a logic course at a madrasa, or religious school, near Peshawar during his holiday. Pakistan’s religious parties, he told me through an interpreter, would lodge him, as they did other Afghan Taliban fighters, and keep him safe. With us was Abdul Baqi’s mentor, Mullah Sadiq, a diabetic Helmandi who was shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan auditing Taliban finances and arranging logistics. He had just dispatched nine fighters to Afghanistan and had taken wounded men to a hospital in Islamabad. “I just tell the border guards that they were wounded in a tribal dispute and need treatment,” he told me.
And though Mullah Sadiq said they had lost many commanders in battles around Kandahar, he and Abdul Baqi appeared to be in good spirits, laughing and chatting loudly on a cellphone to Taliban friends in Pakistan and Afghanistan. After all, they never imagined that the Taliban would be back so soon or in such force or that they would be giving such trouble to the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and some 40,000 NATO and U.S. troops in the country. For the first time since the fall of 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown, they were beginning to taste the possibility of victory.
As I traveled through Pakistan and particularly the Pashtun lands bordering Afghanistan, I felt as if I were moving through a Taliban spa for rehabilitation and inspiration. Since 2002, the American and Pakistani militaries have focused on North Waziristan and South Waziristan, two of the seven districts making up Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas, which are between the North-West Frontier Province and, to the south, Baluchistan Province; in the days since the 9/11 attacks, some tribes there had sheltered members of Al Qaeda and spawned their own Taliban movement. Meanwhile, in the deserts of Baluchistan, whose capital, Quetta, is just a few hours’ drive from the Afghan city of Kandahar, the Afghan Taliban were openly reassembling themselves under Mullah Omar and his leadership council. Quetta had become a kind of free zone where strategies could be formed, funds picked up, interviews given and victories relished.
In June, I was in Quetta as the Taliban fighters celebrated an attack against Dad Mohammad Khan, an Afghan legislator locally known as Amir Dado. Until recently he was the intelligence chief of Helmand Province. He had worked closely with U.S. Special Forces and was despised by Abdul Baqi and, to be frank, by most Afghans in the south. Mullah Razayar Nurzai (a nom de guerre), a commander of 300 Taliban fighters who frequently meets with the leadership council and Mullah Omar, took credit for the ambush. Because Pakistan’s intelligence services are fickle sometimes supporting the Taliban, sometimes arresting its members I had to meet Nurzai at night, down a dark lane in a village outside Quetta.
My guide was a Pakistani Pashtun sympathetic to the Taliban; we slipped into a courtyard and behind a curtain into a small room with mattresses and a gas lamp. In hobbled a rough, wild-looking graybeard with green eyes and a prosthetic limb fitted into a permanent 1980’s-era shoe. More than a quarter-century of warring had taken its toll on Nurzai’s 46-year-old body but not on his spirit. It was 10 at night, yet he was bounding with energy and bombast about his recent exploits in Kandahar and Helmand. A few days earlier, Nurzai and his men had attacked Amir Dado’s extended family. First, he told me, they shot dead his brother a former district leader. Then the next day, as members of Dado’s family were driving to the site of the first attack, Nurzai’s men ambushed their convoy. Boys, cousins, uncles: all were killed. Dado himself was safe elsewhere. Nurzai was mildly disappointed and said that they had received bad information. He had no regrets about the killings, however. Abdul Baqi was also delighted by the attack. He would tell me that Dado used to burn rocket casings and pour the melted plastic onto the stomachs of onetime Taliban fighters he and his men had captured. Abdul Baqi also recalled that during the civil war that ended with the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul, Dado and his men had a checkpoint where they “grabbed young boys and robbed people.”
Mullah Omar and his followers formed the Taliban in 1994 to, among other things, bring some justice to Afghanistan and to expel predatory commanders like Dado. But in the early days of Karzai’s government, these regional warlords re-established themselves, with American financing, to fill the power vacuum that the coalition forces were unwilling to fill themselves. The warlords freely labeled their many enemies Al Qaeda or Taliban in order to push the Americans to eradicate them. Some of these men were indeed Taliban. Most, like Abdul Baqi, had accepted their loss of power, but they rejoined the Taliban as a result of harassment. Amir Dado’s own abuses had eventually led to his removal from the Helmand government at United Nations insistence. As one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity out of personal safety concerns, put it: “Amir Dado kept his own prison, authorized the use of serious torture, had very little respect for human life and made security worse.” Yet when I later met Amir Dado in Kabul, he pulled out a letter that an officer in the U.S. Special Forces had written requesting that the Afghan Ministry of Defense install him as Helmand’s police chief and claiming that in his absence “the quality of security in the Helmand Province has dramatically declined.”
One Place, Two Stories
I went to Afghanistan and Pakistan this summer to understand how and why the Taliban were making a comeback five years after American and Afghan forces drove them from power. What kind of experience would lead Afghans to reject what seemed to be an emerging democratic government? Had we missed something that made Taliban rule appealing? Were they the only opposition the aggrieved could turn to? Or, as many Afghans were saying, was this Pakistan up to its old tricks cooperating with the Americans and Karzai while conspiring to bring back the Taliban, who had been valued “assets” before 9/11?
And why has the Bush administration’s message remained that Afghanistan is a success, Iraq a challenge? “In Afghanistan, the trajectory is a hopeful and promising one,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote on the op-ed page of The Washington Post earlier this month. Afghanistan’s rise from the ashes of the anti-Taliban war would mean that the Bush administration was prevailing in replacing terror with democracy and human rights.
Meanwhile, a counternarrative was emerging, and it belonged to the Taliban, or the A.C.M., as NATO officers call them the Anti-Coalition Militia. In Kabul, Kandahar and Pakistan, I found their video discs and tapes in the markets. They invoke a nostalgia for the jihad against the Russians and inspire their viewers to rise up again. One begins with clattering Chinooks disgorging American soldiers into the desert. Then we see the new Afghan government onstage, focusing in on the Northern Alliance warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Karim Khalili, Muhammad Fahim, Ismail Khan, Abdul Sayyaf. It cuts to American soldiers doing push-ups and pinpointing targets on maps; next it shows bombs the size of bathtubs dropping from planes and missiles emblazoned with “Royal Navy” rocketing through the sky; then it moves to hospital beds and wounded children. Message: America and Britain brought back the warlords and bombed your children. In the next clip, there are metal cages under floodlights and men in orange jumpsuits, bowed and crouching. It cuts back to the wild eyes of John Walker Lindh and shows trucks hauling containers crammed with young Afghan and Pakistani prisoners Taliban, hundreds of whom would suffocate to death in those containers, supposedly at the command of the warlord and current army chief of staff, General Dostum. Then back to American guards wheeling hunger-striking Guantánamo prisoners on gurneys. Interspliced are older images, a bit fuzzy, of young Afghan men, hands tied behind their backs, heads bowed, hauled off by Communist guards. The message: Foreigners have invaded our lands again; Americans, Russians no difference.
During the period from 1994 to 2001, the Taliban were a cloistered clique with little interest in global affairs. Today they are far more sophisticated and outward-looking. “The Taliban of the 90’s were concerned with their district or province,” says Waheed Muzhda, a senior aide at the Supreme Court in Kabul, who before the Taliban fell worked in their Foreign Ministry. “Now they have links with other networks. Before, only two Internet connections existed one was with Mullah Omar’s office and the other at the Foreign Ministry here in Kabul. Now they are connected to the world.” Though this is still very much an Afghan insurgency, fueled by complex local grievances and power struggles, the films sold in the markets of Pakistan and Afghanistan merge the Taliban story with that of the larger struggle of the Muslim umma, the global community of Islam: images of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Israelis dragging off young Palestinian men and throwing off Palestinian mothers clinging to their sons. Humiliation. Oppression. Followed by the same on Afghan soil: Northern Alliance fighters perching their guns atop the bodies of dead Taliban. In the Taliban story, Special Forces soldiers desecrate the bodies of Taliban fighters by burning them, the Koran is desecrated in Guantánamo toilets, the Prophet Muhammad is desecrated in Danish cartoons and finally an apostate, Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who was arrested earlier this year for converting to Christianity, desecrates Islam and is not only not punished but is released and flown off to Italy.
It is not at all clear that Afghans want the return of a Taliban government. But even sophisticated Kabulis told me that they are fed up with the corruption. And in the Pashtun regions, which make up about half the country, Afghans are fed up with five years of having their homes searched and the young men of their villages rounded up in the name of counterinsurgency. Earlier this month in Kabul, Gen. David Richards, the British commander of NATO’s Afghanistan force, imagined what Afghans are thinking: “They will say, ‘We do not want the Taliban, but then we would rather have that austere and unpleasant life that that might involve than another five years of fighting.”’ He estimated that if NATO didn’t succeed in bringing substantial economic development to Afghanistan soon, some 70 percent of Afghans would shift their loyalty to the Taliban.
In the middle of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, a metal sign tilts into the road advertising the New York English Language Center. It is a relic of the last American nation-building scheme. Half a century ago, this town, built at the confluence of the Arghandab and Helmand Rivers, was the headquarters for an ambitious dam project partly financed by the United States and contracted out to Morrison-Knudsen, an engineering company that helped build Cape Canaveral and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Lashkar Gah (literally, “the place of soldiers”) was to be a model American town. Irrigation from the project would create farms out of the desert. Today you can still see the suburban-style homes with gardens open to the streets, although the typical Afghan home is a fort with walls guarding the family’s privacy. Those modernizing dreams of America and Afghanistan were eventually defeated by nature, culture and the war to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. What remains is an intense nostalgia among the engineers, cooks and farmers of Lashkar Gah, who remember that time as one of employment and peace. Today, Lashkar Gah is home to a NATO base.
