Commander Mamabaidullah switches off the ignition and alights from his pickup truck onto the desert plain surrounding Spin Boldak, a chaotic Afghan town that borders Pakistan. Followed by four of his Kalashnikov-toting men, he walks briskly toward a graveyard where scores of bodies lie buried beneath mounds of dirt and clay. Mamabaidullah, who is responsible for guarding this stretch of frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan, stops at the row closest to the border.
With evident pride, he explains that they contain the corpses of Taliban militiamen killed by Afghan soldiers during a battle last month. These Taliban, Mamabaidullah says, had been hiding in Pakistan and returned to attack a government office in a nearby village. Officially, 40 Taliban died in the ensuing firefight, though a source present at the encounter and an official in Kabul both put the death toll, which included seven Afghan soldiers, nearer to 90. It was one of the Taliban’s biggest defeats since they were toppled in December 2001. Mamabaidullah had these bodies buried here to send a message “that if anyone comes into Afghanistan to kill or make problems, they’ll end up like this.”
The Taliban, however, show no intention of heeding his crude warning. In the past month, militants belonging to or affiliated with the Taliban have launched scores of rockets at U.S. military bases and detonated explosives in several Afghan cities. They have ambushed American and Afghan troops and torched newly rebuilt schools. During the last week of June, Taliban combatants temporarily seized government offices in a remote part of Zabul province. On June 30 a Taliban operative planted an antipersonnel mine in a Kandahar mosque run by a pro-government cleric; the subsequent blast wounded 17 worshipers. The next day, an anti-Taliban mullah was killed by a shot to the head.
A year ago, notes Masood Khalili, once a leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and now Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, “the Taliban were scared, broken and disconcerted. Now they are forming again, slowly, gradually, like a photograph developing.” The big picture, according to Kandahar’s police chief Brigadier General Mohammed Akram, is that “the Taliban are stronger now than at any time since the fall of their government.” These neo-Taliban number in the “thousands,” according to an Afghan security official in Kabul. They operate primarily out of Pakistan, guided by many of the same men—including supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar—who ran Afghanistan’s ultra-orthodox theocracy from 1995 through 2001, when the group harbored Osama bin Laden and lent eager support to al-Qaeda. While maintaining close ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban have also forged a deepening alliance with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his fundamentalist, vehemently anti-Western Hizb-i-Islami party, which remains potent in eastern Afghanistan. Afghan government officials, including President Hamid Karzai, and members of the U.S.-led Joint Coalition Task Force have downplayed recent attacks. Karzai tells Time that the Taliban are not regrouping: “Any internal danger is from terrorism and from al-Qaeda organizing from outside.” Coalition spokesman Colonel Rodney Davis agrees: “The coalition has degraded what was a formidable force.” True enough. But the Taliban have taken what was left of their own army and morphed it into a guerrilla-and-terror outfit. Their goal, says Afghanistan expert Professor Barnett Rubin of New York University’s (NYU) Center on International Cooperation, is to “cause enough terror that the foreigners will leave Afghanistan and Afghans will be afraid to collaborate with the government in Kabul, causing it to crumble.” That’s likely beyond their reach, but in a country as unstable as Afghanistan, even degraded Taliban fighters are a lethal threat.
Mamabaidullah’s office overlooks one of this battle’s front lines: Spin Boldak’s main border checkpoint, a notorious smugglers’ route from the Pakistani town of Chaman. Entering or leaving the country often requires no papers at all. “It’s impossible to control,” says Khalid Pashtoon, spokesman for Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai. It’s also the Taliban’s gateway to revenge. Following their ouster from Afghanistan, most Taliban leaders found sanctuary among fellow ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan’s lawless Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P.) regions. Pakistani authorities have arrested nearly 500 suspected al-Qaeda members, but Karzai, among others, has charged that the U.S.’s avowed ally has shown little inclination to apprehend top-level Taliban, even when provided addresses where they could be found. “If we had sincere and honest cooperation from Pakistan,” charges the security official in Kabul, “there’d be no Taliban threat in Afghanistan.” After the battle near Spin Boldak, Mamabaidullah made the point less delicately by piling more than 20 bodies onto a dump truck, driving to the border and depositing them on Pakistani soil.
Faisal Saleh Hayat, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, insists that “our focus is equally on al-Qaeda and on the Taliban.” President Pervez Musharraf has praised his security forces for capturing 10 Taliban leaders. He also sent Pakistani soldiers into parts of N.W.F.P. where they hadn’t been “for over a century.” But that late-June campaign stemmed from reports that bin Laden was in the area. A Pakistani intelligence source near Chaman says his orders are “not to harass nor appease” the Taliban but to let them be.
Essentially, the Taliban have returned to the cradle in which they were nurtured a decade ago with funding and training by Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). (Accusations persist that rogue ISI agents or ex-agents still back the Taliban.) The border provinces are controlled by Jamiat Ulema Islam, an extremist party that openly harbors the Taliban. In Quetta, 110 kilometers southeast of Chaman, men roam the streets wearing the distinctive black or white robes and black or white turbans characteristic of the Taliban. “We feel relaxed and safe here,” says a young Talib. A local cleric says Taliban commanders meet regularly in the town to plan raids into their former domain. Foot soldiers “operate in twos and threes,” says a trader who works on both sides of the border. “They sneak across, carry out attacks and come back.”
Mullah Omar himself is believed to be moving throughout Baluchistan and southwestern Afghanistan. Taliban spokesman Mohammed Mukhtar Mujahid, who is also at large, says Omar communicates with acolytes via recorded or written messages. Mujahid recently announced that Omar had formed a ten-man “leadership council” and assigned each lieutenant a specific region to destabilize. This guerrilla war cabinet includes Saifur Rahman Mansoor, who led Taliban forces against British and U.S. troops during Operation Anaconda in early 2002, and Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the one-legged intelligence chief who ordered the execution of a Salvadorean International Committee of the Red Cross worker in Uruzgan province in March.
