It was early November 2001, and—with the onslaught of a Northern Alliance offensive and under heavy American bombing—the Taliban in northern Afghanistan was close to collapse. Fighters and commanders were surrendering en masse or trying to escape to Pakistan. Far to the south, the beleaguered forces of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar—who would end up fleeing on a motorbike into the nearby mountains—held out for one more month before Kandahar fell, marking the end of the regime.
Mullah Najibullah, a 22-year-old Taliban subcommander in the north, was determined to keep fighting despite the odds. Making his way south toward the capital, where combat was most intense, he decided to take a last stand with a handful of his fighters just outside Kabul on the Shomali Plain. Surrounded and outgunned, some of his men suggested they try to escape. Najibullah refused. “I won’t do it. I will continue fighting and be the last Taliban leaving Kabul,” he recalls saying. However, as he drove into the capital one night in a Land Cruiser full of fighters, Najibullah got caught in a heavy firefight at a checkpoint. His brother-in-law was killed, and Najibullah took a bullet in the leg. Though wounded, he managed to escape and flee to his home in Zabul province, hundreds of miles away. Undaunted, he hid and recovered from his wounds while organizing his next move.
Today, more than a decade later, much has changed on the ground in Afghanistan. The last U.S. troops are getting ready to leave, and the Taliban’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura, has opened a diplomatic office in the Gulf state of Qatar, seemingly intent on negotiating a peace deal. Najibullah, though, appears unchanged. Certainly he has lost none of his audacity. Having risen to the position of senior commander, he is still bold, outspoken, and extremely hotheaded. And he is doing what no insurgent leader had dared to do in the past: openly and vociferously opposing the Taliban leadership and its current policy of pursuing talks with Washington and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime.
Indeed, Najibullah, whose nom de guerre is Umar Khatab, has broken away completely from the shura leadership. He has formed his own insurgent faction and openly refers to the Taliban leadership as “traitors.” Commanding as many as 8,000 fighters out of an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 insurgents nationwide, he could present a serious problem for the Taliban leadership—and any hopes for eventual rapprochement between the warring sides. “This is the first time someone has split from, and criticized, the Taliban’s top leaders so openly,” says Zabihullah, a key Taliban political adviser. “In the past anyone who challenged the shura either faced death or arrest in Pakistan.”
His brazen, some say suicidal, move couldn’t have come at a less convenient time for Taliban leaders. The insurgency is flagging as U.S. troops prepare for the announced withdrawal of combat forces by the end of 2014. To make matters worse, the morale of many fighters is waning as a result of the leadership’s move to begin talks with Washington and Kabul. Pushing a peace agenda on religiously inspired guerrillas after nearly 13 years of sacrifice is a hard sell for the shura. “We are confused about what to do, given the peace talks,” says a Taliban subcommander in Helmand province, where the insurgents have been driven out of their former strongholds. “Why should I make my kids orphans and lose my beloved friends if we are going for peace?”
Before Najibullah broke with them, the Taliban’s senior leadership viewed him as one of its top officers—a hero even, according to Taliban insiders. Now, by formally divorcing himself from the mainstream movement, Najibullah has seriously weakened the Taliban leadership’s hold on the insurgency, both militarily and politically, while also undermining its credibility as a jihadist force. His rebellion may even signal the Taliban’s ultimate breakdown into feuding factions. “I worry that this peace-talks issue is making once-united Taliban brothers enemies of each other,” says a former senior Taliban intelligence officer. “They are now pointing guns and daggers at each other’s chests and throats.”
Najibullah’s anti-peace message and his call to continue the fight until total victory is achieved seem to have gained traction among the rank and file over the last few months. “Big numbers of Taliban and other Afghans are joining us,” Najibullah claims in an exclusive interview with Newsweek, speaking by telephone from an unknown location. If that’s true, Najibullah’s campaign could certainly jeopardize any settlement that Washington, Kabul, and the Taliban eventually negotiate.
BY ALL accounts, Najibullah is an imposing figure. Fellow fighters, and the handful of journalists who have met him, say he favors big black turbans and camouflage military vests. He sports a full, well-trimmed beard and short hair, is over six feet tall, has fair skin, and projects an air of authority.
