Taliban Finds New Strength in Pakistan
- Los Angeles Times
August 31, 2003
Taliban Finds New Strength in Pakistan
By Paul Watson
Times Staff Writer
DIR, Pakistan - A revitalized Taliban army is drawing recruits from militant
groups in Pakistan, including Al Qaeda loyalists, as it fights an escalating
guerrilla war against U.S. forces and their allies across the border in
These fighters are answering the call from Muslim clerics to wage jihad, or
holy war, against U.S.-led forces, according to Taliban members and
supporters as well as Pakistani militants interviewed on both sides of the
border. The Taliban is also exploiting the alienation felt by ethnic
Pushtuns in Afghanistan because of continued insecurity, a scarcity of
development projects and ongoing U.S. military operations.
But even as fighting increases, a relatively moderate element of the Taliban
is said to be interested in participating in national elections next June,
and discussing a replacement for Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's
fugitive leader. He is believed to still be in Afghanistan despite a
$10-million reward for his capture.
Afghan authorities have blamed the Taliban for a string of attacks in
eastern and southern Afghanistan that have killed more than 60 Afghan
civilians, pro-government Muslim clerics, police and soldiers since
mid-July. U.S. and Afghan forces say they have killed at least several dozen
suspected Taliban fighters in the same period.
Despite the presence of thousands of U.S. and other international troops,
the Taliban fighters and their allies hope to eventually retake the southern
city of Kandahar, once Omar's seat of power, said a local Pakistani
commander of Harkat-ul-Moujahedeen, a longtime ally of the Al Qaeda
The commander, who was interviewed in this mountain town near the Afghan
border, spoke on condition that he not be identified. As a member of a group
banned by the Pakistani government, he fears arrest.
He runs a madrasa, or Koranic school, and says he has crossed into
Afghanistan seven times since late 2001, to aid the Taliban's war against
U.S.-led forces. In one case, he said with a sly smile, Pakistani soldiers
guarding the border saw him and did nothing.
In any case, he said, borders are irrelevant for him and like-minded
"We don't believe in any boundaries or separate countries for Muslims -
there is only one Islam," he said. "These people are going [to Afghanistan]
because there is a fatwa from religious scholars that says there is a jihad
against Americans there." A fatwa is a religious edict.
"The fact is that now the situation in the Pushtun belt is very critical
compared with other parts of Afghanistan," he added. "Now all Pushtuns are
reuniting against the Americans."
Afghan government officials speak of hundreds of Taliban members and their
allies filtering back and forth across the border from Pakistan. The Harkat
commander, who wore brown-tinted rectangular sunglasses and a small, tightly
wrapped black turban, declined to provide a figure.
However, he added: "People sitting in government offices can't imagine how
many Pakistanis are still operating inside Afghanistan, supporting the
Local residents say other Pakistan-based militant groups crossing into
Afghanistan include the Al Badr militia and Hizbul Moujahedeen. The latter
is an old ally of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received large
shipments of weapons from the United States during the war against Soviet
forces in the 1980s. But after the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Washington
accused him of plotting against President Hamid Karzai and targeted him with
a missile strike in May 2002. He survived.
Harkat, Hizbul Moujahedeen and Al Badr are among the main militant groups
fighting in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. But under U.S. pressure
Pakistan has curbed those infiltrations, leaving militants ripe for
recruitment to the pro-Taliban jihad in Afghanistan.
Harkat was one of the founders of Osama bin Laden's "International Islamic
Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," announced at a news conference
near the Afghan frontier town of Khowst in 1998.
Khowst remains a power base for the Taliban. U.S. fighter jets and
helicopters patrol day and night here in support of ground troops searching
for weapons and militant fighters. Often the enemy is close - but invisible.
Taliban member Nadir Khan recently sat in the back seat of a reporter's car
not far from a U.S. base and described how he and other Taliban members move
back and forth across the Pakistani border, about an hour's drive away. They
carry out attacks and return to their bases in Pakistan, he said. Khan was
contacted through an intermediary and agreed to talk on condition that the
precise location of the interview not be revealed.
He said he attended a meeting of Taliban commanders in Peshawar,
northwestern Pakistan's largest city, on July 12.
"It was like a Cabinet meeting," he said.
"The people I met in Peshawar even had guns with them," Khan said. "Pakistan
is not stopping all these meetings because Pakistan does not like the
government in Afghanistan. And they will work hard to destroy the government
The Taliban also crosses the border to silence informants aiding the
U.S.-led coalition, such as a man beaten unconscious outside his Khowst home
on July 19 because he spoke to U.S. troops based at the airport, Khan said.
Taliban defector Mullah Khaksar Akhund, who is now Afghanistan's deputy
intelligence chief, agrees that fighters are crossing the Pakistani border
to launch attacks.
Karzai recently joined those accusing Pakistan of harboring Taliban
fighters. "Definitely there are Taliban coming from across the border [to]
conduct operations in Afghanistan," he told a Pakistani television
interviewer on July 30.
The Afghan government has provided Pakistani and U.S. authorities with a
list of Taliban officials and where they live in Pakistan, said Khaksar, who
was the Taliban's deputy interior minister until he switched sides toward
the end of the U.S.-led war against Afghanistan in 2001.
"It isn't possible anywhere in the world for leaders of one country to live
in the territory of another country without its leaders knowing," Khaksar
Kabul's list of Taliban leaders said to be in Pakistan includes Haji Abdul
Kabir, the former Taliban deputy prime minister of Afghanistan who is No. 3
in the Taliban hierarchy.
