Taliban: We Need a Time-Out

Taliban militants in Afghanistan. Reuters-Landov

For months, NEWSWEEK has reported emphatic denials by senior Afghan Taliban officials that they were engaged in secret peace talks with the government in Kabul. Those denials received further weight last week when The New York Times exposed a purported top-level Taliban negotiator as an impostor who made off with large sums of U.S. cash.

Even so, Taliban forces—the real ones—are definitely feeling the impact of stepped-up U.S. action in southern Afghanistan. A group of 17 ground commanders recently traveled to the Pakistani frontier city of Quetta to meet with one of their top military chiefs, Abdul Qayum Zakir, say four Taliban officials who didn't want to be named for safety reasons.

The commanders informed Zakir that they and their men were temporarily suspending combat operations and asked that he either transfer them to less hotly contested areas or let them recover in Pakistan until the spring thaw. "We have lost many friends and commanders," one member of the delegation told Zakir, says Mullah Salam Khan, a midlevel commander in Helmand province who was briefed on the meeting by a participant. "We are tired and want to take a rest." Zakir, says Khan, acknowledged their complaint—but said he needed the commanders to help him keep up at least a harassing presence in their areas so villagers could see that the insurgents are not on the run. They promised to do what they could.

Senior NATO officers have said that Coalition forces have killed or captured more than 350 Taliban commanders and killed at least 1,000 fighters in the past three months. One of the Taliban officials admits that the insurgency is losing skilled commanders at an alarming rate. But, he says, they are quickly replaced by experienced fighters— and morale is high. "The commanders told Zakir they were angry about all these rumors they hear about peace talks," the official says. "They made it clear they just want a rest, not peace. They are still committed to the fight."