Down the road from the base stands a lovely new building erected by an N.G.O. for the local Ministry of Women’s Affairs. It is big, white and, on the day I visited, was empty except for three women getting ready to leave. “It’s so close to the foreigners, and the women are afraid of getting killed by car bombs,” the ministry’s deputy told me. She was a school headmistress and landowner, dressed elegantly in a lime-colored blouse falling below the knees and worn over matching trousers. She weighed the Taliban regime against this new one in terms of pragmatic choices, not terror or ideology. She said that she had just wrapped up the case of a girl who had been kidnapped and raped by Kandahari police officers, something that would not have happened under the Taliban. “Their security was outstanding,” she said.
Under the Taliban, she said, a poppy ban was enforced. “Now the governors tell the people, ‘Just cultivate a little bit,”’ she said. “So people take this opportunity and grow a lot.” The farmers lease land to grow poppies. The British and the police eradicate it. The farmer can’t pay back the landowner. “So instead of paying, he gives the landowner his daughter.”
A few weeks before I arrived in Helmand, John Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told reporters that Afghan authorities were succeeding in reducing opium-poppy cultivation. Yet despite hundreds of millions of dollars being allocated by Congress to stop the trade, a United Nations report in September estimated that this year’s crop was breaking all records 6,100 metric tons compared with 4,100 last year. When I visited Helmand, schools in Lashkar Gah were closed in part because teachers and students were busy harvesting the crop. A prosecutor from the Crimes Department laughed as he told me that his clerk, driver and bodyguard hadn’t made it to work. They were all harvesting. It requires a lot of workers, and you can earn $12 a day compared with the $2 you get for wheat. Hence the hundreds of young, poor Talibs from Pakistan’s madrasas who had flocked to earn that cash and who made easy converts for the coming jihad.
Walters had singled out Helmand for special praise. Yet just a short drive from the provincial capital, I was surrounded by poppy farmers 12-year-old boys, 75-year-old men hard at work, their hands caked in opium paste as they scooped figlike pulp off the bulbs into a sack tied around their waists. One little boy was dragging a long poppy stem attached to a car he had made out of bulbs. Haji Abdul, a 73-year-old Moses of a man, was the owner of the farm and one of those nostalgic for the heyday of the Helmand Valley project. He had worked with Americans for 15 years as a welder and manager. He was the first to bring electricity to his district. Now there was none.
“Why do you think people put mines out for the British and Italians doing eradication when they came here to save us?” He answered his own question: “Thousands of lands ready for harvest were destroyed. How difficult will it be for our people to tolerate that! You are taking the food of my children, cutting my feet and disabling me. With one bullet, I will kill you.” Fortunately he didn’t have to kill anyone. He had paid 2,000 afghanis per jerib (about a half acre) of land to the police, he told me, adding that they would then share the spoils with the district administrator and all the other Interior Ministry officials so that only a small percentage of the poppy would be eradicated.
When I asked Manan Farahi, the director of counterterrorism efforts for Karzai’s government, why the Taliban were so strong in Helmand, he said that Helmandis had, in fact, hated the Taliban because of Mullah Omar’s ban on poppy cultivation. “The elders were happy this government was coming and they could plant again,” Farahi told me. “But then the warlords came back and let their militias roam freely. They were settling old scores killing people, stealing their opium. And because they belonged to the government, the people couldn’t look to the government for protection. And because they had the ear of the Americans, the people couldn’t look to the Americans. Into this need stepped the Taliban.” And this time the Taliban, far from suppressing the drug trade, agreed to protect it.
A Dealer’s Life
The Continental Guest House in Kandahar, with its lovely gardens, potted geraniums and Internet access in every room, was mostly empty when I arrived, a remnant of the city’s recently stalled economic resurgence.
To find out how the opium trade works and how it’s related to the Taliban’s rise, I spent the afternoon with an Afghan who told me his name was Razzaq. He is a medium-level smuggler in his late 20’s who learned his trade as a refugee in Iran. He was wearing a traditional Kandahari bejeweled skull cap, a dark blazer and a white shalwar kameez, a traditional outfit consisting of loose pants covered by a tunic. He moved and spoke with the confident ease of a well-protected man. “The whole country is in our services,” he told me, “all the way to Turkey.” This wasn’t bravado. From Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, he brings opium in the form of a gooey paste, packaged in bricks. From Badakhshan in the northeast, he brings crystal a sugary substance made from heroin. And from Jalalabad, in the east on the road to Peshawar, he brings pure heroin. All of this goes through Baramcha, an unmanned border town in Helmand near Pakistan. Sometimes he pays off the national soldiers to use their vehicles, he said. Sometimes the national policemen. Or he hides it well, and if there is a tough checkpoint, he calls ahead and pays them off. “The soldiers get 2,000 afghanis a month, and I give them 100,000,” he explained with an angelic smile. “So even if I had a human head in my car, they’d let me go.” It’s not hard to see why Razzaq is so successful. He has a certain charm and looks like the modest tailor he once was, not a man steeped in illegal business.
Razzaq’s smuggling career began in Zahedan, a remote and unruly Iranian town near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is filled with Afghan refugees who, like Razzaq and his family, fled after the Russian invasion in 1979. Razzaq apprenticed as a tailor under his father and eventually opened his own shop, which the Iranians promptly shut down. They said he had no right as a refugee to own a shop. He began painting buildings, but that, too, proved a bureaucratic challenge. He was paid in checks, and the bank refused to cash them without a bank account, which he could not get.
Razzaq was newly married with dreams of a good life for his family. So one day he took a chance. “I had gotten to know smugglers at my tailoring shop,” he told me over a meal of mutton and rice on the floor of my hotel room. “One of them was an old man, so no one ever suspected him. The smugglers asked me to go with him to Gerdi Jangel” an Afghan refugee town in Pakistan “and bring back 750 grams of heroin to Zahedan. The security searched us on the bus, but I’d hidden it in the heels of my shoes, and of course they didn’t search the old man. I was so happy when we made it back. I thought I was born for the first time into this world.”
So he took another chance and managed to fly to Tehran carrying four kilos in his bag. Each time he overcame another obstacle, he became more addicted to the easy cash. When the Iranian authorities imported sniffing dogs to catch heroin smugglers, Razzaq and his friends filled hypodermic needles with some heroin dissolved in water and sprayed the liquid on cars at the bus station that would be continuing on to Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. “The dogs at the checkpoint went mad. They had to search 50 cars. They decided the dogs were defective and sent them back, and that saved us for a while.” Eventually, he said, they concocted a substance to conceal the heroin smell from the new pack of dogs.
After the fall of the Taliban, Razzaq moved back to Helmand, built a comfortable house and began supporting his extended family with his expanding trafficking business. Razzaq’s main challenge today is Iran. While the Americans have turned more or less a blind eye to the drug-trade spree of their warlord allies, Iran has steadily cranked up its drug war. (Some 3,000 Iranian lawmen have been killed in the last three decades battling traffickers.) To cross the desert borders, Razzaq moves in convoys of 18 S.U.V.’s. Some contain drugs. The rest are loaded with food supplies, antiaircraft guns, rocket launchers, antitank missiles and militiamen, often on loan from the Taliban. The fighters are Baluch from Iran and Afghanistan. The commanders are Afghans.
Razzaq’s run, as he described it, was a scene out of
Should he ever run into a problem in Afghanistan, he told me, “I simply make a phone call. And my voice is known to ministers, of course. They are in my network. Every network has a big man supporting them in the government.” The Interior Ministry’s director of counternarcotics in Kabul had told me the same thing. Anyway, if the smugglers have problems on the ground, they say, they just pay the Taliban to destroy the enemy commanders.
Razzaq has at times contemplated getting out of the smuggling trade, he said, but the easy money is too alluring. Depending on the market, he can earn from $1,500 to $7,500 a month. Most Afghans can’t make that in a year. Besides, he said, “all the governors are doing this, so why shouldn’t we?”
Losers Become Winners
In December 2001, not long after the Taliban were routed, I visited the Shah Wali Kot district, several hours’ drive on unpaved roads from Kandahar, a Mordor land of rock mountains shaped like sagging crescents and mud-baked houses melting into the dunes. The Taliban leaders had fled, mostly to Pakistan. Gul Agha Shirzai, formerly a local warlord and soon-to-be new governor, and his soldiers had swarmed into power while the Americans set up their operations base in Mullah Omar’s Xanadu-like residence. I was with a large group of Populzai, the clan of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
We were in a big guest room with more than a dozen men gathered in a circle, all wearing the kind of turbans that look like gargantuan ice-cream swirls. The ones in black turban swirls were giggling, chatting and slapping one another on the back. The ones in white turban swirls were sulking, grumbling or mute. In this group, the miserable white turbans were Taliban men. They had just lost their pickup trucks, weapons, money, prestige and jobs, all of which had gone to the gleeful black turbans.
