By Syed Saleem Shahzad

Part 1 – Death by the light of a silvery moon

“The mujahideen have now acquired such strength that neither Pakistan nor NATO can fight against us. The Taliban are standing on both sides of the border. More operations breed more Taliban, and this time the Taliban will rule the whole region,” Maroof said confidently.

NAWA PASS, Pakistan border with Afghanistan – Sitting with four key Taliban commanders deep in a labyrinth of lush green mountains, I could see the Sarkano district of the Kunar Valley in Afghanistan, which is the provincial hub of the American military and a base for the Afghan National Army and Afghan intelligence.

Scores of guerrilla groups, each comprising a few dozen men, hide on the fringes of the Kunar Valley and launch daily operations into Kunar and Nooristan provinces, and with each passing day they receive new recruits and their attacks grow in intensity.

A year ago, I spent two weeks with the Taliban in Helmand province (including a few days in captivity – see A ‘guest’ of the Taliban, Asia Times Online, November 30, 2006 ), but since then there has been a sea-change within the Taliban.

Without legends such as the slain Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Akhtar Osmani, and with an extremely ill Jalaluddin Haqqani, a neo-Taliban movement has emerged with a new leadership, new zeal and new dynamics. The revitalized and resupplied Taliban are geared to enter a new phase of war without borders to fight coalition forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistan army.

In a way, all that has gone before in the “war on terror” in the past six years since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul has been a dress rehearsal.

For its part, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders are preparing to take up the fight. According to Asia Times Online contacts familiar with developments, a joint Pakistan-NATO operation was approved at a meeting of Pakistan’s corps commanders at the weekend. Significantly, they agreed that the boundaries would not necessarily be drawn between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Whether a conventional force such as NATO can contain the Taliban is another matter. Obviously, the Taliban are confident.I asked Shaheen Abid, the Taliban’s head of guerrilla operations in the strategic Sarkano district, what was behind the group’s revitalization.


Shaheen smiled in response and turned his gaze to three of his subordinate commanders – Zahid of the Nole region, Mohsin of the Shonk Karey district and Muslim Yar of the Barogai region.

“I only know how to fight. Answering complicated questions is beyond my ambit,” Shaheen said apologetically, and immediately signaled for the Taliban’s media relations officer of the Kunar Valley, Dr Jarrah (a jihadi name), to respond.

Jarrah began, “Before answering you, I will ask you a question. Who is qualified to claim that he has actually seen world?” Before I could reply to this rather strange question, Jarrah answered himself, “The one who has experienced true love, the one who has lived in an alien atmosphere and place, and the one who has spent time in captivity.

“The mujahideen have experienced all three things in the past seven years. We have been reared on a true love for our global struggle, we were forcibly displaced from one place to another and we spent lots of time in the detention centers of Cuba [Guantanamo], in Pakistan, Bagram [Afghanistan] and Abu Ghraib [Iraq] and braved the brutalities of the CIA [US Central Intelligence Agency], the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] and Afghan intelligence,” Jarrah said.

“We actually see the world now. We are seasoned and therefore you will see actual fireworks against the one which claims to be the global superpower.”

Shaheen then excused himself and joined his subordinates Zahid, Mohsin and Muslim Yar, all in their early 20s. “Please don’t mind them, they are discussing their previous operations and planning fresh ones,” Jarrah told me.

“We carried out attacks on a daily basis until last Thursday [November 8]. We assign a particular group for a particular assignment. There are different sorts of attacks. We do send attackers called fedayeen in which fighters loaded with rockets and hand grenades and AK-47 guns attack an American base or the Afghan National Army or the intelligence headquarters in Sarkano.

“In such fedayeen attacks, there is zero chance of survival [for the attackers].

“Then we carry out specific attacks based on precise information provided by pro-Taliban elements within the Afghan establishment or by local people. And then the third and the most expensive attacks are those in which we fire missiles on an enemy position from a distance. It costs us 250,000 Pakistani rupees [about US$4,000] per operation.

“We launch all three kinds of operations many times a month. At present, due to the dim moonlight, operations have stopped for few days. We only launch operations during moonlight because Kunar is all jungle and mountains and without such light there is a strong chance of falling into the crevasses,” Jarrah explained.

Jarrah said that the Taliban’s operations are based on various tactics and are not only asymmetric attacks. “We have tribes and people who live in particular places. They openly resist foreign troops in the Kunar Valley. Then we have organized guerrilla groups – we use them as our special forces – and finally we have a missile battery. Not a single day passes without the enemy facing several of our attacks in various parts of Nooristan and Kunar provinces.

