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The Taliban's new face

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Last updated on: September 27, 2005 18:59 IST

Mullah Muhammad Anas is the unofficial ruler of Afghanistan's Andore district.

The small but tough Taliban commander -- one of the 30 most wanted fugitives in Afghanistan -- has made it impossible for US and NATO forces to move freely in the district, the biggest in Ghazni province.

I managed to get his mobile number from a Taliban sympathiser who stood in front of Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi's tomb in the heart of Ghazni city.

Anas only understood my Assalam-o-Alliekum, because the Taliban commander couldn't speak Urdu. I tried communicating in English, but failed. Then, I used my broken Persian, and the deadlock was broken.

He was surprised that a Pakistani journalist was looking for the Taliban in Ghazni. When I expressed my desire to meet him, he said I was late because he was deep in the mountains of Andore and it would be difficult for him to come to the city by evening.

'Taliban is now a more organised force'   

So I decided to risk visiting him instead. He was happy, but made just two small conditions: One, I would not travel in my Prado jeep with a driver from Kabul. Two, I would have to take a taxi from Ghazni with any local Pashtun driver. Needless to say, I accepted both.

I asked my driver to stay in the city and went to a taxi stand. Most drivers were reluctant to go to Andore, saying it was late and it would be difficult to return before sunset. One asked for double charges, and I agreed. We settled on 1,000 Afghanis -- approximately $20.

We started travelling on the muddy Kabul-Kandahar road to Andore. After a few kilometres, we were stopped by three armed Taliban near a village. When they learnt I was a guest of their commander, they called Mullah Anas to reconfirm, then welcomed us to the 'land of Taliban.' One of them joined us as a guide.

Mullah Anas at a remote village of Andore district in Ghazni province. Photograph courtesy Hamid MirAn hour and a half later, I was sitting with Mullah Anas -- not in a cave, but in a large muddy compound of a village teeming with armed fighters.

The first thing I asked him was : How could he trust an unknown Pashtun taxi driver?

He smiled and looked towards the driver sitting next to me. "Local Pashtuns don't betray us," he said. "We will note down his name and taxi number. If he creates any problem for us, we will take care of him. But I am sure he is a real Pashtun and will not commit treason."

'We don't want the Taliban to re-emerge'   

I commented on the Taliban movement becoming more nationalist than Islamic, considering it was now limited only to the Pashtun dominated areas of Afghanistan. I mentioned Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, who belonged to the Andore district but had not visited his home for a year since Anas had taken over. Jalali had repeatedly accused Pakistan of secretly providing training facilities to the Taliban. (Jalali resigned on Tuesday due to the increasing violence).

Anas responded to the allegation by saying, simply, "You are sitting with me in an Afghan village, not a Pakistani one. Ask Jalali to come here if he can. Yes, we have the support of some Pakistani brothers, but Pakistani rulers are our enemies. Musharraf is not different from Karzai. Both are fighting on behalf of the Americans against us. How can a Pakistani Karzai support us? This allegation is an insult."

One angry Taliban fighter shouted at me in broken English: "Frontier Province (the North West Frontier Province) is not Pakistan. It is a Pashtun area that was occupied by Farangis (England) one hundred years ago. If we go to the Pashtun areas of Peshawar, it is not Pakistan, it is Afghanistan."

His comments were like a bombshell for me. Because just four years ago, it was the Taliban that confronted nationalist Pashtuns who opposed the Durand line that divided Afghanistan from united India more than a century ago.

This was a new face of the Taliban, but Anas tried to hide it. "Don't say these things in the presence of a Pakistani guest," he told his colleague.

US Marines kill 21 Taliban   

Anas tried to explain his colleague's anger, saying "We were betrayed by Pakistani rulers after 9/11, which is why a lot of Taliban have developed bad feelings against the Punjabis of Pakistan."

I tried correcting him by saying that Musharraf is not a Punjabi, but Anas said, "(Lieutenant General) Safdar Hussein is a Punjabi responsible for fighting against our Mahsud and Wazir brothers in South and North Wazirastan, on the orders of Musharraf."

After serving us Afghani tea, Anas then invited us to film his attack on a US military convoy after two hours. We declined politely. I was aware that US convoys didn't move in that area without air cover. The Taliban would kill three or four US soldiers, but would lose more of their own men to the air bombing that would ensue.

The commander then made me another offer. He said, "You can choose a CD of our previous attacks on Americans then." I accepted.

Taliban leader slams al Qaeda   

Within minutes, he loaded a CD to a small laptop, showing me how they destroyed a US Humvee with a roadside bomb a few days ago. He pointed his finger towards a young boy standing behind him saying, "Brother Qadir filmed that ambush with his Sony movie camera."

The Taliban banned cameras when they were in power. Now, they appear to have amended their ideology. In Islamic Shariah, this amendment is called Ijtahad. Today, the Taliban are waging their Jihad with Ijtahad. They banned photography and television sets in Afghanistan after taking over Kabul in 1996. Now, they want to use cameras and television as a new weapon in a propaganda war against their enemy.

Tackle Taliban, or we will, US to Pakistan   

When I asked why the Taliban were fighting against Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on one hand and talking to him on the other, Anas grinned. "Talk to Mufti Hakimisahib about it. I am not entitled to speak on such a big issue."

He gave me Hakimi's satellite phone number. He picked it up after 12 rings. Hakimi was shocked to hear I was sitting with Mullah Anas. He asked me to leave immediately because he was aware of the planned attack on the Americans. "They will make this area hell in a few hours," he screamed. "Go away, go away."

