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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.

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"I have seen pictures that Afghanistan is being rebuilt, and I am happy that Americans are rebuilding my country," he told a review panel sometime between 2004 and 2007. "I see no reason why I should be against the Americans."

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Raouf kept up a similar facade and told interrogators that he merely served food to the Taliban.

"If I did not cooperate with them they were going to confiscate my land," he said in a hearing in 2005. "All I want to do is go there and work on my land."

The two got a chance to do just that when they were transferred to Afghan custody in late 2007. They were released in early 2008 – possibly due to pressure from tribal elders, Afghan officials say – and quickly reestablished links with their former comrades. Zakir took command of military affairs in southern Afghanistan, Raouf in the north.

Wrote Taliban rule book

Zakir soon became identified with the Taliban's more pragmatic wing, which was mindful of public opinion. He helped draft a Taliban rule book that urged fighters to limit civilian casualties. He headed a committee that received complaints about abusive local commanders and removed them if necessary. He mediated between factions and with the Pakistani Taliban when tensions arose.

Taliban fighters and Afghan officials say that, unlike most leading Taliban figures, Zakir regularly crosses into Afghanistan to meet with field commanders, inspiring loyalty among the rank and file and winning him credibility within the leadership.

"He has a high standing in the jihadi community," says Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. "This makes him a powerful force."

According to Western and Afghan sources, the arrests of Zakir and Raouf by Pakistani intelligence agents in late January were part of a wider crackdown on Taliban leadership. But Afghan officials and Taliban members agree the pair were later released. The arrest and release may have been the work of different arms of the Pakistani government, or the leaders may have been temporarily held to put pressure on the insurgent movement. But Pakistani officials have declined to comment on the issue.

'Wants to win at any cost'

Many experts consider Zakir to be one of the important figures in the insurgency, though it is unlikely that his power will reach that of his predecessor, Mullah Baradar.

"Even though Zakir is at the top, there will be a more collective leadership in place, instead of one person making all the decisions like before," says an Afghan intelligence official.

Officials are now waiting to see if he brings changes to the group's direction. Baradar is widely rumored to have been open to negotiations with the Afghan government, but Zakir's associates say that he is much less likely to have such an orientation.

"I don't think he will want to negotiate," says the tribal elder from Helmand who says he visited Zakir recently in Quetta. "He wants to win this war at any cost. That's what makes him dangerous."

Related:

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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