By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 20, 2008
KABUL, Sept. 19 -- Just one year ago, the Taliban insurgency was a furtive, loosely organized guerrilla force that carried out hit-and-run ambushes, burned empty schools, left warning letters at night and concentrated attacks in the southern rural regions of its ethnic and religious heartland.
Today it is a larger, better armed and more confident militia, capable of mounting sustained military assaults. Its forces operate in virtually every province and control many districts in areas ringing the capital. Its fighters have bombed embassies and prisons, nearly assassinated the president, executed foreign aid workers and hanged or beheaded dozens of Afghans.
The new Taliban movement has created a parallel government structure that includes defense and finance councils and appoints judges and officials in some areas. It offers cash to recruits and presents letters of introduction to local leaders. It operates Web sites and a 24-hour propaganda apparatus that spins every military incident faster than Afghan and Western officials can manage.
"This is not the Taliban of Emirate times. It is a new, updated generation," said Waheed Mojda, a former foreign ministry aide under the Taliban Islamic Emirate, which ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001. "They are more educated, and they don't punish people for having CDs or cassettes," he said. "The old Taliban wanted to bring sharia, security and unity to Afghanistan. The new Taliban has much broader goals -- to drive foreign forces out of the country and the Muslim world."
In late 2001, U.S. forces made common cause with ethnic groups in Afghanistan's north to overthrow the Taliban, in response to Osama bin Laden's use of the country as a base. Hamid Karzai was tapped as president by the United States and other powers, then elected to the job. In the early years, much of the deeply conservative Muslim country was largely peaceful and secure.
Over the past two years, the Taliban's revival has been fueled by fast-growing popular dissatisfaction with Karzai's government, which has failed to bring services and security to much of the country. Deepening public resentment against civilian deaths caused by U.S. and NATO alliance airstrikes is another factor.
No one here believes that the insurgents, estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, are currently capable of seizing the capital of Kabul or toppling the government, which is backed by more than 130,000 international troops. But a series of spectacular urban attacks in recent months, notably the bombing of the Indian Embassy and an armed assault on a parade reviewing stand where Karzai sat, have turned Kabul into a maze of bunkers and barricades that drive officialdom ever farther from the public.
In many regions a short drive from the capital, some of them considered safe even six months ago, residents and officials said the Taliban now controls roads and villages, patrolling in trucks and recruiting new fighters. Its members execute government employees, bomb and burn cargo trucks on the highway, and search bus passengers for foreign passports and cellphones programmed with official numbers.
"Our staff members don't want to commute to the capital anymore," said Nader Nadery, an official of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "They say, 'If the Taliban find my cellphone and call you, please tell them I am a shopkeeper.' " The Taliban is "creating an environment of fear, and it is working very well, because the people have no hope of being protected if they stand up against them," Nadery added.
Abdul Jabbar, a former anti-Soviet guerrilla commander and a member of parliament from Ghazni province, said he no longer dares visit his home district. Interviewed in Kabul, he said Taliban leaders asked him to leave the government and join their cause, but he refused and now fears being killed. Last week, three Ghazni residents were hanged by the Taliban, which called them government spies.
"The other day, a Taliban commander called me and said I should come help him to free Afghanistan from the foreigners," Jabbar recounted. "I asked him, 'What do you want me to do? Kill a teacher? Kidnap an engineer? Capture a U.N. vehicle?' The people are not happy about the Taliban, but the government is weak, and the foreign forces have not brought us security. What choice do we have?"
In Wardak, the next province toward Kabul along a highway that is under constant Taliban attack, residents said they now ask relatives from the capital not to travel there for weddings or funerals.
Roshanak Wardak, the only private obstetrician in the region, said that since last spring, Taliban leaders have recruited dozens of young men from her town. Wardak, who is also a legislator, said people in her province may not like the Taliban, but they relate to those in the movement as fellow Afghans and Muslims, at a time of growing public disenchantment with U.S. and NATO military forces.
"Their popularity is increasing day by day, because the government has done nothing for our province," she said. "They take our innocent boys and tell them Islam is in danger. They offer them money and weapons. Now everyone is becoming a Talib. It is a great game, and they are the fuel."
As in Ghazni, many of the Taliban supporters in Wardak are Pashtuns, members of the country's largest ethnic group. They believe that rival ethnic groups unfairly rule the country with the help of foreign soldiers. Though Karzai is a Pashtun, he is viewed in Taliban ranks as a traitor to his religion and community.
One aspect of the game the Taliban now clearly dominates is the propaganda war over battlefield victories, defeats and casualties. Once composed of largely illiterate fighters and clerics who shunned modern technology as un-Islamic, the Taliban now uses a variety of high-tech means to communicate its version of events, often far faster than its adversaries.
This issue has crystallized with the controversy over civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. and NATO airstrikes, especially a village bombing last month near Herat in western Afghanistan. Although civilian deaths have been frequent and real, officials say the Taliban quickly broadcasts exaggerated tolls, stoking public anger, while foreign military officers may take days to respond.
"We are definitely not winning the information war, and we have to reverse that," said Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, the chief spokesman for NATO forces here.
He said the Taliban uses such tactics as hiding in farm compounds, dressing dead fighters in civilian clothes and then denouncing foreign forces for bombing villagers. "They don't have to bother with the truth," Blanchette said.
Today's Taliban also has a much greater degree of formal organization. The old Taliban was disastrous at governing, and ministries were run by barefoot mullahs who scribbled orders on scraps of paper. The new Taliban structure has councils for each area of governance, appoints officials in controlled areas and confers swift justice for crimes and disputes.
One Afghan journalist said he recently visited the capital of Logar province, less than an hour's drive south of Kabul, where the Taliban now wields enormous power. He said a man had walked into a Logar radio station and politely introduced himself to the astonished manager as the new provincial spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
According to Mojda and others, the Taliban is still led by Mohammad Omar, a village cleric who headed the 1996-2001 administration and has been a fugitive since its overthrow. Some former leaders hold senior posts in the new movement, although many have been killed. The rank-and-file fighters are a mix of old members and new recruits.
Their statements focus on ridding Afghanistan of foreign occupiers and incompetent leaders. Although they use Islam to motivate followers, they regularly violate what people here consider to be basic Islamic tenets against such things as the murder of women and trafficking in opium.
Their predecessors used harsh punishments to instill law and order but were often pious Muslims. This year, the insurgents have killed teachers, mayors, policemen, truck drivers, doctors, female aid workers and Muslim clerics.
"These people claim to be Muslims, but they are nothing more than terrorists," said Abdul Razzak Qureshi, police chief of Paghman, a district in the mountains west of Kabul. Last week he showed a visiting journalist a trove of land mines and explosive devices that his officers had found planted beside roads and in culverts in the past several months.
One such device was detonated last week under a vehicle carrying Abdullah Wardak, the governor of Logar province, near his home in Paghman. He died instantly, along with two bodyguards and a driver.
In separate interviews, residents of Paghman, a pretty area in the hills with wildflowers, birches and breezy picnic spots, said they had unhappy memories of Taliban rule and hoped it would not return. So far, the insurgents have not emerged in daylight there, but Razzak, the police chief, said he was unsure how long his force of 147 officers could continue to protect a sprawling district of 186 villages that borders Taliban-controlled Wardak.
"The Taliban used to have nothing, but now they have more modern weapons than we do," he said. "Our people feel safe for now, but just over the border they operate freely and have their own checkpoints. If they decide to come here one day, there is nothing I can do to stop them."