Don't even ask Mullah Sabir about peace talks. There's nothing to talk about, says the tall, burly Afghan, one of the Taliban's highest-ranking commanders. "This is not a political campaign for policy change or power sharing or cabinet ministries," he tells NEWSWEEK at a textiles shop on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. "We are waging jihad to bring Islamic law back to Afghanistan." The refusal to negotiate comes straight from the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, says Sabir, who did not want his full name used: "The tone of his rejection has been so strong from the first that no one would dare to raise the subject with him." The trouble is, Sabir hasn't seen Mullah Omar in years, and he doesn't know of anyone who has. Internet posts released in Mullah Omar's name on Muslim holy days are the only hint that the one-eyed Commander of the Faithful is still alive. All the same, Sabir says he and thousands of other Taliban won't stop fighting until they're back in power.
Everyone seems eager to talk peace in Afghanistan—except the only people who can turn the wish into a fact. The Taliban's brutal insurgent ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has endorsed the idea of negotiations; so has the U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah personally hosted an exploratory discussion in Mecca between Afghan and Pakistani officials and former Taliban members during Ramadan, and last week Afghan and Pakistani tribal elders and politicians held a two-day meeting in Islamabad. But Mullah Omar's fighters aren't about to quit while they're on a roll. The number of Coalition deaths in Afghanistan since May has exceeded U.S. deaths in Iraq for the first time since the invasion of Iraq. The Afghan insurgency, which seemed as good as dead in 2004, has come back strong.
The Americans aren't racing to the peace table either, despite Gates's in-principle support for negotiations. Big moves are likely to wait until the next U.S. president takes office, and the consensus in any case is that the situation on the ground isn't right yet. "If you go into these talks when you appear to be militarily weak, you're negotiating a partial surrender," warns Robert Neumann, who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. The hope is that Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the surge strategy in Iraq, will find a way to fix that problem in his new role as CINCCENT—commander in chief, U.S. Central Command.
Iraq's turnaround came when tribal leaders in Anbar province, fed up with the brutality of Al Qaeda in Iraq, banded together against the insurgency. But the Taliban are running their own war, not taking orders from psychopathic foreigners. Taliban commanders say Osama bin Laden's global jihadists are not a significant force in Afghanistan anymore. "If they want to hide and fight here with us, we won't stop them," says Mullah Sabir. "But they have no bases here, and we will not let them use our territory as they did before their strikes on the United States." The 9/11 attacks and the resulting U.S. invasion are a source of deep resentment among the Taliban. "Today we are fighting because of Al Qaeda," Sabir complains. "We lost our Islamic state. Al Qaeda lost nothing." Still, talks with any segment of the Taliban will have to be predicated on a complete break with Al Qaeda.
If that condition can be met, there are fissures that Petraeus might find ways to exploit. Some fighters are Pashtun nationalists; others are strict Islamists; still others are mere thugs. "Based on what we heard while we were there, a lot of these guys are involved in the insurgency for economic reasons first and ideological reasons second," says Nathaniel Fick, who served as a Marine officer in Afghanistan during the first year of the war and returned this summer to do research for the Center for a New American Security. "Eighty percent of the fighters are part-timers. We know that from data the military has collected. Most of those part-timers, one would think, are 'reconcilable' "—that is, they could be persuaded to leave the insurgency. Even some high-ranking members are showing interest in the Saudi meeting. "Now the Taliban know there's another way besides the military option," says Zabibullah, a senior Taliban political operative in Pakistan. "Talks may be something to consider." (Nevertheless, a Taliban spokesman adamantly denies reports that Mullah Omar sent representatives or even a list of demands to Mecca.)
The Taliban has always been basically a loose amalgam of regional and tribal militias. Individual commanders have enormous autonomy in their home areas: some continue to enforce the medieval dictates of Mullah Omar's defunct regime, but others tolerate music, Qur'an classes for girls, even televisions. In hard-line Helmand province, barbers are allowed to trim beards.
