After WikiLeaks published a trove of U.S. intelligence documents—some of which listed the names and villages of Afghans who had been secretly cooperating with the American military—it didn’t take long for the Taliban to react. A spokesman for the group quickly threatened to “punish” any Afghan listed as having “collaborated” with the U.S. and the Kabul authorities against the growing Taliban insurgency. In recent days, the Taliban has demonstrated how seriously those threats should be considered. Late last week, just four days after the documents were published, death threats began arriving at the homes of key tribal elders in southern Afghanistan. And over the weekend one tribal elder, Khalifa Abdullah, who the Taliban believed had been in close contact with the Americans, was taken from his home in Monar village, in Kandahar province’s embattled Arghandab district, and executed by insurgent gunmen.
The violence may just be beginning. According to Agha Lali, the deputy head of Kandahar’s provincial council, threatening letters have been delivered to 70 elders in Panjwaii district. While it is unknown whether any of the men were indeed named in the WikiLeaks documents, it’s clear the Taliban believes they have been cooperating with Western forces and the Afghan government. One short handwritten note, shown to NEWSWEEK, said: “We have made a decision for your death. You have five days to leave Afghan soil. If you don’t, you don’t have the right to complain.” The screed, written on the letterhead of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s defunct Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, bore the signature of Abdul Rauf Khadim, a senior Taliban official and former inmate at the American lockup in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who had been released into—and subsequently escaped from—Kabul’s custody last year.
The frightening combination of the Taliban spokesman’s threat, Abdullah’s death, and the spate of letters has sparked a panic among many Afghans who have worked closely with coalition forces in the past, according to a senior Taliban intelligence officer who declined to be named for security reasons. The officer said he has seen reports of Afghans rushing to U.S. and coalition bases in southern and eastern Afghanistan over the past few days, seeking protection and even asking for political asylum. (U.S. military officials would not verify this information.) The Taliban officer claimed that the group’s English-language media department continues to actively examine the WikiLeaks material and intends to draw up lists of collaborators in each province, to add to the hit lists of local insurgent commanders.
The big question going forward is whether the leaked material will make regular Afghans more wary about cooperating with coalition forces. The intelligence officer, unsurprisingly, believes this will be the case. “The impact of this should be good for us and a slap in the face to those who are working with America,” he says. “America is not a good protector of spies.” Locals have long known that the Taliban deals harshly with those it suspects of working against it: the ruthless guerrillas have assassinated scores, if not hundreds, of tribal elders and Afghans of all ages for their alleged cooperation with the coalition. In one particularly gruesome case a few months ago, according to the intelligence officer, the Taliban discovered that a group of recent high-school graduates in Ghazni province had been feeding information to the Americans. The youths were arrested, and around 10 of them were hanged. The Taliban is also shutting down cell-phone networks after dark in an effort to prevent villagers from alerting coalition forces to the insurgents’ locations.
The Taliban has reason to fear such exposure by the local population. As a result of these tip-offs, the insurgents have lost scores of midlevel commanders to coalition antiterrorist operations over the past few months. Now the question is: has the WikiLeaks leak ruined that cooperation? Or will locals continue to undermine the Taliban at the risk of their own lives?