Today those miserable white turbans have taken to the mountains to fight. The gleeful black turbans are under siege. I saw one of the black turbans this summer, the Shah Wali Kot district leader, in the garden of the Kandahar governor’s palace. He was a mess. He chuckled loudly when I asked him how it was back in Shah Wali Kot. “Frankly, we are just defending ourselves from the Taliban,” he said. “Our head is on the pillow at night, but we do not sleep.”
That small division among the Populzai in Shah Wali Kot echoes the larger division of the Pashtun into two main branches: the Durrani and the Ghilzai. The Durrani, Karzai’s tribe, have dominated for the last two centuries in Afghanistan and regard themselves as the ruling elite. In the south, the Ghilzai were often treated as the nomadic, scrappy cousins. With the exception of Mullah Omar, who had been a poor Ghilzai farmer, the leaders of the Taliban tended to be Durrani. These days, the perception among the southern Ghilzai is that they are persecuted, that the jails are filled with their people, while the Durrani in the south received all the Japanese, U.S. and British contracts and jobs. From what I could gather during my weeks in Afghanistan, these perceptions were mostly true. But even if they were exaggerated, such perceptions, in an illiterate society, have a way of quickly morphing into reality.
Take Panjwai, a district just outside Kandahar, where hundreds of Taliban massed this summer, taking advantage of the changeover from American soldiers to a NATO force of Canadian troops. One afternoon I met a red-haired propagandist and writer for the Taliban in a Kandahar office building. With his slight lisp, chain-smoking habit and eclectic reading French novelists and Arabic philosophers he seemed more a tormented graduate student than the landless villager from Panjwai he was. Panjwai is a mishmash of tribes, and the Taliban were exploiting the grievances of the Nurzai, a tribe that has felt persecuted and unfairly targeted for poppy eradication. Traders in Kandahar, he said, were donating money to the Taliban. Landowners were paying them to fight off eradicators. The Taliban were paying poor, unemployed men to fight. And religious scholars were delivering the message that it was time for jihad because the Americans were no different from the Russians. Just a few weeks earlier, the Taliban went on a killing spree in Panjwai. They beheaded a tribal leader in his home, shot another in the bazaar and hanged a man near a shrine with a note tacked on his body:
The Taliban were feeling bold enough that one afternoon Mullah Ibrahim, a Taliban intelligence agent, dropped by my hotel for lunch. He was a Ghilzai, from Helmand, and told me he had tried to lead a normal life under the official amnesty program. Instead, he was locked up, beaten and so harassed by Helmandi intelligence and police officers that his tribal elders told him to leave for Pakistan and join the Taliban there. Then, about a year ago, he decided that he was tired of fighting and living as a fugitive and accepted a reconciliation offer from an Afghan general. Pakistani intelligence got wind of this and imprisoned him; upon his release, the Pakistanis gave him money and a motorbike and pressured him to go back to war. He is still tired of war, but the Pakistanis won’t let him live in peace, and now if he tries to reconcile with the Kabul government, he told me, the Taliban will kill him.
When fighting broke out on the main highway near Kandahar, I saw that the police had tied up a group of villagers but the Taliban had all escaped. One of those village men, his hands bound behind his back, told me that he had peeped out from his house earlier that day and saw some 200 Taliban with new guns and rocket launchers. They wanted food and threatened him and other villagers. “But I am not afraid of them,” he said loudly. “I am only afraid of this government.” Why? “Look at what they do. They can’t get the Taliban, so they arrest us. We have no hope from them anymore. And when we call and tell them Taliban are here, no one comes.” As an engineer from Panjwai who had been an Afghan senator during the Communist era told me: “We are now like camels. In Islam, a camel can be slaughtered in two different ways.
“The Taliban are using rivalries and enmities between people to get soldiers, the same tactics as the mujahedeen used against the Russians,” the engineer continued. “Just like in Russian times they come and say, ‘We are defending the country from the infidels.’ They start asking for food. Then they ask the people for soldiers and say, ‘We will give you weapons.’ And that’s how it starts. And the emotions are rising in the people now. They are saying, ‘Kaffirs have invaded our land.”’
Qayum Karzai, the president’s older brother and a legislator from Kandahar, seemed utterly depressed when I met him. “For the last four years, the Taliban were saying that the Americans will leave here,” he said. “We were stupid and didn’t believe it. Now they think it’s a victory that the Americans left.”
With the Americans on their way out and the NATO force not yet in control, the Kandahar Police were left on the front line: underfinanced, underequipped, untrained and often stoned. Which is perhaps what made them so brave. One afternoon I ran into a group who said their friends had just been killed when a Talib posing as a policeman served them poisoned tea. A shaggy-haired officer in a black tunic was standing by his pickup, freshly ripped up by a barrage of bullets, and staring at my feet. “I envy your shoes,” he said, looking back at his own torn rubber sandals. “I envy your Toyota,” he said and laughed. And then looking at my pen and notebook, he said, “I envy you can read and write.” It’s not too late, I offered feebly, but he tapped his temple and shook his head. “It doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “I smoke hash. I smoke opium. I’m drinking because we’re always thinking and nervous.” He was 35. He had been fighting for 20 years. Four of his friends had been killed in the fighting the other night. He had to support children, a wife and parents on a salary of about $100 a month. And, he said, “we haven’t been paid in four months.” No wonder, then, that the population complained that the police were all thieves.
At Kandahar’s hospital I met a 17-year-old policeman (who had been with the police since he was 14) tending to his wounded friend. He was in a jovial mood, amazed he wasn’t dead. He said they had been given an order to cut the Taliban’s escape route. Instead they were ambushed by the Taliban, ran out of bullets and had no phones to call for backup. “We ran away,” he said with a nervous giggle. “The Taliban chased us, shouting: ‘Hey, sons of Bush! Where are you going? We want to kill you.”’
Last month, NATO forces struck back around Panjwai with artillery and aerial bombardments, killing an estimated 500 Taliban fighters and destroying homes and schools. But unless NATO can stay for years, create a trustworthy police force and spend the millions necessary to regenerate the district, the Taliban will be back.
Deciding to Fight
Inside the old city walls of Peshawar, Pakistan, a half-hour drive from the Afghan border, in a bazaar named after the storytellers who enthralled Central Asian gold and silk merchants with their tales of war and tragic love, sits the 17th-century Mohabat Khan Mosque. It is a place of cool, marble calm amid the dense market streets. Yousaf Qureshi is the prayer leader there and director of the Jamia Ashrafia, a Deobandi madrasa. He had recently announced a pledge by the jewelers’ association to pay $1 million to anyone who would kill a Danish cartoonist who caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. Qureshi himself offered $25,000 and a car. I found Qureshi seated on a cushion behind a low glass desk covered with papers and business cards ambassadors, N.G.O. workers, Islamic scholars, mujahedeen commanders: he has conversed with them all. His office resembles an antiques shop, the walls displaying oversize prayer beads, knives inlaid with ivory and astrakhan caps. It was day’s end, and Qureshi was checking the proofs for his 51st book, called “The Benefits of Koran.”
Qureshi told me that he meets with Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, about twice a year. Qureshi understands Musharraf’s predicament: “The heart of this government is with the Taliban. The tongue is not.” He didn’t claim total insider knowledge, but he said, “I think they want a weak government and want to support the Taliban without letting them win.” Why? “We are asking Musharraf, ‘What are you doing,’ and he says: ‘I’m moving in both ways. I want to support the Taliban, but I can’t afford to displease America. I am caught between the devil and the deep sea.”’
Not long ago, Qureshi said, he received three emissaries from Mullah Omar who wanted Qureshi to warn another religious leader to stop preaching against the Taliban. “I refused,” he said. Later Sheikh Yassin, one of the messengers, was arrested by the I.S.I., Pakistan’s military intelligence service. So why, I asked, does Qureshi say the I.S.I. is supporting the Taliban? “That is the double policy of the government,” he replied. Even in the 1990’s, he said, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was supporting the official Afghan government of Burhanuddin Rabbani while the I.S.I. was supporting his opponent, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as he rained thousands of rockets upon Rabbani’s government and the citizens of Kabul. Qureshi told me that if he and local traders didn’t want Al Qaeda or the Taliban to flourish, then they wouldn’t. “We are supporting them to give the Americans a tough time,” he said. “Leave Afghanistan, and the Taliban and foreign fighters will not give Karzai problems. All the administrators of madrasas know what our students are doing, but we won’t tell them not to fight in Afghanistan.”
The new Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are of three basic types. There are the old war-addicted jihadis who were left out of the 2001 Bonn conference, which determined the postwar shape of Afghan politics and the carve-up of the country. There are the “second generation” Afghan refugees: poor, educated in Pakistan’s madrasas and easily recruited by their elders. And then there are the young men who had jobs and prestige in the former Taliban regime and were unable to find a place for themselves in the new Afghanistan.
