Taliban appears to be regrouped and well-funded
A new hierarchy of leaders has emerged across parts of Afghanistan.
As the fiery chief justice of the Taliban's Supreme Court, Abdul Salam shook the world once, proclaiming the right to execute foreign aid workers accused of converting Afghans to Christianity.
Today, not only is Justice Salam back, talking to a foreign reporter for the first time since the Taliban fell a year and a half ago, but he says the Taliban are back as well. Regrouped, rearmed, and well-funded, they are ready to carry on guerrilla war as long as it takes to expel US forces from Afghanistan.
It's what Afghans want, "because during the Taliban times, there was peace and security," says Salam, who retains the long gray beard that marks him as a devout Muslim.
Across the southern portions of Afghanistan, where the Taliban found strong support among the rural conservative Pashtun populations, there are definite signs that the Taliban are making a comeback. Some Taliban leaders, such as Salam and Taliban commander Mullah Muhammad Hasan Rehmani, are giving interviews once again. Others are dropping leaflets, calling for a jihad against US forces and against the new Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Still others are increasingly willing to discuss the secret hierarchy that is directing this jihad and the sources of funding that keep it running.
It's this confidence that undercuts recent assertions by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that major combat operations in Afghanistan are over, and that the focus will now be on reconstruction. "The general idea that was being put forward by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld last week, is that the Afghan military, backed by US forces, is engaged in mopping up some remnants of the past - that is not true," says Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University. "They [the Taliban] are now organizing for a new offensive, and they are still getting some support from Pakistan. Even if Pakistan is not cooperating directly, it is not cooperating in efforts to end the support that is coming from Pakistani territory."
The reorganized Taliban are mounting increasingly brazen attacks on Afghan soil. In Zabul Province last month, for instance, Taliban forces took control of two remote districts near the Pakistani border for nearly a week. Afghan military forces, backed up by US Special Forces and helicopter gunships, eventually dislodged the Taliban fighters.
Taliban sources in Pakistan and Afghan intelligence sources say that the Taliban now has a recognizable hierarchy of leaders - some operating from Afghanistan and some from the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan's volatile Northwest Frontier Province.
At the top of the military command structure is Mullah Beradar, who hails from Deh Rawood in Urozgan, the home village of former supreme Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Underneath Mullah Beradar are a number of Taliban commanders and religious leaders assigned to different territories.
The most active region - from Nimroz Province to Helmand, on up to Kandahar, Zabul, and north to Urozgan - is under the joint control of Beradar's top three deputies. Akhtar Usmani was the Taliban corps commander in Kandahar. Mullah Abdur Razzaq was the Taliban Interior Minister. And Mullah Dadullah was the military chief in the northern city of Kunduz, on the front lines against the Northern Alliance when the Taliban lines crumbled.
According to eyewitnesses, the men who captured an Ecuadorian Red Cross aid worker, Ricardo Munguia, in Urozgan Province last month, called up Mullah Dadullah on their satellite phone and under Dadullah's orders, shot Munguia dead.
The Taliban has commanders all across the country. In Paktia, Paktika, Khost, and Ghazni provinces, Mullah Saifur Rehman is in charge. He was the commander of Taliban forces during the US coalition's indecisive battle, Operation Anaconda, in the Shah-e Kot mountains.
In Nangrahar, Laghman, and Konar provinces, the Taliban's former deputy prime minister, Mullah Kabir, is supreme commander, working along with activists of the Hizb-i Islami. According to Taliban watchers in Pakistan, Mullah Kabir is thought to have close ties with Pakistan's intelligence agencies, including the secretive Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Anwar Panghaz commands the Taliban guerrillas operating in the provinces that ring the capital city of Kabul - Parwan, Kapisa, Kabul, Wardak, and Logar. Afghan security officials say that operations there have been light in recent months.
In Pakistan, Taliban commanders are reportedly working in alliance with like-minded leaders of religious parties who now control two provinces along the Afghan-Pakistan border. In the tribal areas of the Northwest Frontier Province, Qari Akhtar is the chief operations commander; in the Tor Ghar mountains near the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak, Mullah Mohammad Ibrahim is the Taliban's top leader.