While rallying old soldiers, the Taliban are also recruiting new members, targeting disgruntled young Afghans in refugee camps in Chaman, Quetta, Peshawar and Karachi. The appeals play on pride and alienation, charging that the Americans are denigrating Islam and Pashtuns. “You are seeing the picture of a dirty Jewish infidel searching the body of a Muslim woman,” reads a flyer found in Chaman, which shows a Western soldier frisking a burqa-clad female. “If a Muslim does not display his feelings by defending his faith and honor, then he is not a Muslim nor an Afghan.”
Karzai favors reintegrating low-level Taliban into Afghan society. But Mullah Khaksar, an ex-Taliban minister who later allied himself with the Northern Alliance, says Talibs are warned by their peers that “they’ll be sent to Guantánamo” if they return. Or, he adds, “[the Taliban] pay people to join their jihad.” Mullah Nik Mohammed, a Taliban commander captured in Spin Boldak, told his interrogators that he would have received $850 for detonating a bomb, double that if it killed a civilian, and $2,600 for taking a soldier’s life.
The Taliban’s most dangerous ally, however, appears to be the warlord Hekmatyar. He, like the Taliban leaders, is a Pashtun with a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and a hatred for the Americans and Karzai. His guerrilla fighting skills seduced the CIA and Pakistan into giving him billions of dollars of support and arms during the Soviet occupation. In May 2002, however, the U.S. tried to kill him with a Hellfire missile strike, and coalition soldiers have launched several operations in his traditional strongholds of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. A diplomat in Kabul believes Taliban leaders don’t trust Hekmatyar, whose treachery is legendary even by the spectacularly duplicitous standards of Afghan warfare. But a former Taliban financier in Chaman says Hizb-i-Islami has forged ties with “mid-ranking commanders and ordinary Taliban,” providing cash and motorcycles for cross-border attacks.
Singapore-based al-Qaeda expert Rohan Gunaratna asserts that the two groups are much more closely linked, that bin Laden himself oversaw the formation of their alliance “soon after U.S. troops entered Afghanistan. But now this understanding has become very deep. There’s integration between the organizations.” It amounts to a division of labor: the Taliban focus on southern Afghanistan and Hizb-i-Islami on the east, which frees al-Qaeda “to use its limited strength for operations overseas,” explains Gunaratna. (Several U.S. and Afghan intelligence sources, however, suspect al-Qaeda engineered a June 7 suicide bombing in Kabul that killed four German peacekeeping soldiers and an Afghan teenager.)
Outgunned on the home front, the Taliban mainly engage in hit-and-run skirmishes. Sergeant David Smith, who is stationed at a U.S. firebase in Paktika province, says his unit has encountered amateur warriors who forgot to pull the pins from the grenades they threw. But the unit has also faced highly trained professional soldiers. Recalling a clash in April, he says, “Those guys knew what they were doing. I have to give ’em props.”
Facing a more elusive enemy, coalition forces are also trying to adapt—by increasing their humanitarian efforts. Four Provincial Reconstruction Teams have been deployed by U.S. and British forces. They patrol, liaise with local leaders and work with NGOs to distribute school and building supplies, dig wells and repair bridges. “It is crucial,” says Colonel Davis, “that we show measurable, visible progress in terms of stability and reconstruction.” A school or clinic built by the coalition, NGOs or local government can have a huge impact on a village, providing not only services but also a rebuttal to the Taliban’s call to jihad. In Tani, a village in Khost province a few kilometers from the border with Pakistan, parents say school enrollment has doubled, and a 14-year-old boy excitedly describes a curriculum that now includes science, math and English. At a fruit stand in Logar province, Shakur, 60, says his village now has a medical clinic. The Taliban, he says, “did nothing for this country.”
But the hope generated by billions of dollars in promised aid has been dampened by the lack of significant progress on large-scale, job-producing projects such as repairing the nation’s horrendous roads. Meanwhile, the country continues to suffer from numerous potentially crippling problems: corruption and lawlessness are pervasive; civil servants often don’t get paid; Karzai’s power is largely limited to Kabul; warlords rule the countryside; the Afghan National Army is years from being a legitimate security force; and Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani is warning that the massive proliferation of poppy production threatens to turn Afghanistan into a narco-state. Among many diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials, there is a growing sense of foreboding. “Everyone can see very little is happening and that, evidently, the U.S. is not serious about its so-called commitment to reconstruct Afghanistan,” says NYU’s Professor Rubin. A recent Council on Foreign Relations and Asia Society report, Afghanistan: Are We Losing the Peace?, warns, “Failure to stem deteriorating security conditions and to spur economic reconstruction could lead to a reversion to warlord-dominated anarchy and mark a major defeat for the U.S. war on terrorism.”
Gunaratna, for one, believes a revitalized Taliban operating with relative freedom in Pakistan not only undermines the new Afghan government but also feeds the risk of terrorism abroad. “Al-Qaeda is able to survive because of its link with the Taliban,” he says. In short, they are still harboring al-Qaeda—but in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
For the Taliban, there is currency in every gripe, every unfulfilled promise, every report of American troops kicking in doors during village raids, every hired gun looking for work. “Just returning to Afghanistan is a victory for the Taliban,” says Masood Khalili, Kabul’s ambassador to India. But they clearly want more. “We are waiting,” says Qari Rehman, a Talib in Chaman. “You will see. The situation will get worse.”