Afghanistan has become the heart of the ‘war on terror’ — and 2008 saw a string of reversals for the Nato forces. Ghaith Abdul spoke to fighters there to find out how the Taliban has reinvented itself
Qomendan Hemmet sat cross-legged under a window of the mud-walled room. His shoulder, sunk in an old military jacket, rested against the wall and a radio antenna stuck out of his pocket. Around the room sat his men, their faces contorted by years of fighting and poverty, wreathed in shalwar qameez (traditional long tunics) and magazine pouches, eyes dark as the kohl lining them. Radios crackled, phones rang non-stop and more fighters came, drank tea and left with orders.
”Salar is the new Falluja,” said Qomendan Hemmet emphatically. ”The Americans and the Afghan army control the highway and 5m on each side. The rest is ours.”
Salar district in Wardak province lies 80km south of Kabul. The Kandahar-Kabul passing through it is a major supply line for United States and Nato troops. Like the Baghdad-Fallujah road, it is littered with holes from improvised explosive devices and carcasses of burnt-out Nato supply trucks and containers.
Taliban attacks have been more frequent this year than since 2001. Four British marines were killed last week, three of them when a 13-year-old boy blew himself up in Helmand province.
A day earlier, I watched Hemmet and his men in action. A man straining his eyes had declared in an authoritative voice ”janghi” (”war”) and the sky echoed with thuds and explosions. Two pick-up trucks packed with rocket launchers and Afghan militiamen, hired to provide security to the supply convoys, sped away from the battle. Down the road three American armoured trucks filled the air with the crackle of heavy machine guns.
As the sun sank deep into the horizon, the shooting became more intermittent. A low-flying, dark grey F-16 shot past, leaving two columns of smoke on the horizon.
A young Taliban scout had led us along a dirt to Hemmet’s compound, his Kalashnikov hidden under a blanket. In the distance an Afghan army and police post was visible.
”With Allah’s blessing, the fighting is changing,” Hemmet said. ”When I started in this area, three years ago, I had six fighters, one rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and two machine guns. Now I have more than 500 fighters, 30 machine guns and hundreds of RPGs.
”The Americans have installed hundreds of Afghan policemen, they patrol the street all the time, but they can’t control it. Last week they came in helicopters because they can’t drive vehicles here. They never come with tanks, the whole area is mined.”
Hemmet is a Taliban veteran who started fighting against the Northern Alliance forces in the mid-Nineties, when he was 17. He went into hiding after the capital fell, becoming the commander of the Salar district after the previous leader died three years ago.
”Against the Northern Alliance we fought face to face. This war is more difficult, the enemy controls the skies and they have many weapons. Sometimes I am scared. But we yearn for fighting the kafirs [unbelievers]. It’s a joyful thing.”
One of Hemmet’s lieutenants speaks perfect Arabic with a thick Saudi accent acquired from ”fighting alongside the Arab brothers”. Laying his Kalashnikov on the floor between us, he said: ”My brother, those police and army are like the blind, they don’t see anything.”
The commanders explained the Taliban’s sophisticated network of military and civilian leadership. Each province has its own Taliban governor, military leader and shura (consultation) council. Below them are district commanders such as Hemmet, who in turn divides his force into smaller units.
Many say the civilian apparatus of the Taliban-run districts operates a better justice system than the government’s, which is corrupt and inefficient. Nominally, all the councils look to Mullah Omar for guidance. In reality each province and district has its own dynamic.
Mullah Muhamadi, one of Hemmet’s men, arrives wearing a long leather jacket and big turban. ”This is not just a guerrilla war, and it’s not an organised war with fronts,” he said. ”It’s both.
”When we control a province we must provide service to the people. We want to show them we can rule, and we are ready for when we take over Kabul, that we have learned from our mistakes.”
Muhamadi said his group aimed to carry out about three attacks a week, but they did not always have enough ammunition. ”Each area has a different strategy. Here it’s attacking the main road, but everywhere in this province the countryside is in our control.”
Opening his dusty black bag, he pulled out a laptop. The other fighters gathered around and watched a short film shot by Muhamadi. It showed a few fighters, their faces concealed, standing under foliage on the roadside. As a police truck passed, they opened fire.
They also showed pictures of an American soldier. ”We killed him and captured his computer,” the mullah told me. ”He had served in Iraq.”
The city of Ghazni, 145km south of Kabul down the same highway, is connected to the modern world only by a few electricity poles, police pick-ups and a wrecked Russian tank.
In a hotel room overlooking the bazaar square I met a Taliban fighter in his early 20s who already had three years of fighting experience. Qari Amanullah was one of the new generation who joined the Taliban years after they were toppled by the Americans.
From a family who ran a small farm, he joined a local madrasa and studied religion for 12 years. After memorising the Qur’an, he abandoned his studies and joined the fighting.
”Most fighters in my unit are new. We joined after the Taliban fell,” he said.
Amanullah explained how his village shared the burden of fighting the Americans and the government. Each family devotes one son to the jihad, while the other men work in the fields.
He dismissed US and government claims that the Taliban fights for money. ”In the last few weeks we captured lots of trucks and government cars — if we were fighting for money why do we burn them?”
Two men enter, one wearing a red motorcycle helmet which he removes to reveal long hair and a smooth beard down to his chest. He commands a small unit of around 100 men.
Mawlawi Abdul Halim, a mosque leader who divides his time between fighting and preaching, said the insurgency was chaotic at first. It wasn’t until 2005 that the fighters became organised.
He said the Taliban’s main problems were bandits and land disputes, and that in solving them ”we win the hearts of the people”.
”We went from the jihad to the government and now we are in the jihad again. We have learned from our mistakes. The leaders are the same but the fighters are new and they don’t want to be like those who ruled and made mistakes.”
He said the failure of a recent voter registration drive in Ghazni showed how effectively the Taliban was cutting off the countryside. ”We stood at road intersections and prevented people from registering for the coming elections — even if the planes were flying above our heads.”
Why prevent people from voting? ”It’s better for them. Most know this new government won’t help them but those who don’t know, we prevent them.”
In a small filthy hotel in Kabul, I met a group of students. Luqman, clean-shaven with a pencil-thin moustache, has a pressed sharwal qameez and an immaculately clean jacket.
A self-declared propagandist for the Taliban in charge of updating the movement’s website, he speaks good Arabic and better English. He is member of the movement’s cultural shura.
”When we see any issue that can provide propaganda to the Taliban, we raise it and create awareness among the people: like the occupation and how they terrorise the people, the government’s corruption.”
He did not support the Taliban when they were in power, ”but when the occupation came and we saw the atrocities, we joined. Lots of my university friends are with the Taliban not because they are Taliban but because they are against this government and the occupation. When the normal people saw that the warlords are back, they started supporting the resistance.”
The movement’s grip on the country is tightening, he insisted. ”The Taliban are squeezing the circle on Kabul, and the signs of the collapse of the government are similar to signs of the collapse of all governments that face an insurrection: they only control the cities.”
Abdul Rhaman described how he recruits among fellow students.
”I convince them that the Taliban are coming. We use all the facilities we have, our words and our pens to recruit for the movement, in the university, the bazaar and everywhere in the city.”
The irony is that he is using the freedom of speech provided by the Afghan government. ”There is free speech now and we are not scared of the government. We work cautiously, we talk to the people as if we are talking about political and daily issues. The government is too weak to monitor us.”