BALOCHISTAN PROVINCE, PAKISTAN — The 22-year-old doesn't look like the traditional turbaned Taliban commander. His black hair shoots out at all angles from beneath a red cap. He smiles easily and has a neatly trimmed beard.
But Hilal says he is the co-leader of 200 Taliban fighters who operate across the border in Afghanistan. "Two years ago, we only attacked Afghan officials, but now we have so many Talibs that we can attack Americans," he boasts.
In a rare interview with a Western reporter, Hilal and three other Afghan Taliban fighters describe how they slip into Afghanistan, attack NATO and Afghan forces, and return to Pakistan to rest.
"Everybody in the neighborhood knows we are Talibs," says Noman, a 19-year-old fighter with a blue-white block-printed turban. "Paki-stan is a little bit free for us."
The interview was conducted over two days in a small house made of yellow mud in Pakistan's Balochistan Province. The fighters, who won't give their real names, say they are here for a refresher course in Taliban ideology in a Pakistani religious school.
"We are enormously organized," brags Mustafa, a 20-year-old wearing a black turban usually favored by conservative Muslims.
"Even British defense officials say they face a lot of problems from the Taliban."
A year ago, such confident talk from Taliban fighters could have been chalked up to bravado. But with more than 50 suicide attacks in the past six months, resistance by large Taliban units in the increasingly volatile provinces of Kandahar and Helmand in the south, and a greater willingness of Taliban fighters to come out into the open and speak their minds are all indications that the Taliban resurgence is no longer a matter of conjecture.
This year has been a difficult one for the US, coalition, and Afghan forces. With US commanders handing control of the south over to its British, Canadian, Dutch, and other allies in NATO, the Taliban are making the transfer a bloody one. How NATO forces fare in the south could determine whether the democratically elected government of President Hamid Karzai – and indeed, the experiment in Afghan democracy itself – succeeds or fails.
Commander Hilal says that currently 40 of his troops are in Afghanistan fighting, and 160 are "refreshing their ideology" in Pakistan. Hilal says that he discusses military plans by cellphone and satellite phone with higher Taliban commanders who are all in Afghanistan.
Hilal says his fighters operate in groups of 20 to 25 men in the Afghan provinces Ghazni and Zabul. There are 35 groups active in Zabul's capital, Qalat, and 20 to 25 in the rest of by American forces controlled province.
Mustafa, in the black turban, says that the Talibs cross the border alone or in twos. Depending on the crossing point, he says – listing Pakistan border cities of Chaman, Badini, and Torkham – it takes one or two nights to join up with other Taliban fighters, he says. "The majority have Pakistani identity cards, so crossing the border is no problem," he says.
The Taliban fighters return to a different house in Pakistan every month, but say that they must be very careful in Afghanistan, says Noman, a gaunt-faced young man who says he wants to learn English. But Mustafa adds that they are no longer in hiding in Afghanistan. "We are now 200 to 300 at a time and can roam around freely," he says.
Prior to every mission, they get training in one of the many training camps in the Afghan mountains, says the 22-year-old Ali, who is quiet through most of the interview.
Afghanistan and NATO officials regularly accuse Pakistan of harboring Taliban leaders. Pakistan officials say they are doing everything they can to remove them.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber killed 35 Pakistani soldiers in a brazen attack at a military base in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, leaving the Army shaken and a Taliban peace deal in tatters.
"Never has there been so many military casualties in one attack," says Ramiullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based journalist who has covered the Pakistan military's campaign against militants since 2001.
Hours after the attack, an organization calling itself the Pakistan Taliban, which had never come forward before, phoned Mr. Yusufzai to claim responsibility. The caller told Yusufzai that the bomber prepared a suicide video before carrying out the strike, suggesting a parallel in tactics used by Taliban militants in Afghanistan.
The four fighters say they all studied at an Afghan madrassah (religious school) before the American forces entered Afghanistan in 2001. Hilal fled to Pakistan when his fellow students at the madrassah were arrested after the Taliban regime was toppled. In 2003, he says, he joined the jihad.
In their Afghan camps, "we get training, even suicide education. There are many groups saying how we suicide bomb, lay mines, or use Kalashnikovs," he says. Suicide attacks are not for him, he says. "It takes a lot of training. You have to think about target time, because maybe you blow up yourself but nobody else."
All of their ammunition is inside Afghanistan and is used against non-Muslims, says Mustafa. "There is a lot of ammunition in Afghanistan to use against the non-Muslims. We hid it in depots after the fall of the Taliban."
The Afghan forces are the targets are considered "non-Muslims" because they work with the Americans. "All the checkpoints are covered by Afghan troops, so we go for them first," he says.
A month ago, Hilal says his forces attacked a military convoy in Zabul's provincial capital, Qalat. He says they killed 35 Afghan troops. Two Taliban fighters were injured.
The Taliban fighters also pride themselves on blocking the main highway between Kandahar and Kabul.
Mustafa says he's in favor of the international reconstruction work in Afghanistan. But Noman interrupts, raising a finger. "We are not in favor of reconstruction work, because it happens in the name of Christianity. This is why we close the schools. The government completely changed the books. A was for Allah, now it stands for Aass [mule in Pashto], J was for Jihad, now it stands for Jawary [maiz in Pashto]. With pamphlets, letters, and by taking the teachers "into confidence," Noman says they try to close down the schools – if necessary, by force.
More than 160 Afghan schools have been attacked this year, according to The Associated Press.
The fighters say ordinary Afghans give them vehicles, fuel, food, medicine, and information. "There are many business men who help us. We were given 10 vehicles in Kandahar and 15 in Helmand. Sometimes they give us security. They say, 'He is not a Talib, he is my family member.' That is jihad," says Noman.
The interview has been watched by a silent little observer: an 11-year-old boy on a wooden seat. His parents have sent him to Noman for religious training. He brings food to the Taliban fighters in the house. When he is grown, he says shyly, he wants to be a fighter. "Now I am still a kid, but when I have a beard I can join."
• Correspondent David Montero in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.