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Terrorism: The Return of the Taliban

"In Zabol province, on the Pakistan border, where the former religious students control virtually all the villages, the choice is simple, a merchant explains: get arrested by the government because you wear a beard, or get killed by the Taliban because you look like a spy ..."

It's a town from a Western, nestled in the tribal regions that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan, to the south of Peshawar. Here, in Darra Adam Khel, Pakistani law is no longer enforced, and the inhabitants walk around with Kalashnikovs on their shoulders. From the first houses, a sign warns you that access to the city is strictly forbidden to foreigners. Why? You understand very quickly as you drive along the streets: everywhere inscriptions on the walls invite young men to join the "Army of Mohammed" jihad, the group of fighters accused of being responsible for the kidnapping and decapitation of American journalist Daniel Pearl. But by abandoning several dollars to one of the watchmen, one may stroll through the alleys without the governmental authorization necessary to cross the city of a thousand rifles.

Darra Adam Khel - 2,600 weapons stores, 3,000 craftsmen who reproduce on average close to 400 weapons a day - is at the heart of one of the biggest non-official weapons markets in the world. The one that supplies the tribal regions of Waziristan, the rear base for Arab fighters, and perhaps for Osama bin Laden since he was chased out of the mountains of Tora Bora. One finds everything in Darra, from Berettas to grenades to anti-aircraft missiles. It's here to the weapons market (which prospers with the blessing of the Pakistani government) that Hafiz Obeidullah, called Abu Jihad, one of the Taliban fighters who conduct guerrilla operations against American forces in Afghanistan, comes for supplies.

But it was on the other side of the border at Spin Boldak, in Afghanistan, that Abu Jihad, settled in the back room of a television store, told the "Nouvel Observateur" about his daily routine of Afghan combat. First surprise of this incursion into the "grey zone" of the Pakistani-Afghan border: the Taliban - often linked to al-Qaeda - who conduct the guerrilla war against the Americans in Afghanistan - are not, as we thought, entrenched in the gorges of inaccessible mountain ranges, nor lying low in underground caves. They live quietly in the heart of Afghan or Pakistani cities. They have their winter quarters in Karachi, buy provisions in Peshawar, buy their weapons in Darra, have their meetings in Quetta, and live in Kandahar or Jalalabad. Sometimes they cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan every day, a border they don't recognize because, according to them, it artificially divides Pashtunistan. By virtue of the agreements concluded between Kabul and Islamabad, they are even exempt from presenting their papers at border posts.

Sitting on a broken Japanese television, Hafiz, wearing a black shalwar kamiz, the region's traditional outfit, recounts enthusiastically how the war in Iraq has given new life to the struggle in Afghanistan. He congratulates himself particularly over the records reached the last few months: there have not been so many attacks and American deaths since the fall of the Taliban regime. Since the Iraqi brothers have shown us the way, he rejoices, a new front for jihad has opened here in southern Afghanistan. If you believe him, and also according to other fighters the "Nouvel Observateur" has met, Osama bin Laden has decided to open training camps in the Sunni triangle of Iraq for Afghans, so that they can learn Iraqi insurgents' latest methods. Hafiz himself undertook the trip to be trained by these masters of jihad the Iraqis have become.

The prestige of Arab fighters in the eyes of Afghans is today such that they all want to make the trip. But three conditions are required to be accepted into that great school of jihad: one must be in good health, receive a letter of invitation from Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, bin Laden's representative in Iraq, and, of course, speak Arabic. Hafiz, who learned Arabic in a Quetta madrassa, really speaks the language of the Koran very well. In 1996, he even served as an interpreter between his then-commander, Mullah Burgean, and Osama bin Laden in the former's house in Jalalabad.

Fifteen of them - eight Afghans, three Uzbeks, and an Iranian - undertook the warrior pilgrimage to Iraq. From Kandahar to Ramadi, near Fallujah, their journey took more than five weeks. Taken in hand at their departure by drug traffickers, they changed guides and border escorts several times, and Hafiz even wondered once whether he had not been betrayed by his border escort for money. He ended up arriving at a camp near Fallujah, the organization of which much resembled that of his Al-Farooq camp in Kandahar during the blessed time of the Taliban. There, the orders they were given were very strict: never leave the camp unless accompanied and, above all, never ask a question about Zarqaoui.

For three months, Hafiz trained in weapons use: "For us," he says, "it was rather boring because we already knew how to use rocket launchers and all that. But we also learned about manipulating more sophisticated mechanisms and explosives controlled from a distance." The discipline and the passion that animated the Iraqi fighters made the biggest impact on the Afghan. "Hatred of America lived in their eyes and their faces; it was so beautiful!" he enthused. And then there were the suicide bombers, "adolescents whom their Iraqi parents had given for the jihad. I don't know if you could find people ready for such a sacrifice in Afghanistan," he observed with regret. Several times a week, officials from the suicide bomber camp - poetically baptized "the camp for the lovers of the virgins of paradise" - asked for volunteers. Hafiz asserts he raised his hand each time, but was never chosen. "They told me I had to live to come back here to Afghanistan and explain the methods I had learned ..." It's a fact: for the last several months, the nature of Afghan attacks - suicide attacks, filmed decapitations like those of the supposed "spies" in Khost - reminds one more and more of Iraqi barbarity.

