There's no mistaking the thrill in Ghul Agha Akhund's voice. The Taliban field commander, speaking by mobile phone from his redoubt in Afghanistan's Helmand province, says the militants' covert network of couriers has brought him a vital message. It's a dark photocopy of a handwritten note, just seven lines to congratulate the group's fighting forces on "getting even with the infidel invaders" last year and to urge them to launch "a more intensive jihad" this year. But Ghul Agha views the scrap of paper as an almost sacred artifact: it bears the signature of the Taliban's Supreme Leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. "This message from our leader is like tonic medicine," the chieftain says. "It makes us stronger."
In fact, he's doubly excited. This is the second communication he's gotten from Mullah Omar this year—after not one word since the U.S.-led 2001 invasion. (Although not all the information in this report can be independently verified, it came from sources who have proved reliable in the past, and the details are consistent with the established facts.) This January, Ghul Agha received an audiocassette of Mullah Omar praising the virtue of self-sacrifice. "Carry out your Islamic responsibilities as I carry out mine," the officer quotes the tape as saying. "Don't look for promotions or benefits. Just serve the jihad." The message electrified Ghul Agha. "For the last few years, we heard only rumors about Mullah Omar," he says. "Now we hear from him directly!" The commander and his men are energetically preparing to launch an offensive as soon as the snow melts; he hopes this year they will cut off the provincial capital.
Mullah Omar has emerged from the shadows, his field officers say, and with his inspiration they're planning a military push against U.S.-led forces like never before. NEWSWEEK has viewed a new recruiting video in which the Taliban's most notoriously cruel commander, the one-legged Mullah Dadullah Akhund, addresses an audience of some 400 men who are described as trained suicide bombers, ready to die on his order. "Our suicide bombers are countless," he says in a videotaped response to questions from NEWSWEEK. "Hundreds have already registered their names, and hundreds more are on the waiting list." Those claims, while impossible to verify, can't be discounted, either. In an interview that aired on Al-Jazeera last week, Dadullah claimed to have more than 6,000 armed guerrillas in underground hideouts and other staging areas, awaiting the moment to strike. "The attack is imminent," he told the Arabic TV channel.
Western forces are certainly bracing for one. Thousands of reinforcements have deployed to Afghanistan, bringing the Coalition's total armed strength to nearly 50,000, including 15,500 Americans in NATO's ranks and 11,000 others under direct U.S. command. NATO's chief spokes-man in Kabul, Col. Tom Collins, says his force intends to head off the militants' assault with pre-emptive attacks against Taliban strongholds and sanctuaries in Helmand and Uruzgan provinces. The Coalition, with its enormous superiority in firepower, sees no way the Taliban can capture and hold any significant target. "They may hold a small place for days," Collins allows, "but they'll get run out at a high cost." An estimated 3,000 Taliban fighters died in last year's engagements alone. But replacing those losses has been easy—thanks largely to the 47-year-old Mullah Omar.
To Westerners his appeal all but defies explanation. He was always an unprepossessing figure, even during the late 1990s, when he and his followers ruled most of Afghanistan. He seldom gave speeches on the radio, let alone in public, and he traveled out of his home province, Kandahar, to visit Kabul only once. Those who have met him describe him as a seemingly humble—though intelligent—village preacher, shy, inarticulate and utterly lacking in charisma. His manner is awkward, even childlike at times. In the 1980s he enlisted in the fight against the Soviet occupation, which cost him his right eye in a 1989 rocket attack and kept him from completing his religious education. As a result he has always called himself a talib, a "seeker of knowledge"—and his followers became known as the Taliban.
The group's recruiters owe much of their continued success to his saintly reputation. To his followers, Omar stands in bold contrast to the corrupt thugs who have returned to control many parts of Afghanistan and to the foreign-influenced Kabul government. In 1994 Mullah Omar rose to prominence by organizing the Taliban as a vigilante force to fight warlords who had been kidnapping, raping and strong-arming the civilians of Kandahar ever since the Soviets left. While local leaders are nowhere near as rapacious as they once were, villagers complain of some of the same sleazy behavior—crime, corruption, immorality. Omar, by contrast, "looks at things in black and white. There is no middle ground for him," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based journalist and expert on the Taliban. "No one has ever found fault with his Islamic character," says Nek Mohammed, one of Omar's former aides.
The Supreme Leader probably never knew what his guest Osama bin Laden was planning in 2001. All the same, Omar rejected America's demand after September 11 that he hand over the Qaeda leader—even though that refusal led directly to the U.S. invasion. "That principled decision enhanced his position among his followers," says Yusufzai. "But to others it shows he's simply stupid and too rigid."