Distrust is spreading in the ranks. Off the battlefield, Taliban fighters wonder aloud what has become of Mullah Omar. Some think he may have been put under house arrest—or worse—by his second in command and brother-in-law, Mullah Baradar. "He may have removed himself, or someone may have removed him," says a former Mullah Omar aide, unnamed so his worries don't land him in trouble. "For the past two years, no one that I know has any hard evidence of where he is or what he's doing." What would Mullah Omar say about mowing down civilians and beheading captives in the name of jihad? the aide asks, describing his former boss as a simple, decent village mullah who was always upset to hear of his men doing bad things.
Taliban members say bad things happen to Baradar's rivals. One was killed in 2006 by a U.S. airstrike in Kandahar. Pakistani forces arrested another in early 2007. Soon afterward, a U.S. commando raid blasted the notorious Mullah Dadullah Akhund. His brother, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, took his place, only to be cashiered by Baradar. When Mansoor refused to step down, Pakistani forces seized him on his way into Afghanistan. All four victims belonged to the Kakar tribe, and rumors soon spread that Baradar, a member of the Popalzai clan, may have passed information to the Pakistanis and the Americans in order to eliminate Kakars from the Taliban leadership. (Baradar could not be reached for comment.)
Still, the Taliban are united in their visceral hatred of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. Taliban commanders say they might talk to the Americans, but they will never talk to him. Not that Washington's plan to send more combat troops is very popular in or out of the Taliban. "None of my Afghan friends outside official circles are asking us to send more forces," says a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, asking not to be named so he could speak more freely. "Foreign forces, no matter how careful they want to be, still create civilian deaths and make mistakes."
Every time an airstrike kills civilians or U.S. ground troops target the wrong house for a raid, popular support grows for the insurgents. "This isn't a scientific fact, but what we say is that for every guy we kill, we probably are recruiting at least three new guys," says a Western military officer who operates on both sides of the border and asked not to be quoted by name on sensitive issues. "You kill one guy, and then his brother or his cousin joins up to avenge his death." Many U.S. troops say the Taliban deliberately use Afghan civilians as human shields. Still, the U.S. military is preparing to send in 3,500 additional troops, and Pentagon planners say they might need as many as 20,000 more before the Taliban start to crumble. No one knows where those troops would come from.
The Taliban's border sanctuaries are a major focus. "Our weakest point is our dependence on Pakistan," says Zabibullah, who lives there himself. "Pakistan has the capacity to attack and dismantle us." Petraeus will be in Islamabad this week. A senior Pakistani official, asking not to be named discussing military plans, says the general has already sketched out his basic plan for a joint campaign against the Taliban. The official calls it a "hammer and anvil" approach, with U.S. forces pounding the insurgents inside Afghanistan and the Pakistanis as the anvil, stopping their retreat cold at the border. The Pakistani official says his country's military is willing to do its part.
The next president still needs to plan on a long, hard fight. NEWSWEEK asked both candidates for their views on Afghanistan, and John McCain's chief foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, responded via e-mail: "As Gen. David Petraeus has pointed out, one of the central lessons from the war in Iraq is that we can't simply kill our way out of an insurgency. Rather, insurgencies end when a critical mass of insurgents has made the calculus that they are better off if they switch sides … Simply put, insurgent ranks are more likely to begin to break when they are under pressure on all sides, and when they believe they are losing on the battlefield."
For his part, Barack Obama expressed doubts about how far the Iraqi template would stretch. "I agree with Gen. Petraeus that a topic worth exploring is whether similar types of opportunities exist in Afghanistan," he replied, also via e-mail. "[But] Iraq and Afghanistan are very different countries. We cannot expect to simply export the Awakening strategy from the tribes of Al-Anbar to the tribes of Helmand ... Any initiative to separate moderate from radical elements will have to be deeply rooted in the efforts of Afghans themselves."
It's an open question whether anyone in Afghanistan is capable of such efforts. Getting fighters like Mullah Sabir to the table will take some powerful convincing. He doesn't seem to care how long the war continues. "We don't have any time frame for victory or defeat," he says. "Our duty is to continue fighting." It's hard to defeat that kind of determination. But as Petraeus likes to say: "Hard is not hopeless."