Taliban adopting Iraq-style jihad
A Taliban militant warns that his movement is more sophisticated – and more brutal – than before.
| KABUL, AFGHANISTAN
Even in near-total darkness, the wounded Taliban fighter insists on masking his identity, his head and face covered by a tightly wound white cloth. Only two bright eyes and a confident voice tell how Afghanistan's Islamist militants are ramping up their fight against US and NATO forces.
He speaks a warning, of how the "new" Taliban has become more radical, more sophisticated, and more brutal than the Taliban ousted by US-led forces in 2001 – and of how its jihadist agenda now mirrors that of Al Qaeda, stretching far beyond Afghanistan.
Among the keys to the Taliban resurgence – which is sparking lethal violence on a scale unknown here for almost five years – are crucial lessons drawn from Iraq.
"That's part of our strategy – we are trying to bring [the Iraqi model] to Afghanistan," says the fighter. "Things will get worse here."
Those "things" include suicide attacks, assassinations of government officials, moderate clerics, and civilians, along with guerrilla tactics now in use against Western forces in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where NATO claims to have killed more than 500 insurgents in 10 days of intense fighting.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, speaking in Brussels Tuesday, said the Taliban now pose a greater danger than Al Qaeda. "The center of gravity of terrorism has shifted from al Qaeda to the Taliban," he told European lawmakers."
"This is a new element, a more dangerous element, because it [the Taliban] has its roots in the people. Al Qaeda didn't have roots in the people," he said.
On Tuesday, Afghan police said that they had arrested more than 30 people suspected of planning attacks; the US military reported detaining eight others.
"The Taliban have tried their best to avoid murdering civilians, but they finally found if they don't get active, they will lose this opportunity" to attack "infidel" Western troops, says the fighter. "Now you are seeing explosions everywhere."
Among the most recent suicide attacks was one near the US Embassy last Friday, killing two US soldiers and 14 Afghans.
"I'm very happy about the murder of the Americans, though I am a little bit sad about the death of the Afghans – but this is wartime," says the fighter matter-of-factly. Such deaths, he says, are "inevitable," even if they cause a popular backlash.
"The shift has taken place," warns Hekmat Karzai, head of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS) in Kabul, which analyzes terrorism trends. The Taliban still have local concerns, he says, but embrace global jihad as never before and believe in encouraging a "clash of civilizations."
"Taliban commanders talk of jihad in Fallujah in the same terms they speak of jihad in [the eastern Afghan province of] Kunar," says Mr. Karzai. "They think: 'Just as they are battling there, we are battling here.' "
Figures tabulated by CAPS indicate a recent 60 percent increase in attacks across Afghanistan, from 85 in July to 136 in August. Police have borne the brunt, with deaths jumping more than fourfold in that period. Civilian deaths have tripled, with 92 losing their lives in August.
"The world is small now, and just as McDonald's is being globalized ... so can violence be transmitted from one place to another," says Waheed Mozhdah, a Taliban-era Foreign Affairs Ministry official, and author on the Taliban.
"The tactics have been imported from Iraq: suicide bombers, remote-controlled roadside bombs," says Mr. Mozhdah. "These things we didn't have in the [past] jihad, and they have been very effective...."
Other tactics have also changed. Prior to 2001, the Taliban would take on the Northern Alliance by charging through their front lines – despite high casualties from mines. Today, they use more guerrilla-style strikes.
Another factor chills many Afghans. "[The Taliban] have become more violent. They slaughter people, beheading them, and this didn't exist before," says Mozhdah. "They used to regard video cameras as haram [forbidden by religion], but now they use these videos as a tool. It shows how Al Qaeda has affected the Taliban."
Indeed, coming from a group that in the late 1990s draped checkpoints with wads of magnetic tape – pulled from video and music cassettes banned by the Taliban – that is quite a change. Recent videos show commanders, including, apparently, the rarely seen fugitive Taliban chief Mullah Omar – directing operations from the front line. In one, Mr. Omar is shown with binoculars, inspecting a small rocket launcher in a bid to counter charges of cowardice from President Hamid Karzai.
Other footage shows one Afghan suicide bomber after another – as well as at least one Pakistani – making strident statements and collecting chits for their explosives. The clips also list the number of "crusader troops" killed in each attack.
But even by the gruesome standards of global jihad, which include taped beheadings by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, and similar deaths of Russians by Chechen militants, the Taliban footage is brutal.
"The greatest achievement of video like that is to instill fear in the hearts of the population, making them believe that the government and international forces can't protect them," says Karzai of CAPS, who estimates that Taliban material is on 30 percent of an estimated 4,000 jihadi websites. "It is a psychological component that shocks people, who ask: 'They are Afghans. They are Muslims. How can they do that?' "
Karzai says the message is clear: "It is ... telling people: 'This can happen to you.' The consequence is that many people stop working for government institutions. They ask if it is more important to get $200 a month – more like $60 – or to stay alive."
"They are very dangerous, because they think that anyone who is not pro-American should come to them or leave the country," says Idriss Yusefi, an Afghan medical resident whose uncle was a key player in the Taliban's despised "vice and virtue" squads. "They think the people of Kabul are all pro-American, and so [they] can kill them."
The "biggest fear" of youths, says Mr. Yusefi and his friends, is that the Taliban will retake power. Most analysts say the Taliban is still no strategic threat to the fragile government, a view challenged by militants like the wounded fighter.
Schooled in the extreme Deobandi strain of Islam followed by most Talibs, he joined 18 months ago, prompted, he says, when US troops arrested his cleric father from their home in Kandahar after a roadside bomb went off nearby. The father's body was dropped off at the hospital by US forces 10 days later, the militant claims.
"I want two things: revenge and martyrdom. Martyrdom is the hope of every true Muslim," declares the 26-year-old. His mother stopped his two older brothers, the fathers of seven, from joining the Taliban. But she could not stop this son.
"Every jihad fighter has the best morale – you can't compare it to any other type of fighter," he says, tightening his head wrap in the dark. "In this country, there are many religious people and they want a reason to fight for God, for martyrdom. They welcome this opportunity to ... go to Paradise."
While he recovers in Kabul, the militant keeps in contact with Taliban networks, and claims that the NATO figure of more than 500 insurgents killed during "Operation Medusa" in the south is a "total lie." NATO commanders say the sustained fighting has at times been fiercer than in Iraq. The militant says the Taliban grow stronger daily, with support from locals fed-up with insecurity and corruption.
"The Taliban have increased their attacks, because people came and asked for help to bring back justice," he says. "Security was ensured under the Taliban. We will reintroduce sharia law."
Still, he was wounded when local "spies" gave away the location of a safe house during fighting in Panjwayi in Kandahar. Two Americans and two Talibs were killed in the raid.
But the fighter is certain of victory. "It's the will of God," he says, adding there must be a reason he is not yet a martyr. "Maybe God wants me to fight more."