We fled in panic. An hour later, Hakimi called to check if I was back in Ghazni. I told him I would reach in half an hour. Warning me against visiting 'independent' areas without informing him in advance, he said: "The Americans can kill you and throw the responsibility on our shoulders."

After a few minutes, we were stopped by a big group of Afghan National Army soldiers near the city. The Pashtun taxi driver explained that he had some Pakistani journalists who were visiting some election candidates in nearby villages. The soldiers checked our IDs and let us go. But not before warning that "this area is not safe. You shouldn't come here again without a police escort."

I thanked the driver, who replied, "I lie to both Taliban and the security forces every day just in the interest of a safe drive." In broken Urdu, he explained that he liked neither the Taliban, nor Karzai or the Americans. But he couldn't fight them as both parties were very strong. It was only the common Afghans who were suffering, he said.

Hamid Mir stands near the graves of four bodyguards of Osama Bin Laden at a mountain top in Tora Bora, where US forces hunted in vain for the Al Qaeda leader in December 2001. Behind Mir is local Hizb-e-Islami commander Ghayas. Photograph courtesy Hamid MirI returned to Kabul late that night and had dinner at Delhi Darbar, a restaurant owned by an Indian. There, I met a local Newsweek reporter called Sami Yousafzai, who had also met a Taliban commander in Zabul earlier that day. He suggested I visit Kunar, where Al Qaeda had recently downed a US helicopter. Apparently, CDs of the operation were available at shops in Asadabad city.

India to help Afghanistan deal with terror   

Over the next eight days, I visited at least a dozen provinces in East and South Afghanistan. I realized that Hamid Karzai ruled only the big cities. The rest of the rural and mountainous areas were controlled by Taliban, Al Qaeda and, in some places, by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami. Karzai has tried to engage the Taliban through many people, but they are not interested in talks. They are exploiting the wave of anti-Americanism that mushroomed after reports of the desecration of a Quran by American troops.

NATO chopper crash kills 17 in Afghanistan   

There are just 18,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan, compared to more than 150,000 in Iraq. It is just not enough for establishing Karzai's writ in the 2,000-kilometre long Pashtun belt, bordering Pakistan. 

Anti-Taliban forces like the Northern Alliance are also against the presence of US troops in Afghanistan. Fearing that the presence of US troops will come under fire in Afghanistan's new parliament, Karzai has urged foreign troops to avoid house-to-house search operations without his permission.

The most disturbing thing for Karzai is the beginning of suicide attacks by the Taliban against the security forces. According to Interior Ministry official Lutafullah Mashal, some Arabs from Iraq are providing training to Taliban fighters in Kunar and Nuristan for bomb making. The Taliban have killed more than 325 Afghan police officers in the last six months.

The number of foreign troop causalities is limited because they don't go after the Taliban in remote areas. Mashal said the Taliban dumped a lot of weapons when they were in power, and were now buying weapons from local warlords and also across the border from Pakistani tribes. He also claimed that the Taliban were in possession of SAM missiles of Russian and Chinese origin, which they are getting from Iraqi Kurdistan at $2,500 each. Mashal recently arrested some smugglers in Nimroz who smuggled weapons from Iraqi Kurdistan through Iran.

Why Afghanistan is important to India   

Where is the money coming from?

Mashal smiled intriguingly. "They have some sympathisers in Pakistan," he said, "but it is mainly Al Qaeda using them against us because they want to make Afghanistan another Iraq."

I asked him how Taliban spokesman Mufti Hakimi was speaking to the Associated Press daily and yet avoided capture by the Americans. Mashal responded saying that Hakimi was clever. He was using at least eight different numbers, ten local mobile numbers and some Pakistani mobile numbers. He used one number for 10 to 15 minutes before switching to another, foiling all attempts to track him. "We will get him very soon though," he claimed.

Exposed: Pak army links with Taliban   

Most diplomats in Kabul believe the Taliban are getting stronger by the day, and returning with a vengeance. More than 1,300 people have died in insurgent violence already, making 2005 by far the bloodiest year since the overthrow of the Taliban government in November 2001. Afghanistan is a new Iraq in the making.

Taliban experts like Ahmad Rashid say Karzai has failed to control corruption and the warlords, and these two problems have forced common Afghanis to think that at least the Taliban gave them peace, which has now becoming a dream.

Ahmad Rashid is a close friend of Karzai, and this was the first time I heard him criticise the Afghan president.

"Karzai is missing a great chance to stabilise Afghanistan," he said. "He is not informing the outside world that the West is not hunting Al Qaeda here in Afghanistan. There has been no Osama hunting for a long time either. They are only increasing their influence in border areas close to Iran."

Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai noted that the former Communists and Taliban were the poor people, while the rest of the politicians are former Mujahideen who minted money during the war against the Soviet Union. These Mujahideen are said to be Karzai's biggest allies. In reality, however, they are warlords. They were not debarred from the elections despite running large armed militias.

The new ruling elite of Afghanistan are rich. The people are poor, and have no love for the elite. In some areas like Khost, the Taliban didn't created problems for ex-Communist candidates, but threatened ex-Mujahideen from the richer class.

It is another dimension to the new Taliban. They are now class conscious.

More reports from Afghanistan

Pakistani journalist and rediff India Abroad contributor Hamid Mir works for Dubai-based Geo TV and recently spent ten days in Afghanistan

Hamid Mir