October Issue 2003
Twenty-four-year-old Siddiqullah had recently become engaged, with a wedding scheduled soon thereafter, but he chose to cast aside marriage plans for the forseeable future. Instead he proceeded to the war zones of Afghanistan to join his ideological compatriots, the Taliban, who have recently upped the antÃ© once again with intensified attacks against Afghan forces and members of the US-led coalition in the country. Currently Siddiqullah’s life comprises moving along with his comrades through the areas rugged, often mountainous terrain, or from village to village, sometimes walking for miles in the desert for days at a stretch, or lying in wait by highways for targets to ambush. It is a hit-and-run existence, and a dangerous one. But Siddiqullah has no regrets. “My parents were insistent that I get married, probably in the hope that this would deter me from going to Afghanistan, but I told them that my first and last commitment is jihad, and nothing can interfere with that at this stage,” he says.
Hailing from a small village bordering Pakistan, Siddiqullah was raised in a religious environment, and had his schooling in one of the locality’s most conservative seminaries. He considers the years of Taliban rule, when Shariah prevailed in Afghanistan, as the ‘rightfold’ way of life and is outraged that the country has, post the US invasion, reverted to its ‘godless ways.’
“There was peace during Taliban rule. Even a feeble old woman could walk the streets carrying kilos of gold with no fear, but with the arrival of the infidel forces, not only has law and order rapidly deteriorated, but women are no longer safe even within the confines of their homes,” he says. Presently operating from a post near Kandahar, Siddiqullah maintains that resistance is incumbent on all Muslims. “Jihad has been ordained for the Ummah,” he contends.
Siddiqullah is one of hundreds, possibly thousands of youths from religious schools across Pakistan who have joined the ranks of Taliban cadres that have regrouped in Afghanistan in the last few months. According to one estimate, at least 5,000 youths including former Taliban soldiers who went underground after the fall of their regime in December 2001, and students from religious seminaries from Balochistan, have joined their compatriots in Afghanistan. Many of these young men are known in the ranks as ‘sarbaz’ (those who have given their lives to the cause and readily sacrifice them in suicide missions). Regrouped, reorganised and rearmed, these warriors are now all set to launch a new guerrilla war for as long as it takes to expel what they call the ‘infidel forces’ from Afghanistan.
According to sources, there have been sporadic attacks against coalition forces since the war began in Afghanistan, but earlier these were on a limited scale. However, after the Taliban supremo Mullah Omar gave a call a few months ago to some of his trusted commanders who have so far escaped the coalition dragnet to reorganise the movement and to launch fresh attacks against Afghan and US forces, the limited strikes have acquired the dimensions of an uprising that is creating serious problems for the new Afghan government and the international troops.
Credible reports reveal that some months ago Mullah Omar despatched the one-legged Afghan war veteran, Mullah Dadullah Kakar and Maulvi Sadiq Hameed to Balochistan to launch a recruitment campaign for jihad in the seminaries in the province, while Hafiz Majeed was asked to garner the support of the tribal chieftains and elders in southern Afghanistan. “Hafiz Majeed was chosen to approach the tribal leaders because of his contacts in southern Afghanistan, while Mullah Dadullah was sent to Pakistan because he is not only widely respected by members of the Kakar tribe to which he belongs, but also by many Pashtun youths because of his bravery and fighting spirit,” says a Taliban insider. According to him, Mullah Dadullah, the most trusted of Mullah Omar’s lieutenants and one of the Taliban’s chief training and recruiting officers, is a living legend, because despite losing a leg during the war with the Russians and being grievously wounded on several occasions, with the scars to show for it, he retains the same zeal and vigour that he did as a young man.
In the recent conflict, Dadullah continued to fight the international forces in the country’s southern Kunduz province even after the Taliban government had fallen in December 2001. Thereafter however, he escaped to Pakistan, where the Kakar tribesmen living in southern Balochistan province gave him shelter. “During this period he moved from one place to another, including the Kuchlak refugee camp, and Pasheeen and Kila Saifullah districts in Balochistan. The tribesmen not only provided him shelter, but also collected donations which amounted to a sizeable sum, which they handed over to him and, in addition, bought him a Land Cruiser,” says a source. Subsequently, when there was intimitation that he might be arrested from one of his safe houses in Balochistan, they reportedly shifted him to a house in Karachi’s PIB colony — an area largely populated by affluent Pathan businessmen.