“The fighters have acquired a lot of confidence due to their successes and now they confidently play tricks. Recently, we used Afghan National Army uniforms and laid siege to American troops in Nooristan and killed and wounded many of them. In return, the Americans threatened to bomb a whole village. That’s why the local people didn’t spy on the Taliban’s positions,” Jarrah said.

Suddenly, in the far distance, we saw the dark skies of Kunar light up.

“That is a light bomb used by the enemy to trace the Taliban’s positions. That is approximately 10 kilometers from here, and obviously a battle is going on between the enemies and the Taliban. We are not necessarily aware of such battles every time,” Jarrah said.

After a dinner of rice and chicken curry and saying the final prayers of the day, we all slept in an isolated mud house of the village. The call to morning prayers marked the start of a new day and a new struggle. After saying prayers and eating breakfast, the men who had accompanied us the previous evening left, but within two hours a new group joined us.

“They rotate throughout the day and night. Some of the people will go back to Pakistan to stay with their families and new ones will join us. Some will finish their guerrilla operations in the Kunar Valley and join us here to rest, and then a new guerrilla group will be launched,” Jarrah said.

“But do you sometimes have a serious dearth of fighters?” I asked.

“Not at all,” said Jarrah, laughing. “Instead, the real issue remains how to accommodate all the guerrilla groups because people are flooding to us to join the jihad and we don’t always have enough resources to provide for them all at the same time. But I think we will increase our resources soon, and then you will see a flood of fighters finding its way against the foreign occupying forces.”

Before I could ask any further questions, a tall man who introduced himself as Maroof asked me, “What is your name, Mr Journalist?” “Saleem Shahzad,” I answered. “What?” I repeated my name. “Aren’t you the one who was detained by the Taliban last year in Helmand? I listened to your interview on radio after your release,” Maroof said with excitement.

“He is with us now, what happens if he is killed?” I heard Maroof inquiring of Jarrah in a loud whisper. Jarrah chuckled, “If he is killed, it would be the will of God.”

Maroof was in the Afghan National Army and was once detained by the Americans for being in the army but “facilitating” the Taliban. He says he did not cough up anything during interrogation, but when he was released he promptly joined the ranks of the Taliban.

“The mujahideen have now acquired such strength that neither Pakistan nor NATO can fight against us. The Taliban are standing on both sides of the border. More operations breed more Taliban, and this time the Taliban will rule the whole region,” Maroof said confidently.

Jarrah summoned a few armed men and we took a long walk on a mountain trail, ending up at a goat farm.

This was the Taliban’s missile battery, comprising about 200 Russian-made rockets, which the Taliban call Sakar 20. They are 2.5 meters long with a range of about 30 kilometers and the capacity to devastate an area of about 100 square meters. The Taliban’s Sarkano district battery has six donkeys to carry the weapons.

“We use these donkeys to carry the missiles and other equipment when we attack an enemy installation. In this terrain, donkeys are the only ‘vehicles’ that can be used as transport,” Jarrah said.

“These missiles come from old dumps of weapons the Taliban recovered after the fall of the communist government in Afghanistan [in the early 1990s]. Russian technology is far superior to American,” Jarrah said, and illustrated his point by taking out his Russian-made pistol.

“This pistol works like a revolver and you don’t need to cock it like American pistols. It belonged to the Russian special forces. We have mostly Russian weapons stocks, but we have recently started using American weapons recovered from American troops or the Afghan National Army,” Jarrah explained.

Behind the simple structures, I see the formation of a very well-trained army which was non-existent even a year ago. Only three years ago, the Taliban did not have a central command, secure bases, and the motivation they now obviously possess.

The ideologues of the neo-Taliban were raised and trained by the Pakistani military to bleed India, and now, using the same techniques, they aim to bleed NATO and the Pakistani Army.

But it was time to run – I had an appointment that evening with these Punjabi ideologues.


Part 2 – Pain has become the remedy

NAWA PASS, Pakistan border with Afghanistan – While I was waiting in a village mud mosque, several motorbikes emerged from the evening darkness along a dirt track.

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Four strongly built men stopped in front of me and alighted, their faces flushed from their ride. They each gave me a hug, and their traditional Punjabi greeting was music to my ears after listening to a lot of Pushtu.

I asked the obvious question: “Are you Punjabi?” The concern on their faces was immediately noticeable. “No! We belong to this land and like many Afghans we were settled in Punjab [in Pakistan] and therefore learnt Punjabi and forgot Pashtu, but now we are back in our land and have learnt our language again,” one of the men explained.