Coincidentally, there are also now three fronts. One is led by Mullah Omar’s council in Quetta. The second is led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a hero of the jihad against the Soviets who joined the Taliban. Although well into his 80’s, he orchestrates insurgent attacks through his sons in Paktia, Khost and Paktika, the Afghan provinces close to Waziristan, where he is based. Finally, there is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former leader of Hezb-i-Islami, the anti-Soviet fighters entrusted with the most money and arms by the U.S. and Pakistan. He had opposed the Taliban, living in uneasy exile in Iran until the U.S. persuaded Tehran to boot him out; he sneaked into the mountainous eastern borderlands. Since the early days of Karzai’s government, he has promised to organize Mullah Omar’s followers with his educated cadres and finance their jihad against Karzai and the American invaders. Old competitors are coming together in much the way the mujahedeen factions cooperated to fight the Russians. Hekmatyar adds a lethal ingredient to this stew: his ties and his followers extend all through Afghanistan, including the north and the west, where he is exploiting factional grievances that have nothing to do with the Pashtun discontent in the south.
An Afghan I met outside Peshawar for his safety he asked me not to use his full name was typical of the 20-something Talibs who had flourished under the Taliban regime. He was from Day Chopan, a mountainous region in Zabul Province, northeast of Kandahar. When the Northern Alliance and the Americans took Afghanistan, he escaped through the hills on an old smuggling route to the North-West Frontier Province.
It was familiar terrain. A.’s father had been a religious teacher who studied in Sami ul-Haq’s famous Haqqaniya madrasa near the Khyber Pass and preached jihad for Harakat, one of the southern mujahedeen parties whose members filled Mullah Omar’s ranks. Those old ties still bind and have provided a network for recruiting. A. grew up in madrasas in the tribal Pashtun lands of Waziristan, where he learned to fire guns as a child in the American-financed mujahedeen camps. As a teenage religious student in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, he would go door to door collecting bread for his fellow Talibs. Behind one of those doors, he saw a girl and fell in love. When his father wouldn’t let him marry the girl, he threatened to go fight in Afghanistan. His father would not relent, and A. signed up at the local Taliban office in Peshawar. “We got good food, free service, everything was Islamic,” he told me. “It was the best life, rather than staying in that poor madrasa.” His father soon did relent, and A. became engaged, but he was only 15 and had no money. So he went back to the Taliban and was soon working beside the deputy defense minister. “Of course, then there were bags of money,” he said.
A., now 28, was living in an Afghan refugee village that used to belong to Hekmatyar’s group. Weak with malaria, he was nevertheless plump and jovial, even funny at times. Only when the Pakistani intelligence services came up did his already sallow hues pale to old bone.
After fleeing the American bombardment in 2001, he told me, the Taliban arrived in Pakistan tattered, dispersed and demoralized. But in the months after the collapse, senior Taliban leaders told their comrades to stay at home, keep in touch and wait for the call. Some Taliban told me that they actually waited to see if there was a chance to work with Karzai’s government.
“Our emir,” as A. referred to Mullah Omar, slowly contacted the commanders and told them to find out who was dead and who was alive. Those commanders appointed group commanders to collect the underlings like A. Weapons stashed away in Afghanistan’s mountains were excavated. Funds were raised through the wide and varied Islamic network Karachi businessmen, Peshawar goldsmiths, Saudi oil men, Kuwaiti traders and jihadi sympathizers within the Pakistani military and intelligence ranks.
Mullah Omar named a 10-man leadership council, A. explained. Smaller councils were created for every province and district. Most of this was done from the safety of Pakistan, and in 2003 Mullah Omar dispatched Mullah Dadullah to the madrasas of Baluchistan and Karachi to gather the dispersed Talibs and find fresh recruits. Pakistani authorities were reportedly seen with him. Still, neither Musharraf nor his military men in Baluchistan did anything to arrest him.
It was a perfect job for Dadullah, whose reputation for bravery was matched by his savagery and his many war wounds, collected in more than 25 years of fighting. In 1998, his fighters slaughtered hundreds of Hazaras (Shiites of Mongol descent) in Bamiyan Province, an act so brutal it was even too much for Mullah Omar, who had him disarmed at the time. Dadullah’s very savagery, filmed and now often circulated on videotape, coupled with his promotional flair, were just the ingredients Omar needed to put the Taliban back on the map.
Today, Quetta has assumed the character of Peshawar in the 1980’s, a suspicious place of spies and counterspies and double agents. It is not just the hundreds of men in typical Afghan Pashtun clothing the roughly wound turbans, dark shalwar kameez, eyes inked with kohl who squat on Thursday afternoons outside the Kandahari mosque in the center of town, comparing notes on the latest fighting in Helmand or the best religious teachers. Rather, as I wandered the narrow alleyways of the Afghan neighborhoods, my local guides would say, “That’s where Mullah Dadullah was living” or “That’s where Mullah Amir Khan Haqqani is living.” (Haqqani is the Taliban’s governor in exile for Zabul Province.) Mullah Dadullah is now a folk hero for young Talibs like A. And all the Taliban I met told me that every time Dadullah gives another interview or appears on the battlefield, it serves as an instant injection of inspiration.
By 2004, A. said, he was meeting a lot of Arabs Saudis, Iraqis, Palestinians who taught the Afghans about I.E.D.’s (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombings. “They taught us how to put explosives in plastic,” he told me. “They taught us wiring and triggers. The Arabs are the best instructors in that.” But now the Afghans are doing fine on their own. Pakistani jihadis in Afghanistan received their training, they told me, from Pakistani officers in Kashmir.
The southerners have also forged ties with the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan. There is a free flow of arms and men between Waziristan and the Afghan provinces across the border. According to A., even Uzbeks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have joined some of the fighters now in A.’s home mountains in Day Chopan.
It was disheartening to hear A. describe his first encounter with Americans, who were trying to set up a base in a remote region of Zabul. Though they were building a road where no roads had gone before, he could perceive that asphalt only as a means for the Americans to transport their armored vehicles and occupy Muslim lands. A friend of his joined us as we were talking. He had just arrived in Pakistan from the Day Chopan region and said that the Americans were like a cyclone of evil, stealing their almonds and violating their Pashtunwali (the Pashtun tribal laws). In this instance, he meant the law by which even a cousin will not enter your house without knocking first.
A. is now a media man in Pakistan, coordinating the editing of films for discs, censoring them in case there are commanders who don’t want their faces seen and distributing them. He proudly offered me the latest disc of Mullah Dadullah beheading some “spies for the Americans.” He said he had sold 25,000 CD’s about the fighting in Waziristan.
He was full of contradictions. He said that if he didn’t have a house in Day Chopan, he would never spend a single night there because there was no education, no electricity, no power, nothing, just a heap of stones. Yet he did not want America to change all that. “We don’t like progress by Americans,” he declared. “We don’t like roads by Americans. We would rather walk on tired feet as long as we are walking in an Islamic state.”
Was it all just bravado speaking? Was an opportunity to build bridges to young men like A. somehow lost or just neglected? It was hard to tell. But when the I.S.I. subject came up again, his tone changed. “They are snakes,” he told me. He said that they were trying to create a new, obedient leader and oust the independent-minded Mullah Omar, and for that, the real Taliban hated them. Then he said: “I told you that we burn schools because they’re teaching Christianity, but actually most of the Taliban don’t like this burning of schools or destroying roads and bridges, because the Taliban, too, could use them. Those acts were being done under I.S.I. orders. They don’t want progress in Afghanistan.” An Indian engineer was beheaded in Zabul in April, he said, and that was also ordered by Pakistan, which, from fear of the influence of its enemy, India, was encouraging attacks on Indian companies. “People are not telling the story, because no one can trust anyone, and if I.S.I. knows I told you,” he said, he would be dead.
There are many theories for why Pakistan might have wanted to help the Taliban reconstitute themselves. Afghan-Pakistani relations have always been fraught. One among the many disputes has to do with the Durand Line, the boundary drawn up by the British in 1893 partly to divide the Pashtun tribes, who were constantly revolting against the British. The Afghan government has never recognized this line, which winds its way from the Hindu Kush mountains of North-West Frontier Province 1,500 miles down to the deserts of Baluchistan, as its border. Nor have the Pashtun tribes. The Pakistanis may hope to force Karzai to recognize the Durand line in exchange for stability.
Another theory is that Musharraf must appease the religious parties whom he needs to extend his power past the end of his term next year. Musharraf bought them off, gave them control of the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan and let them use the Taliban. And finally, the Pakistanis see Afghanistan as their rightful client. They want an accommodating regime, not Karzai, whose main backers are the U.S. and India, Pakistan’s nemesis.
Pakistan’s well-established secular Pashtun nationalist political leaders remain distraught that their lands have again become sanctuaries for the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani religious parties, which, since elections in 2002, rule these provinces and are completing a Talibanization of the region. The secular leaders point to another layer in Pakistan’s games: keeping the tribal areas autonomous enables Pakistan’s intelligence services to ward off the gaze of Westerners and keep their jihadis safely tucked away.
One thing you notice if you visit the homes of retired generals in Pakistan is that they live in a lavish fashion typical of South America’s dictatorship-era military elite. They control most of the country’s economy and real estate, and like President Musharraf, himself a former general, they do not want to relinquish power.
Although there is a secularist strain in the Pakistani military, it has been aligned with religious hard-liners since the army’s inception in 1947. Many officers still see their duty as defending the Muslim world, but their raison d’être has been undermined by the fact that though Pakistan was founded as a refuge for South Asia’s Muslims, more Muslims today live in India. They seem to envy the jihadis’ clarity. The militants had no identity crises. According to Najim Sethi, a prominent Pakistani journalist, military officers often have “a degree of self-disgust for selling themselves” to the Americans, and they still bear a grudge against the United States for abandoning them after the Afghan jihad and, more recently, for sanctioning Pakistan over its nuclear program. The standard army phrase about the Americans was, he said, “They used us like a condom.”