Kabir would probably be well known to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence
agency, which helped train, arm and direct the Taliban before U.S. pressure
forced Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to officially cut ties with the
movement after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Afghan authorities say Kabir lives in Kohat, a Peshawar suburb that also is
home to a Pakistani army base. A resident said Kabir was a regular visitor
to Peshawar's busy Khyber Bazaar and was seen there as recently as
mid-August. But Kabir is careful not to give out a phone number or address,
the resident said.
A source in another border city, Quetta, said the Taliban's high-profile
former consul general in Peshawar, Maulavi Najibullah, is now raising funds
in Quetta for the guerrilla war.
The whereabouts of the two Taliban officials could not be confirmed
Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, an aide to Musharraf, denied that the Taliban was
operating from Pakistan, and said his government has asked Kabul and the
U.S.-led coalition for any information that has led them to conclude
Qureshi also said it would be impossible for provincial governments in
Pakistan's border areas to defy the federal government and aid the Afghan
insurgency. Those areas are now run by elected hard-line Islamic parties
openly sympathetic to the Taliban.
"If there is anyone trying to organize such an activity inside Pakistan, the
government of Pakistan and the forces here will arrest them and try them in
a court of law," Qureshi said from Islamabad, the capital. "It is not
possible that they would escape anyone's attention in Pakistan."
Khan, the Taliban member interviewed near Khowst, is a university-educated
man in his mid-20s. He said he joined the Taliban four years ago when Omar
was neutralizing warlords and winning a war to unite the country. Many of
those warlords are wielding power again with weapons and money they received
for helping the U.S. military defeat the Taliban.
"In the beginning, people liked Mullah Omar very much because he was the
only man who could bring security to Afghanistan. And he did it," Khan said.
"But soon it was difficult to study for women, and boys as well, so people
turned their faces away from Omar. Now he is not as popular as he was in the
A new Taliban leadership is emerging under commanders such as Mullah
Mohammed Hassan and Mullah Qadir, Khan said. Hassan was the Taliban regime's
deputy leader, but little is known about Qadir. The two are probably leading
forces around Kandahar, Khan said.
The Harkat commander in Dir also said talks are underway to find a possible
replacement for Omar. He said Omar might no longer have enough support among
the growing number of allied groups fighting alongside the Taliban.
He suggested that Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, former head of the
Taliban's air force, might be more acceptable to allies such as Hekmatyar.
Mansour was reported killed in a U.S. bombing raid October 2001, but his
death was never confirmed and Afghan sources say he commanded Taliban troops
against U.S. forces during Operation Anaconda in early 2002.
Some Taliban members and supporters say there is a strong faction within the
movement that is more moderate than Omar, and wants to field candidates in
Afghanistan's national elections.
The idea of Taliban participation in an Afghan government that it does not
control is not new. As the Taliban regime crumbled in late 2001, Pakistan
pressed Washington to include moderate leaders such as Foreign Minister
Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel in a postwar government. Mutawakel turned himself in
to U.S. authorities early last year.
Karzai, who like the majority of the Taliban is an ethnic Pushtun, said in a
speech broadcast on Afghan television this summer that not all Taliban
members were bad people.
But angry protesters took to the streets of Kabul, the capital, the next
day, demanding a blanket denunciation of the Taliban. And ethnic Tajiks,
Uzbeks and Hazaras, whose soldiers helped win the war and who now dominate
Karzai's government, refused to let the Taliban return in any form.
Regional powers such as Iran, Russia and India, which are maneuvering to
increase their influence in Afghanistan, also staunchly oppose the Taliban.
Mullah Abdul Rahman Hotak, the Taliban's former deputy minister of
information and culture who now leads a pro-Taliban party in Peshawar, said
no government could bring peace to Afghanistan unless it included Taliban
leaders and Muslim scholars.
By refusing to allow the Taliban at least a share of power, President Bush
is denying Afghanistan the democracy that he promised, Hotak said.
"Mr. Bush is always saying, 'We are fighting for civilization in
Afghanistan, a very important part of which is democracy,' " he said. "If
this problem in Afghanistan is not solved, there would be a question for the
people of the United States: 'What does democracy mean?' "
Many Afghan Pushtuns now speak nostalgically of Taliban rule. Support is
spreading among disaffected college students who once saw the Taliban as
oppressors. A blast killed two Kabul university students in mid-August, and
police said they were making bombs. The Taliban is increasingly popular on
Khowst's college campus, students there said.
First-year engineering student Abdul Qayom Zalan, 20, said that for all its
failings, the Taliban's severe Islamic rule kept the streets safe, and that
the Taliban is now the only force defending Afghan nationalism. He said he
is not a Taliban member, but supports its guerrilla war.
"If you look at history, nobody ever liked foreigners in Afghanistan," Zalan
said. "The Taliban are an enemy of the foreigners, and these Americans who
have come to Khowst have not done anything for us. They only say, 'We will
bring you security,' and that doesn't even exist."
Zalan lives rent-free with 15 other students in a two-story house with
cracked walls decorated by United Nations posters warning of the dangers of
Most of the window panes are shattered, and there isn't any furniture, so
the students eat, sleep and study on the floor. They usually read by
kerosene lamps because the electricity is off three nights out of four. It's
rarely on during the day. Zalan rarely goes out after dark because there are
too many kidnappings.
"When the Taliban first came to power, they were a bit brutal and we didn't
like that," Zalan said. "But the current government isn't giving us anything
either. If the situation continues like this every day, without security,
more people will be interested in joining the Taliban."