Taliban 2.0: Upending America's Plans for Peace

An Afghan Taliban member posed in front of burnt supply trucks in Ghazni province Reuters-Corbis

Abdul Malik describes the confrontation with unconcealed relish. The 25-year-old Taliban tells how Mullah Juma Khan, 26, a fellow subcommander in a nearby Afghan district, began to suspect a merchant of passing information to the Americans. Unable to prove it, Khan told the merchant to clear out of Helmand province or be killed. The merchant went away, but he returned early this January with a letter signed by no less than Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar—the right-hand man of the Afghan Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar—vouching for the merchant and instructing Khan to leave him alone. Khan tore it up, pistol-whipped the merchant, and ordered him to get out of Helmand and stay out. "If you see Baradar, tell him not to give me orders not to hurt someone," Khan told the merchant. "I'm here risking my head fighting the Americans, and he's eating chicken and pilau in Pakistan."

Malik takes a sip of his tea and mentions to a NEWSWEEK reporter that U.S. Marines often pass directly outside the house where they're sitting. Khan's and Malik's lives on Afghanistan's front lines are a far cry from the relative comfort and security of Karachi, where Baradar was arrested in February, only a month after Khan's outburst. As far as Malik is concerned, Baradar's detention was no loss. "Young commanders like me had little or nothing to do with men like Mullah Baradar," he says. "We are here on the ground with our Kalashnikovs and RPGs, and we live or die by our own quick judgments. We don't need to listen to anyone who is not out here putting his life on the line." And he launches into another story, this one about another young Taliban commander who captured a bandit gang that had been preying on Taliban-protected drug convoys en route to Iran. Malik says the commander received a message from Baradar saying not to execute the thieves. The commander shot them anyway.

That kind of insubordination used to be unthinkable for the Taliban, but now it's widespread. The old generation of fighters is mostly gone from the battlefield; most were killed, captured, or disabled before they reached their late 30s. And yet by all accounts the number of insurgents on the ground keeps rising, with ever-younger recruits joining the fight. Malik and Khan had scarcely been born when Baradar took up arms against Soviet invaders, and they hadn't yet reached their teens when Mullah Omar's fighters seized Kabul from feuding mujahedin factions in 1996. According to a senior Taliban intelligence officer, speaking to NEWSWEEK on condition of anonymity, roughly 80 percent of the group's fighters are now in their late teens or early 20s, and half the commanders in the field are 30 or under. The best young fighters tend to be promoted quickly, thanks to combat losses.

The young guns are a breed apart from earlier Taliban generations. In a series of interviews for this story with more than a dozen young insurgent leaders over the past three months, they showed themselves to be more hotheaded and less respectful of authority than their elders. War against America has steeled these young fighters in combat with an enemy that employs more accurate and lethal firepower than the Russians or the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance ever had. The experience has only made them tougher and more uncompromising, in the judgment of veteran Taliban members. "The difference between these young Taliban and those of us who fought against the Northern Alliance or even the Russians is huge—like between earth and sky," says the senior intelligence officer who is in his mid-40s, but knows many commanders in their 20s. "These young men have seen and suffered more, and have a much stronger emotional and religious commitment than we ever did."

They're also impulsive and lacking in discipline. Their contempt for Baradar and the rest of the rear-echelon leadership is equaled or exceeded by their disregard for traditional tribal authority and their passionate distrust of the Pakistani arms masters who helped create the madrassa-based Taliban back in the 1990s. These days none of those groups has much control over the new Taliban's decentralized and largely self-sufficient insurgency. That's bad news for American strategists who hoped the fighters could eventually be brought to the peace table by carefully manipulating the old lines of influence. But peace seems to be the last thing on the minds of the young guns. For them it's not about power sharing or even total restoration of Mullah Omar's regime. "These young men feel they are fighting not only for the survival of Islam in Afghanistan but for Islam's survival everywhere," says the senior intelligence officer. "You can't underestimate them."

The young fighters don't reject all authority. For one thing, they actually like and respect Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantánamo prisoner who recently took Baradar's place as the Taliban's top military commander. Zakir is believed to be in his mid-30s (Baradar is said to be in his early 40s), but what really sets him apart is his enthusiasm for operating in the field and his aggressive style of combat. Zakir frequently visits fighting units inside Afghanistan, in contrast to Baradar, who rarely set foot there after fleeing to Pakistan in 2001. But more than that, the younger ranks were frustrated with Baradar's minimum-risk policy of using small-unit harassment actions to wear down and outlast the U.S. presence. They wanted real fighting, especially with 30,000 more American troops joining the invasion this year.