Officers spoke to me as if they were simply translating the feelings of the jihadis for a tone-deaf audience, but they sounded more like ventriloquists. One retired colonel I spoke to was a relative of a Taliban leader from Waziristan, Abdullah Massoud, who had earned both sympathy and reverence for his time in Guantánamo Bay. Massoud was captured fighting the Americans and the Northern Alliance and spent two years there, claiming to be a simple Afghan Talib. Upon his release, he made it home to Waziristan and resumed his war against the U.S. With his long hair, his prosthetic limb and impassioned speeches, he quickly became a charismatic inspiration to Waziristan’s youth.
Since 2001, some of Waziristan’s tribes have refused to hand over Qaeda members living among them. Under intense American pressure, Pakistan agreed for the first time in its history to invade the tribal areas. Hundreds of civilians and soldiers were killed. American helicopters were seen in the region, as were American spies. The militants (with some army accomplices) retaliated with two assassination attempts against Musharraf late in 2003. He struck back, but as the civilian casualties mounted and the military began to balk at killing Pakistanis, Musharraf agreed to a deal in the spring of 2004 whereby the militants would give up their guests in return for cash. Pakistani officers and the militants hugged and shed tears during a public reconciliation. But the militants did not relinquish their Al Qaeda guests, and they took advantage of the amnesty to execute tribal elders they said had helped the Pakistani military. The tribal structure in Waziristan was devastated, and the Taliban took to the streets to declare the Islamic emirate of Waziristan. Since Musharraf signed a truce with the militants last month, attacks launched from Waziristan into Afghanistan, according to NATO, have risen by 300 percent.
“Muslim governments are not able to face the Americans,” the retired colonel from Waziristan said, explaining the mujahedeen mind-set. “If Muslim governments should stand up against duplicity and foreign hegemonic designs, and they don’t, who will? Someone has to stand up to defend the Muslim countries, and it’s this that gives the jihadis the courage and zeal to stand up to the worst atrocities. This is the core issue of the mujahedeen movement. You call it the war on terror. The mujahedeen call it jihad.” And so, essentially, did he.
One afternoon, in the midst of a monsoon, I sought out one of the founders of the pro-jihadi strategy, the retired general Mirza Aslam Beg. He lived in Rawalpindi, the military capital half an hour from Islamabad, in a brick and tile-roofed mansion with a basketball hoop, flowing greenery and Judy, his one-eyed cocker spaniel. The house was immaculate, with marble floors, rugs, fine china and porcelain on display behind glass and an amusing portrait of Aslam Beg as a young, Ray-Banned, pommaded officer. His mansion sits across the street from Musharraf’s.
Aslam Beg played a leading role in the military’s creation of “asymmetrical assets,” jargon for the jihadis who have long been used by the military as proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan. He was chief of the army staff from 1988 to 1991, while the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan was selling the country’s nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Beg held talks with the Iranians about exchanging Iranian oil for Pakistani nuclear skill.
Aslam Beg likes to remind visitors that he was one of a group of army officers trained by the C.I.A. in the 1950’s as a “stay-behind organization” that would melt into the population if ever the Soviet Union overran Pakistan. Those brigadiers and lieutenant colonels then trained and directed the Afghan jihadis.
In the 1980’s, “the C.I.A. set up the largest support and administrative bases in Mohmand agency, Waziristan and Baluchistan,” Aslam Beg told me. “These were the logistics bases for eight long years, and you can imagine the relations that developed. And then Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Saudis developed family relations with the local people.” The Taliban, he said, fell back after 2001 to these baselines. “In 2003, when the U.S. attacked Iraq, a whole new dimension was added to the conflict. The foreign mujahedeen who’d fought in Afghanistan started moving back to Afghanistan and Iraq.” And the old Afghan jihadi leaders stopped by the mansion of their mentor, Aslam Beg, to tell him they were planning to wage war against the American occupiers.
As the rain outside turned to hail, banging against the windows, Aslam Beg ate some English sandwiches that had been wheeled in by a servant. “As a believer,” he went on, “I’ll tell you how I understand it. In the Holy Book there’s an injunction that the believer must reach out to defend the tyrannized. The words of God are, ‘What restrains you from fighting for those helpless men, women and children who due to their weakness are being brutalized and are calling you to free them from atrocities being perpetuated on them.’ This is a direct message, and it may not impact the hearts and minds of all believers. Maybe one in 10,000 will leave their home and go to the conflicts where Muslims are engaged in liberation movements, such as Chechnya, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Now it’s a global deterrent force.”
The Authentic Jihad
The old city of Lahore, with its broad boulevards and banyan-tree canopies, remains the cultural and intellectual heart of Pakistan. It is home to a small elite of journalists, editors, authors, painters, artists and businessmen. Najam Sethi, editor in chief of The Friday Times, and his wife, Jugnu Mohsin, the publisher, are popular fixtures among this crowd. Like so many of Pakistan’s intellectuals, they have had their share of run-ins with government security agents. For pushing the bounds of press freedom, Sethi was dragged from his bedroom during Nawaz Sharif’s reign, beaten, gagged and detained without charge. Musharraf, in his new autobiography, claims that Nawaz Sharif wanted him to court-martial Sethi for treason, an act that seemed ludicrous to him, and he refused.
I met him one afternoon at the newspaper’s offices as he was preparing his weekly editorial. He is a tall, affable man with smiling eyes and large glasses. And he got right down to business, providing an analysis of why Pakistan had decided to bring its “assets” by which he meant the Taliban and Kashmiri jihadis off the shelf.
In the days following 9/11, when Musharraf gathered together major editors to tell them that he had no choice but to withdraw his support for the Taliban, Sethi raised the touchy issue of the other jihadis. He said that if Musharraf was abandoning the Taliban, he would have to abandon the sectarian jihadis (fighting the Shiites), the Kashmir jihadis, all of the jihadis, because they were all trained in mind by the same religious leaders and in body by the same Pakistani forces.
In January 2002, Musharraf gave an unusually long televised speech to the nation. He reminded the people that his campaign against extremism was initiated years before and not under American pressure. He vowed that Pakistan would no longer export jihadis to Kashmir, that he was again placing a ban on several jihadi organizations, that camps would be closed and that while the madrasas were mostly educating the poor, some were centers of extremist teaching and would be reformed. A month later, Musharraf was at the White House next to President Bush, who praised him for standing against terrorism.
Sethi characterized Pakistani authorities as believing that the U.S. in Iraq “will be a Vietnam.” He said: “Afghanistan will be neither here nor there. So we cannot wrap up our assets. We must protect them.” The I.S.I. realized it could help deliver Al Qaeda to the U.S. while keeping the Taliban and the jihadis on the back burner. At the same time, Musharraf’s moderate advisers were telling him that holding on to those assets would eventually boomerang. And soon enough, the assets began to come after Musharraf while the people of Pakistan were turning against him for being pro-American. “So going after jihadis who were protecting the Taliban came to a halt,” Sethi said.
Meanwhile the landscape next door in Afghanistan was changing. The warlords were back in action. The drug economy was surging. By 2003 and 2004, Musharraf’s men were becoming hysterical about what they saw as a growing Indian presence in Afghanistan, particularly the Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, the Pashtun strongholds that Pakistan considered its own turf. Karzai was doing business with Indians and Americans and was no longer a Pashtun whom Pakistanis would want to do business with.
As Sethi spoke, I recalled a meeting I had with one of Kandahar’s prominent tribal leaders. He recounted a visit from a former Pakistani general who had been active in the I.S.I. The general invited Kandahar’s leaders to lunch and warned them not to let the Indians put a consulate in Kandahar and to remember who their real benefactors were. Today there is a consulate there, and Indian films and music are sweeping through the Pashtun lands. What is more, many Pakistanis believe India is backing the Baluch insurgency in Pakistan’s far south, clouding the prospects for the new, Chinese-built port in Gwadar. The port is Pakistan’s single largest investment in its economic future and has been attacked by Baluch rebels.
In many ways, Pakistani policy is already looking beyond both Karzai and the Americans; they believe it is prudent to imagine a future with neither. That future will be shaped by the past: the past with India, the past with the Soviet Union, the past with America. For Pakistan’s hard-liners, at least, the obvious choice was to take their assets off the shelf and restart the jihad.
A Difficult Choice
On the wall outside the Eid Ga madrasa, in Kuchlak, a parched town near Quetta, Afghan students and teachers were debating the merits of jihad. One boy had just fled an American assault on Day Chopan in Zabul Province. He had never been to Pakistan before. He was frenzied, in shock. As a student from Kandahar led the others in dusk prayer, a young boy whispered to me, “I like America.” They were hardly a unified group. One young Helmandi told me, “We want our traditions of Islam and Sharia, not your democracy,” while another argued for peace. Then the Helmandi asked, with genuine confusion: “Why are Muslims being tortured everywhere in the world, and no one is there to stand up for them? But if you touch one Westerner, the sky is on your head?”
