The interpreter’s hand-held radio crackled with the sound of intercepted Taliban transmissions, and he signaled the infantry patrol to wait while he translated. At 7 a.m. one morning late in the summer, peasants were already out scything wheat, with their children tending fields of pink and white poppies that would soon add to Afghanistan’s record-setting opium and heroin supplies. We were 9,000 feet up, in the hamlet of Larzab, in a remote part of Zabul province -- the heart of Talibanland.
Our interpreter, Mohammed, estimated that the Taliban fighters were less than half a mile away. We walked through the fields for 20 more minutes before stopping next to a small hill. The chatter revealed that the Taliban were "watching us and waiting for us to get closer," Maj. Ralph Paredes explained to me as his men radioed to their base the likely coordinates of the hidden fighters. Soldiers back at the base -- a mud-walled compound without electricity or water -- fired mortar rounds over our heads to a hill several hundred meters from our position, where the Taliban might be hiding. We never learned whether they found their target.
Just one more patrol, and one more skirmish, in Afghanistan’s war -- a conflict in which the fighting and ferocity are regaining strength with each passing month. Indeed, the U.S. military and NATO are now battling the Taliban on a scale not witnessed since 2001, when the war here began, and are increasingly fighting them in remote areas such as Larzab where the Taliban once roamed freely.
When I traveled in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, the Taliban threat had receded into little more than a nuisance. But now the movement has regrouped and rearmed. Bolstered by a compliant Pakistani government, hefty cash inflow from the drug trade and a population disillusioned by battered infrastructure and lackluster reconstruction efforts, the Taliban is back -- as is Afghanistan’s once forgotten war.
In the past three months alone, coalition forces have killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters, according to Col. Tom Collins, a U.S. military spokesman, while the religious militia has killed dozens of coalition troops and hundreds of Afghan civilians, spreading a climate of fear throughout the country. And suicide attacks in Afghanistan have risen from single digits two years ago to more than 40 already this year. Most of the victims are civilians -- including more than a dozen bystanders who were killed here Friday when a bomb-laden car struck a convoy of armored U.S. vehicles just 200 yards from the U.S. Embassy; the attack also killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded a third. Half an hour after the blast, I watched as firefighters hosed down the streets, which were littered with shards of blackened metal and singed body parts.
I recently traveled to Afghanistan for three weeks, meeting with government officials, embedding with U.S. soldiers from the 2-4 Infantry and interviewing senior American military officers. I found that while the Taliban may not constitute a major strategic threat to President Hamid Karzai’s government, they have become a serious tactical challenge for U.S. and NATO troops, as the war here intensifies. And their threat is only amplified by their ubiquity and invisibility.
"In this place, they are everywhere," explained Mohammed, our interpreter. "They are sitting here as a farmer. Then they are Taliban."
When I visited Zabul province in July, Lt. Col. Frank Sturek was in charge of U.S. military operations there. Sturek, from Aberdeen, Md., earned his insurgent-fighting stripes in Mosul, Iraq, under the tutelage of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. When I spoke to Sturek, he had recently lost two of his men in firefights with the Taliban. In a nighttime interview conducted by flashlight in the mud compound, Sturek described a two-hour struggle on July 19, against about 120 Taliban who were armed with mortars, recoil-less rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Judging from newly dug graves, Sturek estimated 35 to 40 Taliban had been killed.
Despite their numerous casualties, the Taliban are much more willing than Iraqi insurgents to engage in pitched battles, Sturek said. "These guys will mix it up," he said, "and they use a lot more direct fire." In the five months he had been in Afghanistan, he noted, none of the Taliban fighters his men had fought had ever surrendered.
Echoing all other U.S. officers I interviewed in Afghanistan, Sturek emphasized that the Taliban threat required a political solution, not a military one, and that expanding the U.S. presence and reconstruction efforts into remote areas would win the long-term conflict. "You can win every firefight you want, but the battle is in these villages," he said. "This is where you change the minds of the people -- or at least create a doubt that the Taliban are not preaching the right message."
A political solution is also the mantra of the U.S. commanding officer in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, an intense, intellectual soldier who speaks Mandarin and is on his second tour in the country. Over coffee in his Kabul office, he said that the situation in Afghanistan still looks reasonably optimistic. "I tell everyone don’t look at the snapshot," he said. "Look at the movie called Afghanistan."
For Eikenberry, that movie features the democratically elected president and parliament, as well as millions of boys and girls who are newly in school. Indeed, in the most recent poll of Afghan public opinion, released by ABC News in December 2005, 77 percent of Afghans said their country is headed in the right direction.
Of course, a similar poll today might find fewer Afghans with this point of view, given rising dissatisfaction with the Karzai government and growing anti-American sentiment revealed in riots that shook Kabul in May. Eikenberry acknowledges that "the strength and coherence of the Taliban movement is greater than it was a year ago," citing tribal and land disputes and trafficking in narcotics as reasons for the resurgence. He also draws a clear link between reconstruction and violence: "Wherever the roads end, that’s where the Taliban starts."