Shahzada Zulfikar, a Quetta-based political analyst, says that Taliban commanders continue to receive support from Pakistan's powerful and secretive intelligence agencies, as they did more openly during the Taliban government. "The Taliban were and are still friends of Pakistan," says Mr. Zulfikar. "Pakistan ditched the Taliban due to American pressure, for a while, but now there are fears that their relationship might be restored due to the increasing presence of Indians in Afghanistan."
The Indian government is Pakistan's chief rival, and among the largest aid donors to the new Afghan government. In the past year, India has reopened consulates in border cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad, raising fears among Pakistan's security analysts that Pakistan may find itself in a vise between two bitter enemies.
Taliban activists in Pakistan and Afghanistan say they are receiving direct support from Pakistan's powerful religious parties, including Jamaat-i Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i Islam, which control the government of two key border provinces. "We are at home as we were before (President) Musharraf hatched a conspiracy against us at the behest of the Americans," says Mir Jan, a Taliban fighter in Quetta. "But our brothers [the mullahs] are in power, so it means we are in power."
In Kabul, former Taliban Supreme Court Justice Salam says that the Taliban's chief support now comes from Afghanistan's powerful neighbors - Russia, Iran, and Pakistan - who are suspicious of America's continued presence in the region more than 18 months after the collapse of the Taliban.
"The Russians are not happy with the US presence here, and neither are Iran, Pakistan, and even China," says Salam, who has traded in his black and white Talib-style turban for a more common brown turban, to blend in with the townsfolk. Russia gives money and weapons to the opponents of the central government, he says, and so do the intelligence agencies of Iran and Pakistan.
Salam, who lives in his native Logar Province, neighboring Kabul, refuses to talk about his own activities in the Taliban today. Days after the Taliban fell, Northern Alliance troops surrounded his home, but eventually left without explanation. Salam has remained free since and admits that he maintains contact with the Taliban movement.
Proving any covert support for the Taliban is, of course, monumentally difficult. No nation admits to supporting Al Qaeda or its allies, including Pakistan. And the Bush administration has praised Pakistan for its cooperation in rounding up some 400 suspected Al Qaeda members. But even during the decade-long Afghan jihad against the Soviets, the Pakistani government never admitted to funding the mujahideen.
Professor Rubin casts doubt on the supposed support of Russia and Iran, in part because these two countries were bitter enemies of the Taliban in the past. "In the case of Russia, it would be very strange because they believe the Taliban were helping the rebels in Chechnya and the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan," Rubin says. "In the case of Iran, they practically went to war with the Taliban, but given the way Iran conducts its foreign policy, that doesn't mean they wouldn't support them for one reason or the other."
But, Rubin adds, Pakistan's hand is much harder to watch, because state governments elected last October have placed openly pro-Taliban leaders in power. "Pakistan may be allowing its provincial governments to conduct their own foreign security policy," he says, "to support the Taliban rather than hand them over, which is convenient for the federal government."
Engineer Hamidullah, the Taliban's former deputy chief of finance, says that today's Taliban are at least as well funded as they were when they were in government. At that time, the main source of financial support came from one man: Osama bin Laden.
Much of the funding came through a black-market banking system called hawala, which is common throughout the Middle East and South Asia. But Mr. Hamidullah says that Pakistan generally sent its money by hand, using ISI officers. "During Taliban times, Pakistani colonels would bring money to support Taliban soldiers," he says.
Today's Taliban continues to receive funding, he adds, some of it from rich Arab donors, but much of it from the intelligence agencies of Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. "There are some countries that are against the polices of the US and the United Nations, and they support the guerrillas. The most important role belongs to Russia, Iran, and Pakistan."
Salam says Afghans would prefer to rely on their own resources, even if the jihad takes years or decades. "We don't want the interference of foreign countries like Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. We want Afghan people to be united and select their leaders. We want Afghanistan to solve its problems through discussion."
But there is no use discussing peace when the US-led military coalition continues to patrol Afghan territory, he adds. "The last loya jirga [national council] was done by force," says Salam, pointing a finger to his head like a gun. "But if there was a real loya jirga, and the people who were appointed were good, then I would work with my head and feet and heart for my country."
• Staff writer Faye Bowers in Washington contributed to this report.