Taliban Commanders: Afghan War Is Not Over

Huddled in the unheated, mud-walled room that serves as the dormitory of their madrassa, not far from the Pakistani city of Quetta, four religious students are talking about the war across the border. They've heard about U.S. plans for luring away thousands of Taliban with offers of jobs and money and persuading the rest to make peace. But the young men say it won't work. "I've lost one of my brothers and 10 other close relatives in the jihad," says Mohammad Salim Akhund, a 21-year-old fighter from Kandahar province. "Any thought of surrendering for money, or entering into any negotiations with our enemies, would dishonor these sacrifices." His young schoolmate Jama-luddin speaks up: "If you're committed to jihad, you won't leave for a mountain of money." At 18, he's the only one of the four who hasn't already fought in Afghanistan, but he expects to go in about two months, as soon as his religious studies are completed. "I want to die in the jihad," he says. "Not as a sick old man under a blanket at home."

To hear some Western officials talk, the Afghan war is practically over. U.S. commanders are placing big hopes on the impending surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, and donor nations at a recent conference in London pledged $500 million to help Taliban defectors make the transition to civilian life. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly argued that 70 percent of Afghanistan's insurgents are fighting merely for pay or strictly local aims and therefore can be "peeled away" from the hard-core believers. At that point, allied strategists hope, senior leaders of the weakened and divided insurgency will agree to substantive peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and "irreconcilables" like Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his inner circle will end up isolated and largely powerless. The Pakistani government is said to be ready to assist in such talks, and Karzai is even calling for a Loya Jirga—a mass meeting of all Afghan tribal leaders, including the Taliban—to hammer out a power-sharing deal.

It all sounds fine—until you talk to the insurgents themselves. Over the past few weeks, NEWSWEEK has interviewed dozens of Taliban commanders and foot soldiers, and not one showed any interest in money or power-sharing deals. They insist they have a sacred duty to drive the invaders out of Afghanistan, return Mullah Omar's self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate to power, and reimpose his merciless version of Islamic law throughout the land. "In the next few months we will prove this is not a fight for power, for land, or for becoming president, but for Islam, ideology, and jihad," says a top Taliban official, a former cabinet minister who attends the insurgency's senior leadership meetings and who has never before spoken to the Western press. (He's unwilling to be named.) "You say 70 percent are fighting for money and can be bribed?" he asks. "You'll be lucky if you get 5 percent."

If there's one thing that motivates the insurgents to keep fighting, religious fervor aside, it's vengeance. Nearly all Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns who adhere to the age-old code of conduct known as Pashtunwali. One of the required duties under its rules is eye-for-an-eye revenge. Just about every Taliban who talked to NEWSWEEK for this story recited lists of kinsmen who had been killed in the war, or imprisoned, or humiliated by Coalition searches of family compounds. At least in part, their reason for going to war was to seek payback against those who had inflicted pain and dishonor on their relatives. Taliban fighters proudly speak of many civilians who took up arms after an elder sibling's death in battle.

But even Taliban members who are sick of killing aren't eager to defect. Once a fighter has quit the insurgents' ranks, there's no going back, not even to his home village. Those who have tried are usually murdered. NEWSWEEK has interviewed a number of defectors who now sadly roam Kabul or other large towns, living hand-to-mouth, without jobs or prospects, and who rue the day they abandoned the fight. The police are always watching their houses and movements. Former Taliban officials living in Kabul may lead more comfortable lives, but they too live under a microscope. All visitors to their homes have to register with the police who stand guard outside their doors.

The Afghan capital is no longer a place where rural Pashtuns feel at home, whether they're Taliban or not. Striking in their distinctive large black turbans and kohl eyeliner, they're routinely harassed by the police and occasionally mocked by passersby. The city's social transformation is even harder for them to accept. A few women still wear burqas on the streets, but most simply wear headscarves, long dresses, and a covering robe. It's not uncommon to see young men and women walking together, talking, and sometimes touching. Some grocers sell beer and whisky, even pork, out the back door.

All this is happening to a city that the Taliban, even though they never officially ruled from there, consider their own. Since the collapse of Mullah Omar's regime, the city has ballooned from a deafeningly quiet town of 1 million people to a metropolis of some 4.5 million. Many of the newcomers have been ethnic Pashtuns fleeing the fighting in the south and east, and they now constitute perhaps half the city's population. But they barely seem to exist, if you go by the language used on street signs and local radio and TV. The language of government is Dari, spoken mostly in northern Afghanistan. All shop signs are in Dari. Pashto is taught at the university like a foreign language, along with English and Arabic. Most of the police on the capital's streets are Tajiks, and few of them speak Pashto. Insurgent commanders say their goal is to change all this, not settle for a share of power in the Pashtun heartland down south.

The Taliban have shown they're willing to negotiate—when it suits their purposes. They've cut deals with relief groups and even government officials to get hefty ransom payments for kidnapped civilians. But previous "peace talks" with the Kabul government have involved only ex-insurgents, who have limited, if any, influence over the Taliban leadership. Those commanders are not about to bargain away their dreams of ruling the country again. They've made it through times that seemed truly hopeless. While most mujahedin groups fell prey to infighting in the war against the Soviets, they've remained united for eight solid years. Now they need only hang on until the Americans go home. "It makes no sense that we would want to negotiate now, as we gain strength," says Mullah Shabir Nasir, the insurgency's regional commander for central Afghanistan.

Assad Khan, 32, a tall, thin fighter with a long beard, turns visibly agitated when a NEWSWEEK reporter mentions peace talks and defections. "You dare to ask me about negotiations and surrender?" he demands. "Look, a hundred friends of mine have been killed, and hundreds more arrested. Do you think we can be defeated by bombing, by Kabul's torturers, by chains in Guantánamo, or American dollars?" The answer may become clear in the next few months.