Most madrasas in Pakistan are run by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the religious-party alliance that has joined with Musharraf to keep the popular parties of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from regaining power. The J.U.I. madrasas usually endorse jihad, although even here I met madrasa students who were against the war. They subscribed to a vision of jihad as a struggle for self-improvement and the improvement of society. Mawlawi Mohammadin, a cleric from Helmand, went so far as to tell me that these are the true roots of jihad, though he confessed that his is a lonely voice. He was afraid of everyone Taliban, Pakistani intelligence, even his pupils. “If we start openly supporting Karzai, we could be killed by our own students,” he told me with nervous laughter. Only a month earlier, a Taliban official from Helmand who had reconciled with Karzai’s government was gunned down by assassins on a motorbike in Quetta.
Mohammadin said that it is now open season for jihad in Afghanistan under J.U.I. guidance. Government ministers were even attending funerals to praise Pakistani Pashtuns who had died fighting in Kandahar. He estimates that there are some 10,000 Taliban fighters in Baluchistan. Despite the intimidation, he says he feels that his mission is to steer his students away from war.
One of these was Mohamed Nader, who had just attended a cousin’s funeral and was wondering what it all meant. His cousin’s family was poor, and without their knowledge, he had gone to earn money first by harvesting poppies in Helmand and then by fighting for the Taliban. Finally he was killed. Among the biggest problems, Nader told me, was that the cohesion of the Afghan family has been shredded by decades of poverty and refugee life in Pakistan. In a typically strong Afghan family, young adults obey their parents, even asking for permission to go fight. But here, boys just run off.
Rahmatullah was one of those who had run off and returned. He was skinny and disheveled, having just faced heavy fighting in Kandahar. Though an Afghan, he had grown up in Baluchistan, near the border, in an area where he said 200 fighters were now living. The mullah at his madrasa told all the students that it was time for jihad. And the I.S.I. was paying cash. But his father was old and against the war; he pleaded with him to abandon fighting. So he sent Rahmatullah to his friend Mohammadin, hoping he might open another path for his son. Rahmatullah told me that he wasn’t sure yet which mullah he would listen to.
Sunday Magazine -- October 22, 2006
Looking for the enemy in Zabul Province, 6,500 square miles of desert and 9,000-foot mountain peaks with hardly a paved road. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times )
Taking the Fight to the Taliban By ELIZABETH RUBIN
One morning this summer, I headed out with a U.S. Army convoy of Humvees, a truck called a wrecker and a packed supply truck into the Afghan mountains. I was among some two dozen American and Afghan soldiers from Task Force Warrior, an infantry battalion based in Zabul Province, just north of Kandahar. We trundled up a path fit for goats because the nearby riverbed was perfect for concealing improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. Soon enough, the truck keeled over into the riverbed anyway. To hoist it up, the wrecker had to crash through wheat fields, and within minutes a gray-bearded farmer appeared brandishing his stick. “Are you Afghan?” he shouted at Farooq, my interpreter. “I have 30 members in my family. Why did you destroy my wheat?” The old farmer then clasped my wrist with his ancient garden tool of a hand. “You Americans are all friends of Bush the persecutor. You see this area” he swept his other arm in every direction “these are all Taliban. But they don’t have power. As soon as we find power, I will kill all of you.”
Farooq tried to calm him, but the farmer was fixated on his crushed wheat stalks until he spotted First Sgt. Ruel Robbins, a red-cheeked, chest-first sort. Robbins looked the farmer over, then said, “Tell him I’m real sorry to drive over his wheat, but I had to ’cause my vehicle turned over.” The farmer eyed the sacks in the supply truck; Robbins gave him one of rice and two of flour.
The farmer watched us take off in a swirl of dust, and Specialist Melissa Elliot, who was driving our Humvee, said to Farooq: “We’re not trying to hurt them. We’re trying to protect their security. Why’d he get so upset with us? Is their wheat part of their religion or something?”
“It’s the food for his family, ma’am,” Farooq said patiently.
And so began our mission into the mountains of Zabul Province, 6,500 square miles of desert, farmland and 9,000-foot peaks with almost no paved roads to link one patch to the next. It’s a place where, just decades ago, families lived as nomads, until King Mohammad Zahir Shah gave them government land to settle on, and where national politics is superseded by Pashtunwali the Pashtun codes for tribal coexistence, based on retaliation, mediation and hospitality. In 1994, when the Taliban movement of young religious students swept into Zabul offering an end to illegal road taxes and warlord rule, Zabul’s leaders simply joined hands with their Pashtun brothers. After the Taliban’s fall, President Hamid Karzai’s nephew was dispatched to head the Zabul Police; in July 2002, I found him besieged by locals, who put feces in his food and threatened to kill him. For five years now American forces have been chasing the Taliban in Zabul and attempting reconstruction. The police buildings have improved. A new hospital (financed by the United Arab Emirates) was finished. Roads were being laid in terrain so remote that when the Americans turned up, the villagers thought they must be Russians. The Americans opened a trade school in Qalat, the capital. But the pace of progress has been painfully slow. These remain the Taliban’s mountains.
There are 42,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan today, trying to secure a country that is a third again the size of Iraq, where there are almost 150,000 U.S.-led troops. In the past two years, more than 300 American and NATO soldiers have died trying to stave off a resurgent Taliban. Already this year, some 1,500 Afghans have been killed. And while there were just two suicide bombings in 2002, there is now one about every five days.
With the Taliban’s alarming offensive, which began last spring, American generals began speaking of a different war not a war against terror but a war of ideas. In military jargon this meant balancing kinetic and nonkinetic activity. Or, in plain speech, fighting the Taliban versus nation-building, two goals often at odds. “This is the war for the people,” Lt. Col. Frank Sturek, the battalion commander of Task Force Warrior, told me. Sturek served in Iraq under Lt. Gen. David Petraeus one of the military’s leading thinkers on counterinsurgency in Mosul, a city with 50,000 university students. In Zabul, by contrast, the literacy rate is 15 percent, at best. Sometimes Sturek couldn’t tell if people wanted to be catapulted to the 21st century or just left alone. On that he deferred to Delbar Jan Arman, the governor of Zabul Province and a former anti-Soviet mujahedeen, who mentored him on local ways distinguishing a Taliban killing from a tribal feud or a quarrel over a boy lover. Arman explained cultural sensitivities: how pulling off a man’s turban or opening the clothing box of a woman could set off a revolt. Sturek would nod. “The standard military play is, Land in, round up the men, find someone who is nasty and mean and arrest him, drop off supplies and split,” Sturek told me. “We’re trying to humanize ourselves. It’s uncomfortable. You train an infantry battalion to kill the enemy, and it’s hard to tone it down.” The governor’s response was always: “The people are simple. We can win this war if the Army stays nice with the people and if we embrace them.”
After many sweaty hours, we rumbled into the Alamo Bar and Grill in Kharnay, elevation 8,000 feet. It was a fitting name for an outpost fashioned from a mud schoolhouse dusty, waterless and powerless except for what the soldiers slurped off a Humvee battery. Charlie Company, Fourth Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, had been based here for nine weeks already when we arrived. They had been living on meals ready to eat, or M.R.E.’s, patrolling the mountains with packs weighing 60 pounds or more, befriending locals and being mortared and ambushed once or twice a week. Their skin was burned, their uniforms ripped. But for this evening, all suffering was suspended for barbecue night. The Humvees had brought frozen slabs of beef from the United States.
In downtime, the soldiers of Charlie Company would cram into a mud room to imbibe American culture
At the other end of the spectrum was Cpl. Kyle Hayes, who had made Taylor his project and, like Sgt. Jon Terry, a sentimental tough guy from Louisiana, often shared meals with the Afghan soldiers accompanying their unit to taste their culture and to bond. Hayes owned a Web design company in New York City and until two years ago was touring with his band, “Half Left.” The band had a revelation while producing a record near ground zero in Manhattan, and they all joined the Army. Hayes’s family was stunned. “I was the only guy at basic training who voted for Kerry,” he told me. Sometimes he felt weird on leave in New York City, where people gawk at uniforms, though a few older people thanked him. His life plan, as inscribed in his diary, is to be a rock star, business mogul and founder of a Texan city by 35, governor of Texas by 45 and president by 55.
Anticipation hung over the Alamo. Charlie Company’s next mission was a bit of deceptive theater intended to lure the Taliban into ambushing the soldiers so they could counterattack. Part of the strategy involved Lt. Nathan Shields a smiling, easygoing officer from Rochester posing as a gullible new commander. Meanwhile, units hiding in the mountains would block the Taliban’s escape. That night, a few squads hiked up a thousand feet, each soldier hauling water (temperatures in the day are usually in the 100’s), food, rifle, knife, flashlight and first-aid kit, all atop 35 pounds of armor and ammunition. The Afghan soldiers carried little besides a rifle and ammunition. The American infantryman’s burden is the Taliban’s biggest advantage. Fleet-footed, carrying little more than an AK and a walkie-talkie, Taliban fighters could sail over the mountains.
The next morning we headed toward Solan, a village so unfriendly that when American soldiers airlifted in a bridge months earlier, it was burned down the next day. “We don’t know if the Taliban burnt it or the villagers,” Lt. David Patton, a tall, circumspect Texan with Task Force Warrior, said of the bridge in Solan. “Everyone believes in the mission,” he added, “but there’s an underlying thought that when we leave, it’ll go back to the way it was.” As Zabul’s governor, Arman, had told me, Zabul’s religious leaders all supported the Taliban, and in Afghanistan the most powerful platform is the minbar, a pulpit where the mullah delivers his Friday sermon. So although villagers were friendly when the Americans patrolled, they refused to help rebuild a school and a bazaar, for example, fearing retaliation from the Taliban who had destroyed them.