That's what scares many senior Taliban. According to a former Kabul mayor who stays in touch with his old colleagues, there's a fierce debate among the top leadership in Pakistan over whether to meet the U.S. reinforcements with a Taliban countersurge, as Zakir might prefer, or whether it's wiser to pull back to more defensible positions and expect to fight another day, as Baradar often advised. Already there are credible reports of Taliban reinforcements moving into southern and eastern Afghanistan from the Pakistani tribal areas. "I'm afraid he [Zakir] could sacrifice a younger generation in one year if he keeps sending more fighters to the front lines," says the former mayor, who is in his late 40s. The casualty rate is higher than he likes anyway; the insurgents have lost 50 commanders and subcommanders in his home province of Ghazni alone, he says. "This is not a fight over territory but for our existence and survival," he adds. "By following Zakir's way we could take very heavy casualties."

Many of the younger recruits grew up with a burning grudge against the Americans for invading their country and restoring to power the same thugs and warlords Mullah Omar's fighters drove out of Kabul in the 1990s. Qari Ishmael, 20, looks back to a childhood visit to Kabul a decade or so ago. "It was like a dream," he says. "The country was being run by people of good Islamic character." When the U.S. backed Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban, he swore revenge. The last straw came in 2006, when he was traveling home to Ghazni province from a madrassa in Pakistan. At a U.S. roadblock in Paktika province he was horrified to see Afghan women being searched by a group of U.S. soldiers. "If I'd had a stone I would have thrown it at them," says Ishmael. "We are being humiliated as a people. We are not a sovereign country." When he reached his home village, he found the Taliban regrouping there, and he soon joined them as they lay in ambush against a U.S.-Afghan patrol. He was only 16 and had little military training, but that didn't matter. "All of Afghanistan is our training camp," he says. He now leads a team of 20 local fighters, having been promoted nine months ago after the former leader was killed in action.

As fervently as these young commanders may believe in the Taliban cause, they express no faith at all in its leaders aside from Mullah Omar. "The real leaders are those who are here with me and will pick up my dead body from the ground when I'm killed," says Mullah Abdullah Khan, 25, who leads a 15-man group of guerrillas just southwest of Kabul. He says he sometimes used to make emergency mobile phone calls to senior commanders in Pakistan, but they rarely answered. "One day I swore I would never call those guys in Pakistan again," says Abdullah Khan. "As long as they sit comfortably on Pakistani soil, they lose their commitment."

And don't get him started on the Pakistanis themselves. He says he and other Afghan religious students were constantly insulted and harassed by police while he was studying in Pakistan, and he still hasn't forgiven Islamabad's decision after 9/11 to yield to U.S. pressure and cut Pakistan's official ties with the Taliban. He says he's not surprised that the Pakistanis arrested Baradar. "Pakistan is a dangerous country for the Taliban," he says. "It gives you sweets that are mixed with poison." Besides, he says, Baradar should have known better. "A good Muslim should be smart enough not to be bitten twice by the same snake."

Many older Taliban seem to value the young guns' fighting spirit enough to tolerate their blatant disdain for the chain of command. But it's not so easy to accept the new generation's attitude toward traditional authority. Three decades of war have shattered the centuries-old system of tribal rule that has been the only functioning law in large parts of Afghanistan. In the wake of the Taliban's collapse, some local chieftains turned against villagers who had sided with Mullah Omar's regime. "Some elders went too far," says Bari Khan, a subcommander in his early 20s in Ghazni province. "They insulted, mocked and abused Taliban supporters, thinking the winds had changed." Now the winds have shifted again, and the old men are finding themselves at the mercy of cocky young fighters and commanders. "This poor young boy whom village elders may once have ignored or humiliated now has the power to step on their throats, so they'd better listen to him," says the senior intelligence officer.

But their behavior is making enemies among the civilian population. "The Taliban's older generation was tough, too, but it respected elders and had some humanity," says a 45-year-old school principal in Helmand province, asking not to be named out of fear for his safety. "These younger guys are arrogant, radical, and show no respect for white beards." The principal says late last year he was arrested by a young subcommander for no discernible crime other than being a schoolmaster. As he was being led away, the principal produced letters from both Baradar and Zakir testifying to his good character and saying he ran a proper Islamic school. The commander threw the letters in his face and hauled the principal before an Islamic court, where he was fined $6,000—a fortune for an educator whose living depends on contributions from villagers. "They listen to no one," the principal says of the Taliban's new generation. "They're like the Afghan police—they only want to make money." They even confiscated the school's desks and chairs and sold them off at the local market.

Soon afterward, U.S. Marines drove the subcommander and his fighters out of the district—at least temporarily. The principal has cautiously reopened his school, but with no furniture, the students have to sit on the dirt floor. He's disgusted with the Taliban, but he's equally unhappy with the Kabul government and the Americans. In March he traveled to the capital for a meeting at the Ministry of Education, where he was promised reimbursement for the money the Taliban took and the cost of replacing the desks and chairs. So far he has received nothing, he says, and he knows the Taliban are still lurking nearby. "The future is very dark," he says. "Our lives are in the hands of 20-year-old Taliban and a corrupt Karzai government. Nothing will change, I'm afraid." It's hard to disagree.