In the last few months, accompanied by a few comrades from Afghanistan, Dadullah has reportedly visited dozens of religious schools in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in some districts of Balochistan with a mission to ignite religious fervour among the students and induct them in the cause of jihad. Those who are convinced by his argument and volunteer to join are provided information about how to proceed to Afghanistan, whom to contact and the modus operandi of the resistance. A Taliban insider disclosed, “In the past two years Mullah Dadullah has made repeated trips to and from Afghanistan. However, he has not been here since June because after the Taliban stepped up their activities, Dadullah has personally been engaged in fierce battles with Afghan forces in the Zabul province.”
The Taliban militia emerged on the national scene in the mid ’90s from southern Afghanistan. Their main strength was young students called ‘talibs,’ most of whom were the products of religious seminaries run by fundamentalist clergymen. After two years of keeping a relatively low profile, Mullah Omar has apparently decided to tap this source once again to constitute a new Taliban force. Judging by the numbers, it seems he has struck pay dirt. Hundreds of youths have already crossed the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and many others are raring to follow. Nineteen-year-old Abdul Samad, is one of the young men. “I made up my mind to proceed for jihad the day we received the letter telling us arrangements for us to go to Afghanistan and launch our crusade had been firmed, but I waited until I could purchase my own AK-47. Now I’m on my way,” he says. His interpretation of the jihad he is about to embark on is interesting. “It is a fight ordained by God. The more one contributes, the bigger his reward on the day of judgement.” Samad discloses that he had to sell his mother’s jewellery and borrow some money from his father to buy himself the assault rifle he was coveting. “I told my parents that if I died fighting, they too would be rewarded,” he says, scratching his small beard.
According to reports, Mullah Omar has asked his ‘recruiting agents’ to apply a new strategy for enlistment this time. His lieutenants have been directed to personally meet students and directly exhort them to join the mission. They have been emphatically told not to enlist the services of either the principals of the madrassas or the leaders of Pakistani religious parties for this purpose. “Mullah Omar believes that most of these leaders are cowards, or have been bought by US dollars and so cannot be trusted,” says one of his associates, who carries Mullah Omar’s inspirational missils to the students.
The Taliban leaders distrust of local leaders is based on past experience. According to his close aides, when the Taliban were retreating after the US launched air strikes in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, Mullah Omar sent frantic appeals for help and shelter to the leaders of assorted supposedly sympathetic parties in Pakistan, but none of them came through saying it was too risky.
Mullah Omar was finally whisked away and provided sanctuary by a few die-hard loyalists. “I don’t know where he is exactly, but I can tell you with certainty that he is residing in Afghanis-tan,” says his uncle Mulla Wali Muhammad Akhwand, himself a religious scholar presently residing in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Akhwand, who still dons a black turban — a Taliban trademark — said according to his information Omar initially found sanctuary in the deserts of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, but now shuttles around between the desert belts of Helmand, Nimruz and Kandahar provinces and the rugged mountains of Zabul, Paktia and Paktika provinces. “In the Helmand and Nimruz deserts there are virtual mountains of sand which make for good hiding places, and the rugged terrain provides equally safe haven,” he says.
Reports emanating from Afghanistan reveal that since the new offensive was launched by the Taliban, there has been a shortage of weapons in the open market in the country. “Afghanistan has traditionally been a source of supply of weapons for Pakistan. Now, ironically, for the first time, many of those weapons sent across the border to be marketed in Pakistan in the last few years are being ferried back to Afghanistan and are fetching twice their usual price,” says Haji Abdul Samad, a resident of one of Pakistan’s tribal agencies. He explained that it is not only the Taliban warriors who are aggressively buying these weapons, but also many locals who were deweaponised by the Taliban regime and now need them for protection due to the worsening law and order situation in Afghanistan.
Just in the last few weeks, some 400 people, including over 100 members of the Taliban militia, many Afghan troops and civilians have been killed in southern Afghanistan. At least 22 people, most of them Afghan soldiers, were killed in one of these attacks a couple of weeks ago in a police station in Paktika province. In another incident, Taliban guerrillas attacked a police post of Afghan soldiers in Logar province, killing 10, including police chief Abdul Khaliq. However, the most devastating of these attacks occurred when, according to some reports, some 400 Taliban militiamen took control of one of the districts of Zabul province for a few hours, where they hoisted the spartan white Taliban flag, and killed at least 29 Afghan soldiers. The militiamen also announced from loud-speakers of local mosques that henceforth Zabul’s new governor would be Mulla Abdul Jabbar, and anybody found cooperating with US forces or their ‘puppet government’ would face grave consequences. Afghan government officials confirmed reports of the Taliban militia having taken over some areas, but played down the dimensions of the attack. Said Jan Mohammed, the governor of Urzugan province, “It is true that some 400 members of the Taliban militia attempted take over some areas, but we have managed to push them back.”