He joined the jihadist cause in 1994, just as Omar was launching the Taliban movement. He was only 15 but quickly rose through the ranks to become a key subcommander under Mullah Dadullah in northern Afghanistan, as the Taliban fought to eliminate the last pockets of resistance by the Northern Alliance. He tells Newsweek that he joined Dadullah’s forces because he found him to be “the bravest and most charismatic commander.” He could have added that Dadullah was also one of the cruelest: human-rights groups charged that Dadullah’s men committed widespread atrocities against the Hazara minority during the fight in the north.
Under Dadullah’s tutelage, Najibullah acquired a reputation for launching daring attacks and making Houdini-like escapes from the clutches of American and Afghan forces—though, by his own count, he has been jailed and has bribed his way to freedom on at least three occasions, the first time in 1997.
After the attacks of 9/11, the American invasion, and his retreat back home following the shootout in Kabul, Najibullah organized and in 2003 led the first Taliban attack against Afghan government forces to take place in Zabul province. He was captured the following year and held in prison for eight months before paying a hefty bribe to his jailers and escaping. Then in 2006 he was arrested again. He says he paid Afghan judges and intelligence officers $25,000 to arrange his release.
By then he had become a valuable player as one of Dadullah’s top deputies. He had also gained a reputation for brutality; indeed, the Taliban leadership felt compelled to warn him against excessive use of force such as the willy-nilly beheading of prisoners and alleged spies.
Dadullah felt differently about his protégé and, to reward him, appointed him commander of hundreds of suicide bombers and operational chief of insurgent forces inside Kabul. And when special forces killed Dadullah during a 2007 raid, Najibullah immediately took command of most of his late mentor’s forces.
Najibullah says he organized a failed suicide attack in 2006 against former Afghan president Sibghatullah Mojaddedi and the successful kidnapping of one of Mojaddedi’s deputies in the government’s reconciliation program the following year. (He was released on the payment of a large ransom.) He also asserts that during the past few years he and his men were behind some of the biggest attacks against American convoys in Kabul and on U.S. outposts in nearby Wardak province. And he claims responsibility for the high-profile kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde in November 2008. (Rohde was held hostage in Pakistan until his escape eight months later.)
MULLAH MOHAMMAD Omar, the reclusive, one-eyed founder of the Taliban, has not been seen or heard from since late 2001 when, as he fled from his Kandahar base, he vowed to fight until all foreign soldiers had been driven from the country. Najibullah believes that, by negotiating, the shura leaders and their representatives in Qatar are ignoring Omar’s command—that they are selling out the original principles of the jihad for lives of comfort and riches. “Mansoor has hijacked and twisted Mullah Omar’s message,” Najibullah says, referring to Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, the shura’s leader. “The shura wants to lose at the table what we have won with our blood on the battlefield.” He believes that Omar has neither drafted nor approved any of the periodic messages that increasingly talk of political compromise, which the shura has issued in Omar’s name over the years.
Najibullah had closely followed the secret (later public) contact between Washington envoys and shura representatives, which formed the basis for beginning the peace talks—a process he rejected from the beginning and still adamantly opposes (even though the talks have gone nowhere). What sent him into open revolt was the leadership’s plan to set up a political office in Qatar as a venue for contact with American officials and Karzai negotiators; early this year he abruptly, overtly, and loudly broke with the shura, about four months before the Taliban formally opened the office. “Talking to the U.S. in Qatar is treason,” says Najibullah. “This office and the talks offend me, the fighters, and the families of the martyrs. It is clear treason against the blood of the martyrs.”
To fight this treason, he has established his own army, which currently has forces in five strategic provinces around Kabul. His reaction doesn’t surprise some Taliban insiders who know him. “Najibullah has always been aggressive and often has broken Taliban rules,” says the former Taliban intelligence officer. His new faction is, disturbingly, called the Suicide Group of the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan. Its aim, says Najibullah, is twofold: killing the peace process and continuing to fight the “puppet” government in Kabul and the American “infidel invaders” until the last foreign soldier has been forced out of Afghanistan. “There is much criticism among our ground fighters of these peace moves,” he says, “so we decided to establish the movement to stop it.”