This is perhaps somewhat romantic. Although such Punjabis might have romantic ties with Afghanistan, they actually come from Pakistani Punjab. Before the partition of British India in 1947, Punjab was seen as a loyal colony of the British and their recruits fought against the Afghans. After partition, Punjabis were seen as usurpers who divided the Pashtun tribes in the name of a new country called Pakistan. To many Afghans, Punjabis are opportunists and while they claim to be Muslims, their culture is a blend of Hinduism and Sikhism.

Sadiq is not a commander: he cannot be, because whatever he might say about his ethnicity, for Afghans he is a Punjabi. I watched as he spoke fluent Pashtu to his Afghan comrades, moving from one group to another with a permanent smile on his face. Clearly, he is the natural leader of the diaspora of Punjabi guerrillas now in Afghanistan.

Sadiq was in the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani jihadi group focused on the struggle to regain Indian-administered Kashmir. He was trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to conduct guerrilla operations all across India. He knows how to generate resources and lead sorties.

He joined the Taliban in late 2004 as an ordinary fighter, but because of his skills he quickly rose through the ranks. He became a trainer and honed his men’s battle skills. And although he is not a commander, he is more respected and important than many of them. He is the mastermind of all guerrilla operational plans in Afghanistan’s Kunar Valley.

An emirate in the making

I said my final prayers of the day and had my dinner. It was tolerably cold, and I sat back and by the light of a gas lamp watched and listened to tired guerrillas discussing their day.

“I was thinking before coming here, how do you say your Friday prayers in the battlefield – I noticed you did not say any today?” I started the conversation with Sadiq.

“First, we are all travelers, so Friday prayers are not compulsory. But most importantly, this region has been declared darul harb [enemy country], so Friday prayers are suspended until it becomes darul Islam [abode of Islam],” Sadiq replied.

I continued this discussion with Sadiq on prayers and the circumstances in which they are suspended and restored, and soon all the people in the mud hut had gathered around and the conversation turned to the new dynamics of the Afghan resistance.

So I launched a series of questions. “It is still not clear who is in whose command. What is the command of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [leader of the Hezb-i-Islami]? Is [veteran Afghan resistance figure] Jalaluddin Haqqani under [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, or is he commanding separately? Who do the Pakistan Taliban answer to? To Mullah Omar? And what are Pakistani jihadis up to?

Sadiq smiled at the barrage of questions and responded with some breaking news, “Mullah Omar, the Taliban shura [council], al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have resolved this issue once and for all. Soon the mujahideen will announce the revival of a [region-wide] Islamic emirate, and after this – like all fighting groups gathered under a single command in Iraq – all commanders in Afghanistan will fall under the umbrella of the Islamic emirate.

“The Islamic emirate will govern [operations in] Afghanistan and Pakistan, and whether it is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or any other, they will be under a single command and will not be able to defy the emirate because this is Islam,” Sadiq said.

The pronouncement of an emirate would be a major development, and I jumped to my feet. “Are you sure that an Islamic emirate will be announced soon?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Sadiq smiling.

“Sadiq, you know what this means? It would challenge both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Are the Taliban capable of doing this?” I asked.

“Of course we are,” Sadiq replied calmly.

“How?” I asked.

“Three years ago, it was actually a dream, but now circumstances have enabled such an environment. Apart from North Waziristan and South Waziristan [tribal areas in Pakistan], the mujahideen used to move in Bajaur [Agency] and Mohmand Agency as if they were moving in [the Pakistani cities of] Karachi or Lahore. We were terrified of being arrested and of the fact that somebody would be spying on us.

“We used to make secret trips to Afghanistan to conduct occasional raids. On the one side the Americans were after us, and on the other side our own Pakistani army was tracking us. We didn’t want to fight the Pakistan army, after all, they are Muslims. We tried our best to avoid fighting them, and still hardly 3% of the mujahideen are fighting against them. However, Pakistan did not think the way we were thinking. They were more cruel and gruesome than the Americans.

“We had a companion who had fought alongside us in Kashmir. His name was Umer, and he was dead against fighting the Pakistani army. Whenever the military conducted operations, he used to desert his companions, saying he could not fight against Muslims.

“One day, he was arrested by the ISI. They hung him by one hand from a roof, and carved stars on his thighs with daggers. They humiliated him in all manners. When he was released, it was thought he would be a broken person.

“But now he is an advocate of jihad against the Pakistani army, bigger than anybody else. These sorts of incidents have turned the mujahideen into our camp. They understand they have been fooled in the name of jihad in Kashmir,” said Sadiq, referring to slamabad’s de-escalation of fighting in the Kashmir Valley.

