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.
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.
Mullah Raouf became the commander for the Taliban's Central Corps, and Zakir was one of his key deputies.
Zakir commanded an important reserve brigade of more than 1,000 soldiers that operated out of the current presidential palace. It was heavily involved in the fight against the opposing Northern Alliance, an assemblage of warlords led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just before the 9/11 attacks.
Born Abdul Qayyum, his nom de guerre on the Taliban's walkie-talkie network was "Zakir," a name that stuck as stories of his military prowess grew. He became known as a skilled tactician, more than once rescuing surrounded Taliban troops using audacious moves behind enemy lines.
"He was a legendary battlefield commander," recalls Mullah Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a former Taliban commander and now a member of parliament. "His fame brought him to the attention of Mullah Omar, and the two became close over time."
Zakir's troops, known as the Helmandi Brigade, inspired fear across the country. The brigade acted as a Taliban special forces of sorts, used for daring raids and to keep the conventional troops focused on the demands of battle.
"They were true believers," says Gul Wazir, a Taliban commander who has been fighting since that era. "Sometimes when the fighting became too difficult and people on the front lines wanted to flee, they would capture us and bring us back to the front lines."
Driven by ideology
His associates paint a picture of Zakir as a highly ideological fighter, in contrast to some Taliban who may have fought for material gain.
"He was very well versed in sharia [Islamic] law and always followed the orders of his leaders and ulema," or religious clerics, says a tribal elder and former Taliban commander who fought alongside Zakir.
Zakir was injured numerous times, including in one attack in the late 1990s where a bomb killed four of his close friends and injured him severely. This sparked a period of depression that would resurface in the coming years. At times, he would become suddenly morose and withdrawn mid-conversation. Occasionally, he even dropped out of all activities.
But he repeatedly returned to the battlefield, leading Taliban troops in the north – until one day in late 2001.
Amid the US bombing campaign meant to topple the Taliban government, close to 10 besieged top Taliban commanders met in secret. These included Zakir, Raouf, and Mullah Dadullah, a Taliban leader of legendary brutality. According to two people present at the meeting, all but Dadullah voted to surrender, possibly out of the expectation that they would be released and allowed to go home.
Time in Guantánamo
Zakir and Raouf gave themselves up to the forces of Gen. Rashid Dostum, who turned them over to the Americans, who sent them to Guantánamo.
Under American control, the pair pretended to be low-ranking conscripts – Zakir gave US interrogators a false name, "Ghulam Rasoul." He portrayed himself as a country boy who went to Kabul "just to see the city" before being pressed into service on the front lines, according to a summary of transcripts from his review board at Guantánamo, which became public as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.
"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."
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.
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."