Shortly after we left the first village on our route to Solan, the Afghan soldiers began picking up Taliban radio chatter about the new Americans. Robbins was pleased. We were the bait, and the plan was working. We spread out along the gorge for a long, edgy march. Outside Solan, we met Sayed Ali Sheikh, an elder of the area, in whose compound the Americans had stayed before. He said he couldn’t guarantee that the place wasn’t rigged with explosives, but nevertheless he handed Robbins the key, showed us shrapnel the size of a skateboard that had ricocheted off a mountain when American planes dropped a 500-pound bomb and vanished. In no time, the soldiers transformed Ali Sheikh’s compound into a base of operations: satellite hookup to call the Air Force for cover, mortar base near the well, sniper positions.
Sgt. Jeff Griffin, left, and some of his comrades in Charlie Company await action in a village in Zabul Province (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Ten lean men in turbans came to meet Shields, who played his role as new commander somewhat awkwardly. A strange dialogue ensued, led by one of the 10 men, Haji Gailani, whose oversize glasses, gabardine vest and cane denoted authority. He said that they didn’t deny Taliban fighters were nearby. “If you can catch those people, thank you,” he said. “If you want to slaughter my neck, please do.” There was a little nervous laughter. No, no, Shields said, of course not. Then Gailani said: “You have planes. You can hear the Taliban on your radios. And still you cannot force them out of here. How can we?”
Others began to speak up. Planes had attacked the mountains the night before, the men said. They had heard about the bombing of civilians in Kandahar. They wanted to know if they were about to be bombed. Robbins advised them to stay near the thickest walls and shut off the lights. Then they left.
And the waiting began. Pvt. Andrew Richards pulled out photos of his family, who lived in Colombia. Specialist Jonathon Routledge, whose voice still cracked and who couldn’t believe he was roped into the Army by some cool recruitment videos, poked at a chick that was pecking at spilled tea. Shields and the medic climbed onto the compound roof to give coordinates in case of a medevac. Pvt. Jason Belford was so itchy that he played can-you-down-a-pack-of-crackers-in-two-minutes.
The radio began sputtering with Taliban voices. An Afghan policeman, who went by the code name No. 5, had found their frequency. He heard them discussing our compound. They knew everything: how many Americans and Afghans, the location of the mortar, the sniper positions, the satellite and the flower (code for me, the woman in the group). Presumably one of our earlier visitors was an informant. No. 5 seemed a little dodgy, too perhaps working only for the troops, perhaps the Taliban, perhaps both.
Shields, Sgt. Jeff Griffin, Belford and a few others moved out to check the area around the compound for mines. Just as we neared the rock garden, a detonation jolted us. A deafening sound. A black smoke squall. Amazingly, no one was hurt. But something was wrong. They had been out to that rock garden twice and found nothing. Suspicion fell on No. 5.
“Fire a mortar,” shouted one of the soldiers. Dan Guenther, a sniper from Texas, spotted something. Everyone assumed an imminent showdown. Someone threw a grenade into an outcropping to see if it was booby-trapped.
“If you’re gonna come to the party, come already!” shouted Guenther. Then he suggested they should all run out in front of the house, smack their butts and provoke a fight. It was 6:42 p.m., and the light was fading. Shields and a few others popped out of the compound’s shelter, hoping to draw fire. As darkness fell, I climbed up to talk to Specialist Tommy Glasgow, who was perched on the roof. He said that there was no way the Taliban would pick a fight after seeing all the U.S. fire power and listening to the bombers occasionally buzzing overhead. We talked about the mission in Zabul, and Glasgow said: “As bad as I don’t want to be here, we should be. The Romanians are coming to take over from us, and the Taliban are just gonna cream ’em.”
The fight never did come, and when we got back to the Alamo, the Americans were packing, and the Afghan police and soldiers appeared bewildered, convinced they would be dead in 24 hours. One policeman had already defected to the Taliban, I was told. “We’ll be bombing this compound in a few weeks ’cause it’ll be filled with Taliban,” Hayes told me. He tried to find an hour every day to write in his diary. On May 12, for example, he had written: “I killed some people last night. Second squad is out looking for corpses right now. We got mortared right around dark ... when I was getting all the last stuff done for the day, and I got a hypoglycemic attack when I was doing sit-ups. It was still a good day, though. I got a lot done. Everyday I grow stronger.”
A few days later, the Alamo was indeed abandoned by the Afghan forces.
The final draft of the U.S. military’s latest counterinsurgency manual, written under the direction of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. James Mattis, emphasizes that if you skimp on resources, endurance and meeting the population’s security requirements, you lose. Yet for the past five years, the Pashtun provinces have been plagued by a lack of troops and resources. James Dobbins, President George W. Bush’s former special envoy to Afghanistan, blames the White House, which he said had a predisposition against nation-building and international peacekeeping. The Bush administration rejected Afghan and State Department appeals to deploy a peacekeeping force in the provinces, dismissed European offers of troops and had already begun shifting military resources to Iraq, Dobbins told me, while U.S. troops in Afghanistan were to be limited to counterterrorism. “In manpower and money,” he added, “this was the least resourced American nation-building effort in our history.” In Afghanistan, the White House spent 25 times less per capita than in Bosnia and deployed one-fiftieth the troops. Much of the money that was pledged didn’t show up for years. “The main lesson of Afghanistan is low input, low output,” Dobbins said. “If you commit low levels of military manpower and economic assistance, what you get are low levels of security and economic growth.”
The draft counterinsurgency manual is thoughtful, full of details and warnings like these: losing moral legitimacy means losing the war; the more force is used, the less effective it is; provoking combat usually plays into the enemy’s hands; and building a government through illegitimate actions like unlawful detention and torture is self-defeating, even against fighters who conceal themselves among noncombatants.
Yet while I was in the south, I saw how readily vicious practices are condoned. An Afghan security official who insisted that I not use his name but who was an aide to a prominent southern governor, told of an instance when they couldn’t find a boy suspected of plotting an attack. “We sent out a command arrest all his brothers, uncles, cousins, relatives, all of them,” he said. “When we arrested the relatives, no one knew what that boy was doing. Still we beat them all until they would shout, ‘Write that we killed 5 or 10 people, whatever you want, and I will say anything.’ ” In Zabul’s provincial capital, Qalat, the police proudly showed me three “Taliban” they had just captured. One of them had been beaten so badly he could hardly walk, and his feet were oozing puss. His eyes were mere wrinkles in swollen tissue. An American intelligence officer looked slightly embarrassed when he walked into the police station.
With a corrupt justice system, young Afghan men on the receiving end of injustice have often felt their honor could only be restored through acts of revenge. One night, a doctor introduced me to a young farmer who asked me not to use his name. He had been shot by U.S. forces in a gunfight a year earlier. Seven metal clamps were holding his leg in place. Though deeply religious, he never liked the Taliban regime. His family was relieved when Mullah Omar and the “Afghan Arabs” who first came to fight the Soviets in the 1980’s fled Kandahar. He believed that Karzai and the international community would help build the country. “But they didn’t,” he said in the dark little flat where we met. “They just came to arrest the people.” His father was a tribal leader with pomegranate orchards, and relatives often appealed to him to get their family members out of Afghan and American prisons. He would urge the Americans not to be fooled by false reports naming “Taliban.” The real Taliban had mostly fled to Pakistan.
About a year and a half ago, he told me, a mine exploded next to an American convoy. His father was sitting in a mosque when he was rounded up by coalition troops. Twenty days later, his father’s body was dropped off at a hospital. “I couldn’t control myself,” the young man said, nearly knocking over the gas lamp with his awkward, pogo-stick leg. “I wanted to avenge. I knew where the Taliban operated, because they would come at night, and so I found the commander of a small group. He welcomed me warmly and told me: ‘It is the time of jihad. You are a lion and a hero.’ ”
Colonel Sturek, a powerfully built, blue-eyed Maryland man so cleanshaven that he appeared bald, and Governor Arman, a heavily bearded engineer, made an unlikely team. They shared a meal of sheep, rice and melon four times a week to talk strategy. Sturek loved Arman’s vision of a network of roads by 2008, linking up Zabul’s remote districts, where they would build schools and markets. Zabul straddled the most dangerous stretch of highway in Afghanistan. After 3 each afternoon, Taliban blocked the roads, looking for foreigners, money, spies, satellite phones. Sometimes they would just burn up buses or trucks. They even set loose a donkey on the path to an American base, rigged with rockets, mortars and a detonation card.
Across Afghanistan’s southern provinces, American and Afghan troops were responding to the Taliban resurgence with Operation Mountain Thrust. In Zabul, the focus was on Taliban fighters in the Day Chopan mountains. Sturek’s goal was to disable the Taliban leadership, allow the Americans to find weapons caches, bring in aid and persuade people that they had no intention of interfering with their religion. As the full moon moved into place last May, enabling a predawn landing, Afghan and American soldiers with Charlie Company, Special Forces and U.S. doctors air-assaulted into the Day Chopan mountains, taking scattered gunfire, and descended on the tiny village of Hazarbuz. Special Forces soldiers with goggled sniffer dogs rounded up the men, numbered their hands with markers and interrogated them. Some were arrested and flown back to base camp. I followed Jeff Griffin and his squad, who were dispatched to the villagers’ homes with a message: Governor Arman is coming here to find out what you need, and a medical team has come to treat sick people and animals. This was typical of the American balancing act in Afghanistan. The Village Medical Outreach unit consists of reservist doctors who bring chests full of hygiene kits and medicine to villages that have just been raided by fighting forces.