As a result of the fresh and increasingly organised resistance, and its inability to cope with the situation, the Karzai government decided to reshuffle some members of the administration. The governors of Kandahar, Herat and Helmand provinces were replaced, and according to some reports, more administrative changes are in the offing in these areas.
According to observers, the Taliban resistance has met with some measure of success for various reasons. Firstly, there is the ethnic factor. The Taliban have launched their movement from the Pashtun belts. Even apolitical Pashtuns are resentful of the current situation because they feel their ethnic community is under-represented in the Karzai government, even at the lower tiers. “It is impossible for the Pashtuns to accept this dishonour,” says Abdul Majeed, a Pashtun talib. He points out that the Northern Alliance troops are mostly Shia and were supporters of the Russians, while the Pashtuns are staunch Sunnis. According to him the latter have merely been biding their time and when the resistance becomes more organised, they will amost certainly join hands with the Taliban.
Another factor that has lent impetus to the resistance is the fact that following the war there has been a general breakdown of law and order in the country, and local traders, who constitute a large segment of the local population, have been hardest hit. “They are compelled to pay sizeable amounts as extortion either to the Taliban commanders or the warlords, or have been robbed by the dacoits who now control many of the country’s highways. Many of those who have resisted, have been killed. There is a growing feeling in the country that for all its downsides, the Taliban had at least managed to control the law and order situation in the country.
Thirdly, due to assorted reasons, there has been virtually no development work in the country’s southern regions. There are scant health or education facilities and even potable water is difficult to access because of a paucity of wells. Many villagers have to walk miles to fetch drinking water for their families. “We supported the international coalition because we thought they would change our lives, but so far nothing has changed,” says a Mohammed Hasan, a villager.
Fourthly, the movement has been able to take off in some areas due to the fact that the Taliban can operate with relative ease because of only a limited presence of US troops in southern Afghanistan. There are some 15,000 US troops presently deployed in Afghanistan, but the majority of them are stationed either in Kabul, or guarding the frontiers in the northern areas. Others are engaged in hunting down Al-Qaeda operatives. “Given the geography of Afghanistan and the growing dimensions of the insurgency, 15,000 troops are negligible,” says an observer.
Lastly there is the resurfacing of Mullah Omar, who has acquired a virtual cult status not just in Taliban ranks, but gradually also among other Pashtuns who are becoming increasingly restive with the country’s uncertain situation.
According to Mullah Omar’s uncle Akhwand, Omar, an extremely pious and fiercely honest man, engenders respect in every Afghan mujahid. “Over the past two decades jihad has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and during the Russsian invasion many religious leaders and so-called mujahideen cashed in and became billionaires. Omar on the other hand made not a single penny either during his fight with the Russians, or later when he was made Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the faithful),” says Akhwand. Mohammed Riaz, a former Taliban warrior, corroborates Akhwand’s contention, and further contends, “Everyone talks about Osama bin Laden, but I can tell you that Mullah Omar was the only person who could give him orders, and argue with bin Laden.”
Certainly, most followers of Mullah Omar, even those who have not been in touch with him for a while, remain steadfastly loyal to him. They recall his heroism against the Russians, how he continued to fight despite the loss of a leg, heavy injuries and even after he lost his right eye fighting in the Sangsar area.
In southen Afghanistan, two years after the Taliban were dislodged, their fundamentalist ideology and associated lifestyle is still very much in evidence. Most men sport the standard Taliban black turbans, the few women visible are swathed from head to toe, and there are no televisions, movie houses, or any other activities that were frowned upon by the Taliban.
In dusty, desolate Kandahar a sense of fear prevails. The roads are dilapidated beyond imagination, and the buildings are in shambles, each pockmarked by bullets or damaged by US bombing. Kandahar Governor, Yusaf Pashtun, blames opium, Taliban insurgents from Pakistan, and decades of ineffective governments in Kabul for the decay and the ongoing violence in the area. “Terrorist activity has increased in the region because of the absence of a government here for 20 years,” he contends.