His movement recently published its “policy statement” on the Internet. The 26-point program emphasizes the “permanence of the jihad,” making clear that the fight won’t “be limited only to Afghanistan ... but will continue until Muslims have been freed from the atrocities of non-believers.” That statement sounds like a pledge from al Qaeda—which makes sense, given that Najibullah steadfastly supports the terror group and says he has worked closely with its explosives experts, who have taught his insurgents how to fashion more-lethal IEDs and suicide vests and how to indoctrinate suicide-bomber recruits. “We are not sorry for the sacrifice of our whole Emirate for the cause of al Qaeda,” he says, referring to Mullah Omar’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden as demanded by President George Bush, and adds: “We welcome al Qaeda as our solid ideological friends.” To get his message out to an even wider audience, Najibullah published a pocket-size, 36-page book two months ago that denounces the peace process and claims that the CIA is orchestrating a conspiracy against the Muslim world and has headquarters in Qatar.
That Najibullah has friends in high places is suggested by the impunity with which he operates—both in Peshawar and in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, just across the border from Kandahar province, where he is headquartered. Senior Taliban commanders as well as Afghan government intelligence officers are convinced that Najibullah has full Pakistani support, particularly from the government’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. (Pakistan formally denies that it backs the Taliban or any Taliban faction.) “That he is allowed to work openly inside Pakistan means he has an understanding with the big boss,” says Zabihullah, the key Taliban political adviser, referring to Pakistan.
Taliban and Afghan government sources believe that Pakistan and its spy service are hedging their bets by supporting Najibullah. They also believe that Najibullah is getting more than just moral support, and that his money comes from Pakistan and perhaps some oil-rich Gulf sheiks (who have been known to support jihadist causes). Najibullah denies getting any overseas subsidies. “We are relying on Afghan support and funding,” he says. “We have no link with Pakistan or any other foreign country.” What he has, he says, is the backing of key insurgents—both inside and outside the shura. “I have the support of lots of top Taliban,” he says.
Since his break with the shura, he has become more cautious when claiming responsibility for attacks. Both Taliban and Afghan intelligence sources say Najibullah’s group was behind the failed suicide attack on the Indian Consulate in the eastern town of Jalalabad earlier this year. Three suicide bombers were stopped short of their target and, under fire, blew up their explosive-laden car, killing 12 people, mostly children. Najibullah denies his men were involved. But Taliban and Afghan intelligence sources say the reason for his strong denial is that Pakistan doesn’t want to be linked to attacks on Indian targets carried out by its proxies.
Wherever the support is coming from, it has evidently emboldened Najibullah to promise funding and weapons to disgruntled field commanders in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand, where the insurgency has lost much ground. And he is seemingly making headway with commanders who feel neglected by the shura. “Najibullah has assisted them with some but not lots of money and weapons,” says the Helmand subcommander. “But he is promising he will provide more money, weapons, and suicide bombers in the future to anyone who ignores the peace plan and vows to fight until the end to free our country from foreign forces.”
The fact that Najibullah has at least some cash to disperse among disgruntled fighters understandably worries the leadership. “Najibullah is gradually becoming a serious headache for the shura,” says a former Taliban senior minister. “He is outspoken, dangerous ... and seems to have money.” The former minister says the Taliban did not take Najibullah seriously at first, but that they’ve come around on that. “There are signs of serious concern within the shura,” he says. “They thought he was alone, but now they see that there are strong people behind him and that he has funds to distribute to fighters.”
The shura reportedly also fears that Najibullah may launch an assassination campaign against key Taliban negotiators and players in the peace process. According to top Taliban sources, the leadership believes that Najibullah was behind the abortive assassination attempt against Shahbuddin Dilawar, one of the shura’s top envoys in Qatar, last December in Peshawar while he was attending his daughter’s wedding.
Another headache is the fact that Najibullah operates in key provinces near Kabul, where his anti-peace message can reach large audiences. According to Najibullah, the leadership recently reached out to him, but he rejected the move toward reconciliation: “I told them theirs was not the path of honor.”
Najibullah says he is preparing a spectacular attack just in case the Taliban ever signs a peace treaty with the U.S. and Kabul. “You watch,” he says. “We will use all of our bombers and show all of our strength.”