An amnesty program formally begun in 2005 by the Karzai government offers one promising approach to containing the Taliban threat. In Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul, I witnessed U.S. forces release Mullah Abdul Ali Akundzada, who was accused of sheltering Taliban members and had been arrested near the site where a makeshift bomb had detonated. In a deal brokered by the Karzai government and the U.S. military, Akundzada was handed over to a group of about 30 religious and tribal leaders, who publicly pledged that the released mullah would support the government. In an honor-based society such as Afghanistan, this program is working well. According to Afghan and U.S. officials, only a handful of the more than 1,000 Taliban fighters taking advantage of the amnesty have gone back to fighting the government and coalition forces.
Yet even as the amnesty program shows promise, Afghanistan’s ballooning drug trade has succeeded in expanding the Taliban ranks. It is no coincidence that opium and heroin production, which now makes up about half of the Afghan economy, spiked at the same time that the Taliban staged a comeback. A U.S. military official told me that charities and individual donations from the Middle East are also boosting the Taliban’s coffers. These twin revenue streams -- drug money and contributions -- allow the Taliban to pay their fighters as much as $100 a month, which compares favorably to the $70 salary of an Afghan police officer. Whatever the source, the Taliban can draw upon significant resources, at least by Afghan standards. One U.S. military raid on a Taliban safe house this year recovered $900,000 in cash.
The Taliban’s growing presence in central Afghanistan’s Ghazni province -- outside the group’s traditional strongholds in the south and east -- is another benchmark of its strength. Nearly half the districts in Ghazni are now under significant Taliban influence, a U.S. military official said. The Taliban units operating there aim to control access to Kabul 100 miles to the north, just one more sign that Taliban forces increasingly move across the country with ease.
But the key to the resurgent Taliban can be summarized in one word: Pakistan. The Pakistani government has proved unwilling or incapable (or both) of clamping down on the religious militia, even though the headquarters of the Taliban and its key allies are in Pakistan. According to a U.S. military official, not one senior Taliban leader has been arrested or killed in Pakistan since 2001 -- nor have any of the top leaders of the militias headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who are fighting U.S. forces alongside the Taliban.
Amir Haqqani, the leader of the Taliban in Zabul province, "never comes across the border" from Pakistan into Afghanistan, Sturek told me. The Taliban’s most important leadership council, the Quetta Shura, is based in the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province; the Peshawar Shura is headquartered in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. In addition, Hekmatyar operates in the tribal areas of Dir and Bajur; Haqqani is based in Waziristan; and al-Qaeda has a presence in Waziristan and Chitral -- all Pakistani regions that border Afghanistan.
Finally, the peace deal announced this month between the Pakistani government and pro-Taliban militants along the Afghan border raises more concerns that such groups will operate more freely on and across the border. A U.S. military official in Afghanistan told me he is "extremely worried" about the pact, through which Pakistan agrees to withdraw army units from the region and will turn over checkpoints to local tribes that are effectively Taliban. And with military force against the Taliban highly unpopular among residents in the border region, the upcoming Pakistani presidential election in 2007 means that even less action will be taken in the months ahead.
Mullah Dadullah, a key Taliban commander, gave two interviews to al-Jazeera in the past year in which he made several illuminating observations about the scale and nature of the insurgency. Dadullah put Taliban forces at about 12,000 fighters -- considerably greater than a U.S. military source’s estimate of 7,000 to 10,000, but a number that could have some validity given the numerous part-time Taliban farmer/fighters. Dadullah also stressed the Taliban’s "close links" to al-Qaeda. "Our cooperation is ideal," he said, adding that Osama bin Laden is issuing orders to the Taliban. Indeed, a senior U.S. military intelligence official told me that "trying to separate Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan serves no purpose. It’s like picking gray hairs out of your head."
Dadullah also noted that "we have ‘give and take’ with the mujaheddin in Iraq." Considering the rising number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan and the increased use of makeshift bombs, Taliban forces appear to have learned from the Iraqi insurgents. A videotape posted on the Internet by al-Qaeda in May shows how critical Iraqi techniques have become to the Afghan insurgency: The tape shows an Arab suicide bomber in Afghanistan prepping a car bomb, and driving it into an American convoy.
Just as suicide bombings in Iraq had an enormous strategic impact -- from pushing the United Nations out of the country to helping spark a civil war -- such attacks may also plunge Afghanistan into chaos. Already, suicide attacks have made much of southern Afghanistan a no-go area for foreigners and for any reconstruction efforts. According to Hekmat Karzai, head of an independent terrorism research center in Kabul, these attacks "have really instilled fear in the heart of the population." Luckily, for the moment, the suicide attackers in Afghanistan have not been nearly as deadly as those in Iraq. As one U.S. military official explained to me, almost all of the Taliban’s suicide bombers are "Pashtun country guys from Pakistan," with little effective training.
The Afghan population remains generally pro-American, and its appetite for more conflict is low after more than two decades of war. However, the risks of a slide into Iraq-style chaos remain. Averting it would require Washington to end the Afghan drug trade and compel Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban warriors’ havens. These are both tall orders, but Washington could gain real leverage in the area of reconstruction. So far, it has appropriated only $9 billion for Afghan reconstruction, as compared with $34 billion for Iraq, even though Afghanistan is larger, more populous and has greater infrastructure needs. And of the appropriated amount, only $2.5 billion, a State Department official told me, has been spent.
In the absence of greater U.S. investments in roads, power and water resources, the Taliban will surely prosper and continue to gain adherents. Unless they take decisive action now, U.S. policymakers may be looking back in a few years, asking themselves why they lost Afghanistan despite the promise the country showed after the fall of the Taliban regime.