After the Taliban's fall, Omar effectively vanished. His whereabouts were a mystery to everyone including his three wives and nine children, who heard nothing from him even indirectly for a solid year, according to Zabibullah, a senior Taliban official. (Last year one of the wives finally rejoined Omar at his present hideout, Zabibullah says.) Still, Omar did not quit the jihad. As his men regrouped, he gradually emerged from hiding and in 2004 began traveling from camp to camp in remote Taliban-held areas, riding on the back of a motorbike to rally his old troops and recruit new ones. One of the reasons he was able to avoid capture was that few people aside from his close followers know his face. He has always refused to let anyone take his picture, citing Islamic strictures against creating idols. Photos identified as Mullah Omar have circulated in recent years, but the clearest shots proved to be hoaxes or cases of mistaken identity.
Only a few trusted assistants know where the fugitive leader is now. U.S. officials refuse to discuss what they know of his whereabouts and actions, beyond admitting that he's still in charge. "The hard-core Taliban leadership is Mullah Omar and his 27 to 30 subcommanders," says Collins. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly charged that Omar is holed up in the Pakistan city of Quetta, protected by Pakistan's military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. That claim was backed up (probably under duress) by Mohammad Hanafi, a reputed Taliban spokesman, after his capture by Afghan forces last month.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf denies the allegation, calling Karzai "ignorant" of what's happening inside Af-ghanistan. Taliban commanders and political operatives, who admit to frequently visiting Pakistan themselves, agree with Musharraf. "Baseless lies," Dadullah told NEWSWEEK. "He is not there [in Pakistan] in any city." Dadullah and others say they believe he's safely ensconced deep in the remote and rugged mountains of Uruzgan province, where he once lived.
Wherever he's hidden, Omar is closer than ever to many of his followers—not only to long-neglected fighters like Ghul Agha, but even to members of the Taliban's ruling council, the Shura. In the past, according to Mullah Rahman, the group's deputy commander in Zabul province, it could take six weeks for senior Taliban officials to send a message to the leader and get a reply. Now, thanks to the Taliban's military gains and growing network of messengers and mobile phones, the Shura can send Omar a question and get his answer within 24 hours. The leader communicates only via two top aides: former Defense minister Mullah Obaidullah and Mullah Barader, an old friend and one of the first mullahs to join the fledgling Taliban in 1994. Even those two do not see him face to face, instead passing messages by word of mouth, audiotape or handwritten notes. They relay Omar's directives and pep talks to the appropriate Shura members, who in turn disseminate them through the chain of command.
The Supreme Leader tends to focus on moral questions, leaving most military and financial matters to his deputies. His recent communiqués assert that Afghans have a duty under Islam to fight the foreign "invaders" and their "puppets" in Kabul because they will not leave Afghanistan "peacefully." At the same time, he urges his fighters to spare the lives of Afghans who have no part in the conflict. Last year's epidemic of suicide bombings killed more than two dozen foreign troops, but also killed and maimed hundreds of Afghan civilians. "Avoid operations that cause death and injury to innocent people," Omar said in a message marking the end of Ramadan this past December. "We are obliged to target only our enemy."
His word is law—or so his followers say. "No one can or dares to challenge Mullah Omar," says Zabibullah. Last year, for example, he dismissed his Ghazni province commander for "selfishness." And yet not every order is followed. Suicide bombings have continued to rock Kandahar. Dadullah says such attacks are no more than a prelude to bigger things soon to come. "With new war tactics, we possibly will get control of a provincial capital," he told NEWSWEEK. Commander Momin Ahmed, a heavy-set Taliban subcommander in Ghazni province, says provincial commanders have been promised detachments of 30 suicide bombers apiece from the batches of new recruits.
Most Coalition officers shrug at such threats. The militants suffered horrendous casualties last year while failing to stop the spread of NATO control into southern Afghanistan. In a single battle last September for the village of Panjwayi in Kandahar, the Taliban lost more than 500 men. At the same time, Afghan civilians are heartily fed up with all parties. They despise the Karzai government's weakness and corruption; they blame the Coalition for the collateral damage caused by its massive firepower; they don't want Mullah Omar's lightning-rod fighting forces anywhere near their homes. The guerrillas have little to no chance of ever regaining power though force of arms. What they do have in abundance is stubbornness—just like their leader, Mullah Omar. "We respect him even more than we did five years ago," says Ghul Agha. "He refuses to give up, no matter what the odds." That's not the message most Afghan civilians want to hear.