Few read newspapers in the remote areas of Afghanistan but news, often distorted, spreads from one place to another like jungle fire. Many Afghans relate with absolute conviction stories of persecution of individuals across Afghanistan by members of the Northern Alliance, and talk of how women are being raped in some villages. A middle-aged tribesmen in a small cafe in Durra-e-Daum village in Kandahar province tells me how three young Pashtun girls were recently raped by Northern Alliance forces after they were kidnapped from their homes. Another villager narrates how a local commander’s nephew had a businessman murdered after the latter refused to pay him extortion money. When I ask them to provide me a few details about these cases, they are unable to do so. Nonetheless they are certain the reports are factual, and indignant because I have had the temerity to question them about the veracity of the stories. “Do you think we are lying?” one of them asks me aggressively.
Whatever the truth, dozens of similar stories continue to do the rounds, engendering hatred against the present government and the international coalition. Small wonder then that support for the Taliban is once again on the rise with many locals clandestinely assisting them in different ways
“Hundreds of elder tribesmen have volunteered their youths to us,” says 30-year-old Mohammed Amin, who is currently heading a group of Taliban in the Pashmol district of Kandahar province. “They include small children, some even under 12. Who will suspect them of being informers? Many of them work as our lookouts, and supply us important information. The transporters who ply the highways are main source of information. They tell us about the movement of government and foreign troops. Once we obtain these details, we devise our strategy accordingly,” he says.
Amin also discloses that many former Taliban soldiers and their supporters have infiltrated the ranks of the present Afghan army. “For us, they are like our ‘moving bugging devices.’ They not merely provide information about troop movement, but also attack and kill the troops whenever they get a chance,” he maintains. Amin refers to an incident three months ago at Mail Pull checkpost near Spin Boldak, in which six soldiers loyal to former Kandahar governor, Gul Agha, were gunned down by a Taliban soldier who had managed to enlist in the Afghan army.
According to Amin, at the moment the Taliban have a fighting strength of over 30,000, and many more are joining the ranks each day. However, for security purposes, Amin discloses, the fighters do not move in packs, or assemble in large concentrations at a time, being dispersed in diferent provinces from Paktika to Paktia, Nangarhar to Kandahar and from Helmand to Zabul to Uruzgan. “Usually about 20 of them, each led by a commander, stay at one place,” he says, adding that the commander of each group is always in touch with the chief commander of the area and constantly receives instructions from him.
The fighters’ modus operandi is simple. They emerge from their hideouts after sunset and either wait along highways for the jeep patrols of Afghan soldiers or ambush their outposts once the soldiers are asleep. “We are always well-prepared before we attack because our informants in the Afghan army have given us all the necessary data, such as the number of soldiers at the outpost, the amount of weaponry they possess, even their sleeping habits,” says Amin. Most attacks are conducted at night. “Only suicide missions are conducted by daylight,” he discloses.
Interestingly, even this still relatively rag-tag assortment of soldiers is impressively equipped with satellite phones and wireless sets. Amin shows me his equipment and a hand-written letter bearing Mullah Omar’s signature addressed to the Taliban, referring to them as ‘brothers’ and ‘true soldiers of Islam.’ The letter exhorts the men to fight and release their people from the ‘slavery of the infidel US.’ Amin says Mullah Omar writes two kinds of letters. “Some of them are confidential, only for the eyes of the Taliban commanders; the others are for the general cadres, which are read out to every one,” he says.
Twenty-eight-year-old Habibullah, who spent many years in refugee camps in Pakistan and has now joined the militia adds that the Taliban have now devised a secret code to communicate. “The code has helped immeasurably in securing us and our operations,” he says. However, he is realistic about the Taliban’s position. “We have passion and guts, but know that we don’t have the technology available to withstand air strikes like the B-52 bombings. We could probably even take Kabul, but we recognise our limitations, and the fact that we probably wouldn’t be able to hold it,” he acknowledges.
He adds, “What we are trying to do is to inflict maximum damage on US troops and their allies so that they get fed up and leave our country like the Russians, who only quit because of the long and unyielding resistance by the Afghans. Once the Americans leave, we will easily be able to take over.”
While that may be an optimistic evaluation, only too real is the fact that there is growing unrest in at least a dozen of the country’s 31 provinces. And given the task ahead of the Karzai government, these are not auspicious signals. The nation is to go to the ballot for the first time in its history in June 2004. As per the proposed schedule, Karazi must finish drafting a constitution, conduct a census, register millions of voters, as well as lay down a blueprint for universal education and equal rights for women, before the country goes to the polls. A daunting task for even the most effective democratic government, but for the shaky Afghan one, perhaps an impossible one.