“In 2003, a gathering in Muredkey [the LeT’s Pakistani headquarters] was an eye-opener to sincere jihadis. Hafiz Mohammed Saeed [chief of the LeT] introduced us to one Abdullah, a person wearing a prayer cap and a small beard. Many among us knew he was the head of the ISI’s Kashmir cell.

“He addressed the gathering and made the point that the Kashmiri jihad could not achieve its objectives and that it was a lame duck. He advised the mujahideen to sit quietly at home until new circumstances developed. This sort of advice turned people into our camp, but the real revolution came because of al-Qaeda,” Sadiq said.

“[Senior al-Qaeda leader] Abu Marwan al-Suri was killed [in May 2006] by the Khasadar force in Bajaur Agency. This is a force of peons. Had Marwan been killed by any elite commando force of the Pakistani army, we would not have been so saddened, but for a person like him to be killed by a third-rate force like the Khasadars, it was bad.

“He was traveling in bus when he was identified as an Arab and was asked to descend. He took out his revolver and warned the Khasadars that he was a mujahid and did not want to kill any Muslims, so they should let him go. The Khasadars did not listen to him. You know Arabs, they do not escape – they fight until their last – but he tried to flee to avoid fighting Muslims, and was killed.

“His body was photographed and the pictures were presented to the Americans with pride and the people responsible received medals. Every mujahid felt humiliated. Brother … our blood is not so cheap to be played around with by any third-rate person. Mujahideen were full of rage. They rose from their hideouts.

“Marwan’s body became an inspiration. The aroma from his blood was a legend in Bajaur and his graveyard became a holy site. Reaction swept through Bajaur and in a matter of days the Khasadars’ posts were wiped out and blown up. The army came to conduct operations, but was defeated.

“Our victories gathered all tribes around us. You know our biggest commander in Bajaur, Maulana Faqir Muhammad, was trained by the Pakistani army to resist the Soviets [in the 1980s] but after September 11 his brother was detained by the army. He was beaten to death.

“In 2005 the Taliban were limited to South Waziristan and North Waziristan and in Mohmand Agency there were only a few dozen of them, but now we number 18,000, thanks to the operations of the Pakistani army,” Sadiq said, his face full of emotion.

“You asked me what makes us think we can establish an Islamic emirate,” Sadiq said, and then recited famous Urdu and Persian poet Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, who went under the pen name of Ghalib: “Pain has crossed its limits and has become the remedy.”

“We have braved all their tyrannies. They cannot be more tyrannical than that. We are hardened and they are tired and now it is our turn and I promise that we will turn the tables on them soon,” Sadiq said.

We were all tired, and went to bed, but my brain was racing so much it was a while before sleep came.

The next morning at breakfast we pick up on the same topic.

“Sadiq, whether it is right or wrong, don’t you think that the new Taliban plans will create problems within the Pakistani army?” I asked.

“That does not matter. This battle cannot stop now. The mujahideen have been deceived so many times that now they have decided to fight the Pakistani army at all costs,” Sadiq said, sipping his tea.

After a long pause, he continued, “You know, the Taliban are blamed for all the problems, but in actual fact it is America which will never allow a ceasefire between the Pakistani army and the mujahideen. The Americans will force the Pakistani army to fight against us and therefore this battle will continue,” Sadiq said.

“Man, you are fighting against the army and blaming America,” I taunted him.

“I will tell you why. The Americans know exactly how near we are to Islamabad and they are aware of defections in the Pakistani army, and they are also aware that only one or two defections at the level of colonel will mean that the mujahideen will get their hands on some batteries of missiles which can carry nuclear warheads.

“And they [Americans] know the moment the mujahideen get that, the game will turn in favor of the mujahideen both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then nobody will be able to stop our march. So the Americans want a big battle between the army and the mujahideen so that the end game will be that they can step in and destroy Pakistan’s nukes under the pretext that the Pakistani army cannot protect them from the mujahideen,” Sadiq said.

Shortly after breakfast, the Taliban said goodbye to me. On my way home, as I passed deserted checkpoints in Bajaur, I cast my mind back to the origins of the US-led “war on terror”, the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Al-Qaeda carried these out with a particular aim – to invite the wrath of the American “cowboys” who would beat up Muslims to such an extent that a severe backlash would be generated.

Six years have passed, and we have had the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (maybe Iran in the offing). Yet it might be in the tribal areas of Pakistan that the real showdown begins. I can just imagine the dance of jubilation Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri will do on the news of a fresh grand operation by the Pakistani army there – it will only breed more Taliban.


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