Of course, the level of violence is not comparable and the elections, with few exceptions, took place in a relatively calm atmosphere, given the circumstances. But in the south, opponents of the Kabul regime have gone back into business. And the repentant Taliban who answered President Hamid Karzai's call and try to integrate themselves into the new political landscape can't go back to their villages under pain of being murdered. When you take the brand new highway that goes from Kabul to Kandahar, the one the Afghans call "the Bush highway," starting just south of Ghazni, it becomes more and more dangerous to stop.

In the village of Moqar, at the threshold of the Zabol district, the countryside of which is entirely controlled by the insurgents, the former spokesperson for the Taliban government in Europe, Mullah Nek Muhammad Nekmal, agrees to see us. The former diplomat exploded a mine in 1996 when he was leaving for the assault on Kabul. He has kept stigmata from the experience: a plastic leg, his nose gone, and black eyeglasses that hide a lost eye and part of a face covered with scars. The limp handshake that former Taliban make it a point of honor to give women - as proof of their change - is a painful experience, but the mullah is rather eloquent on the military and political situation. "To survive south of Ghazni today," he explains, "you have to get along with government representatives as well as insurgents." Nonetheless, in spite of his prudence and his numerous relations among the guerrilla movement, he admits he no longer ventures into Zabol province. "I'd be killed before anyone tried to find out exactly who I was," observes the former diplomat.

In a little sitting room in the mullah's house, we meet Bismillah, a handsome man of 38 with a frank handshake, who has never been a Taliban. A car salesman, he has just left his village in Zabol province to move to Moqar. He describes a lawless zone where all the central governments' representatives in the village have to retreat back to the provincial capital by nightfall. No more schools. No more gas. Even the indispensable mobylettes [motorized bicycles] have been forbidden by the Americans because they are the Taliban's preferred means of transport. Result: the inhabitants are leaving en masse to take refuge in Pakistan or towards the north. "In Zabol province," Bismillah summarizes, "you have a choice: to be arrested by the government because you have a beard or to be killed by the Taliban because you look like a spy ..." And then there are the American bombing raids. In Bismillah's village, a bomb killed ten people, including three children. The person they were targeting, Mullah Wazir, had moved months ago to Quetta, in Pakistan ...

Forty-year-old Rahman Akhondzada is one of the commanders of the Taliban insurgency in Zabol province. He is very difficult to meet, but we were able to interview him thanks to a satellite telephone. He asserted to us that he launches at least one attack a week on the American base of Daya Choopan with his 150 men. According to him, 15 districts of the country are under "the Taliban Islamic law," while American soldiers can't move in those regions except in convoys supported by aircraft. According to Rahman Akhondzada, it's Mullah Omar who is still leading the guerrilla movement and who distributes his orders and fatwas in person or in writing. At this time, he confides to us, there is a shakedown going on within the heart of the Taliban leadership: Mullah Omar has had to part with - among others - ex-Justice Minister Nooruddin Torabi and ex-Interior Minister Mullah Abdul Razaq.

"The last time I saw Mullah Omar," the Commandant relates, "it was the beginning of the summer of 2005. My superior, Mullah Barader, led me into a house at nightfall. Mullah Omar was there, surrounded by eight bodyguards armed with grenade launchers, grenades and AK-47 assault rifles. He was in good health, as in the Kandahar times. We talked about the Cuba and Bagram prisons. He was, as usual, not very talkative, listening attentively, then making decisions with an un-appealable yes or no. He assured us that the jihad had only just begun."

Under the Taliban regime, the mullah Abdul Salam, nicknamed "General Rocket," was one of the five highest ranking officers in the army. Today he's the first ex-Taliban to have been elected to the Afghan Parliament. In his house in Kabul - where he sits in a suit near the door as Pashtun tradition requires when one receives guests - Abdul Salam, who, from his military past, has retained the build of an enormous heavyset bear, describes the avalanche of threats and warnings that has struck him since his election, even though he has maintained excellent contacts among his former friends. Moreover, from time to time, when someone asks him to intercede to have hostages released by the insurgents, or when President Karzai begs him to try to convince the Taliban to accept a truce, he goes to meet the leaders of the insurrection secretly in a "girga (assembly) of reconciliation." "The whole General Staff of the Taliban resistance is in Quetta," "General Rocket" calmly explains. "Abdul Razak, Obeidullah, Kahar and the others, like a real shadow government. Behind them, there's the Evil Council: the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani Secret Services) colonels, who organize and finance them right under the nose of President Musharraf and the Americans ..."

Translation: Leslie Thatcher.

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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