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Qayyum Zakir: the Afghanistan Taliban's rising mastermind

Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Guantánamo detainee, is considered to be the day-to-day leader of the Afghanistan Taliban insurgency. A look at his rise to power based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former associates.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent / April 30, 2010

Residents of Kandahar walk past the remains of a recent suicide bombing. Afghanistan’s southern city is on edge as it sits between the forces of foreign troops, the Afghan government, and the Afghanistan Taliban.

Rahmat Gul/AP

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Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

In the days leading up to the launch of a major US military offensive in the Afghan town of Marjah in February, Taliban commanders in the area received a surprise visit.

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It was from a charismatic man of medium build, intense eyes, and a knack for fiery oratory. In a brief meeting, he rallied the troops, discussed strategy, and disappeared into the night.

Most of the commanders present there in late January had not met him before. But in southern Afghanistan he needed no introduction. He was Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, the man who some Western officials and insurgents say is now the day-to-day leader of the Taliban.

"He has tremendous power now," says a tribal elder in the southern province of Helmand, who knows Mr. Zakir and met with him recently. "He can design military strategy and appoint or fire" Taliban shadow governors.

As the United States escalates its troop numbers to try to roll back a raging insurgency, combating the efforts of Taliban leaders like Zakir will be key. Zakir is known for his battlefield abilities as an organizer, motivator, and tactician. He wields tremendous influence in southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the insurgency and the site of another major offensive set for this summer.

A former Guantánamo detainee, he is believed now to be a deputy to reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a position he assumed upon Pakistan's arrest of the movement's former No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and a number of other Taliban leaders.

Pakistani intelligence agents arrested Zakir and a close associate earlier this year in early February, according to Western and Afghan government sources, but both were later released without explanation.

Zakir's rise to power was pieced together through more than a dozen interviews in Kabul and Lashkar Gah with his current and former associates, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Raised in prosperity

Hailing from a well-off Pashtun family with roots in southern Helmand Province, Zakir grew up in the northern province of Jowzjan. His associates say he is in his early 40s, making him too young to have joined the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1970s and '80s as his older brother had done.

Instead, like many boys at the time, he was sent to study in madrasas, or religious schools, near the Afghan-Pakistani border that taught an extreme version of Islam. He attended such a school in Quetta, Pakistan, then a hotbed for radicalism. There he met an influential figure who would later become a major Taliban commander and his partner in arms, Mullah Abdul Raouf.

By 1997, the pair had returned to Afghanistan and joined the Taliban, the movement of religious students who had swept into power on a platform of law and order and a puritanical, often violent interpretation of Islam.

Many analysts consider Zakir to be one of the most important figures in the Taliban's southern chain of command. With northern roots, he is young, charismatic, and leads the Helmandi Brigade, considered to be the most daring of the Taliban troops. He may also be influential on negotiations with opposing forces.

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