We climbed up a hill through apricot and almond orchards to reach the scattered homes. We found a woman in a red velvet dress, who had beaded necklaces and a pair of scissors dangling from her neck. She said that the men were all sleeping. Then she said that they had left when we came. Griffin told her about the doctors, but she seemed frightened and said that she didn’t want medical attention. We wandered from house to house until a radio call came in from an observation unit. They had seen a boy wearing black, possibly an informant, running toward one of the houses.
More climbing, more rocks, until we reached a wind-swept mountain top where an old crippled man emerged to hug Griffin, who hugged him back, uncomfortably after all, he had come to search his house. He then ordered the boy in black to move to a clearing so the observation unit, on a nearby mountain, could see if he was the runner. The soldiers rummaged through the house, turning up small piles of paper and boxes that seemed suspect. It turned out that the boxes were full of snuff and the house was just a shop. As we were about to leave, the radio blared out to Griffin: Don’t forget to tell them about the Village Medical Outreach.
As we rambled back down under the noonday sun, exhausted and thirsty, plucking apricots, almonds and mulberries off the trees, I remembered the Afghans I’d met complaining about Americans pillaging their harvest. It wasn’t hard to see how a few apricots could transmute into theft or how speaking to a woman after you have rounded up all the men could transmute into “Americans are abusing our women.” One afternoon, I had a car accident in Zabul. Within minutes, some 100 men pulled over and began heaving the wreck out of the ditch. As I crouched in the dirt wrapped in a tentlike Kuchi shawl, not a single man glanced my way. Rather, they asked my wounded translator if his wife was O.K. Someone must have sensed a foreigner, however, because 10 minutes after we left for the hospital, the Taliban showed up. They pummeled the driver, demanding to know what happened to the foreigner. He lied and saved his life. But that moment, when not one person glanced my way, offered a window into how seriously they abide by rules that are utterly alien to a 19-year-old American soldier. Sturek constantly struggled with pushing “cultural sensitivity” down the chain of command. It was nearly impossible.
On our long walk back down the mountain, two privates were trying to grapple with the contingencies of their lives, free will, U.S. history and America’s intangible objectives. They were having an existential moment and craving a meal at Red Lobster. This valley in Zabul reminded one of them, Specialist Joshua Pete, of canyons where the U.S. Army once fought his Navajo ancestors. Pete thought he had had a calling, that his country needed him. But because of Afghanistan, he had lost both his scholarship to Dartmouth and his fiancée. He didn’t believe in “this” anymore. Half the Afghans, he said, didn’t even want “our billions to build this country.” He wanted to be home fighting drug gangs in downtown L.A. or helping impoverished people in Flagstaff.
Back in the village of Hazarbuz, I found Governor Arman in his white robes, blazer and turban, sipping tea with Colonel Sturek. After one week, the governor said, once we were all gone, the Taliban would punish the people for sitting with Americans and the governor. Sturek agreed, but added that if the Americans didn’t come, the people would have no idea there was an alternative.
Men and boys filtered down to meet the governor. They sat cross-legged, skeptical, nervous. Arman was an earthy man, and while kind (“Tell anyone who has run to the mountains to come talk, there’ll be no trouble. I am your governor. Why am I here? To hear your problems.”), he also let them have it.
“Look at your kids,” he said, pointing to the boys. The men did, and he winced. “Look at their hands and feet, the infections on their skin, their bad education. Everyone looks sick. Don’t they have the right to be educated?
“Are the Punjabi kids in this situation?” he then asked, referring to the children of the ruling ethnic group in Pakistan. “Why do people call it jihad here in Afghanistan? Why don’t they fight this jihad in Quetta and Pakistan? We need to defend our country from the Punjabis.”
He told them that this war was a Pakistani drama. The Pakistanis were sending Taliban to burn Afghan schools while their own children were being educated. If America leaves, he warned, you will all be slaves of Pakistan.
Over the three days we stayed, Arman’s speeches grew harsher, and the men who visited him and Sturek grew more numerous and more attentive. The governor and the colonel could pick out the Taliban informants like the young man with good sneakers whom everyone deferred to. Jin Kong radios, which work with solar power, batteries or a hand crank, were handed out by the U.S. military to the locals. The elders got bicycles; kids, school bags with pencils and other supplies.
Why did these Americans come here, the governor bellowed? Because the Taliban had not been nice with the people of this country. The Taliban beat the women, cut the heads off people, went to the north and made tribal enmity for Afghan people. How many Hazara, he asked, were killed in Shajoy (a district of Zabul)? Taliban had slaughtered hundreds of Hazara, an ethnic group descended from the Mongols and primarily Shiite. Arman repeated the accounts of Taliban cutting the throat of a little girl in front of her mother, then killing the mother, of the Taliban putting a gun in the mouth of a boy, who began to suck it and then they shot him. “Don’t you have sons?” he asked. Some of the men averted their eyes, fidgeting in the dust.
On one occasion, Arman asked the men who had come if any among them could read and write. He held up a paper with the word God written on it. None of them could read. “If you can’t read the name of God, you are blind,” he said. Trying to raise their Pashtun pride, he pointed to one of the interpreters, a Hazara from the neighboring district of Jaghori. “What is your district like?” he asked the interpreter, who dutifully reported it had 72 schools, 32 of them high schools, and that all boys and girls were educated. They had electricity, radio stations, lawyers and engineers. “Why are we Pashtuns always fighting?” asked the governor. “You will all be laborers to the Jaghori people because you are illiterate and uneducated.”
Perhaps, but the men wanted to know when their relatives would be let out of U.S. prisons in Kandahar and Bagram. And then a rocket exploded, then another, then gunfire began to echo back and forth between the valley walls. I trekked up to where snipers were perched on a small slope in front of a boulder. On the radio, we could hear Shields, who had taken some men and gone to patrol a valley. He was amazingly calm. “We’re under fire,” he said. “We’re in a riverbed on the side of a hill.” In fact, they were pinned down in an irrigation ditch with bullets throwing up dust and rocks all around them. An A-10 Warthog screeched across the sky as a 500-pound bomb smacked the side of the mountain.
We could still hear Shields breathing as he walked up the mountain. And that oddly calm voice: “We’re definitely putting ourselves at a disadvantage. Pretty much anywhere I’m standing they could take us out.”
A donkey began braying as the full moon drifted up above the mountains. Capt. Craig Johnson told Lieutenant Shields to watch out because shadows would cast long with that moon.
The Taliban, judging from the radio communications we were monitoring, seemed to be wounded and out of ammunition. One of them invited another to prayer. The other demurred, saying he was worried that he would be spotted. “O.K., then pray there, and I’ll pray here,” the first man said. Later, when I met a Taliban commander in Pakistan, he told me that they knew the Americans listened to their radios, so that the five daily prayers were often used as code to signal anything from “I’ve run out of food” to “Ambush them.”
The next afternoon, we flew by helicopter to Andar, a nearby village. I sat in the fields with a former teacher named Anwarjan. The governor had appointed him district chief for all of Day Chopan, but Anwarjan could barely travel. The entire province, he said, was Taliban. Still, he was busy with Shields getting hundreds of kids to school in the central town. He had convinced the parents that Pakistan wants their children to stay wild and uneducated. “I have 300 students now,” he said. “They’re changed. They are polite, greet people, treat their mothers well. One man can change a generation.”
But his efforts, he said, were being undermined by the constant incursions of Taliiban from Pakistan. “The leader of Day Chopan, Mullah Kahar, lives in Quetta,” in Pakistan, Anwarjan said. “All the heads are there. So why don’t you do anything?”
U.S. intelligence knows the same thing. As Seth Jones, an analyst with Rand, told The New York Times earlier this year, Pakistani intelligence agents are advising the Taliban about coalition plans and tactical operations and provide housing, support and security for Taliban leaders. Sturek told me that the U.S. is well aware that the Taliban heads are in Quetta. On one side, he said, most U.S. policy makers argue that the Pakistanis are our friends. On the other side are those, including some in the military, who say, “Let’s just drive into Quetta.”
I often received updates from Charlie Company soldiers after leaving Afghanistan. One of their platoon was killed heading up to an observation post in Day Chopan. After they pulled out of Day Chopan, one of the soldiers told me, they heard that things weren’t going so well and that the Taliban were using the fact that the Romanians had taken over to claim the Russians were back. And another soldier wrote: “Our platoon got sent to a National Guard unit to help them out. They’ve lost like six people in the last week, but none of them were from our platoon.We were in Kandahar for a little while to get resupplied, and you’re notkidding about the Canadians going down.We kept having to go to the big ceremonies for their bodies to get loaded on the plane.It seemed like they were getting messed up pretty bad. I definitely don’t get the whole ‘success story’ thing.”
Elizabeth Rubin, a contributing writer for the magazine, has reported extensively about Afghanistan. Her last article from the region was about the October 2005 Afghan elections.