The Taliban's Plan for an Epic Afghan Surge

Young Pakistan fighter in 2008. Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos

Even before Osama bin Laden's death, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir was working like a man possessed. For weeks the Afghan Taliban's military chief, a former Guantánamo inmate, had raced from meeting to meeting in and around his base of operations, the Pakistani city of Quetta. His aim was nothing less than to field the guerrillas' entire fighting strength at once in a massive spring offensive code-named Operation Badar, in the hope of reversing U.S. forces' recent battlefield successes in Afghanistan. "He is determined to activate every single Taliban for the first time in 10 years," a senior Taliban intelligence officer tells NEWSWEEK. "He's making it clear that no one will be allowed to sit around in Pakistan. Everyone has to get involved or they're out."

But the effort to revive the Taliban's fighting spirit has become more urgent than ever. In the wake of the Americans' late-night commando assault on the Qaeda leader's hideout, veteran insurgents seem stunned and despondent—and uncharacteristically worried. "His death is one of the saddest events in my life," says Zabihullah, a senior Taliban adviser. "It conveys a message to all Taliban leaders that no one is safe." Although Al Qaeda may no longer be a major source of funds, supplies, tactical advice, and manpower, the death of the world's most-wanted terrorist has dealt the insurgents a severe psychological blow. "It doesn't have much overall impact on Taliban militancy," says a Taliban logistics officer, "but it does put a cloud of uncertainty over most Taliban leaders' heads."

The threat looms especially large for Zakir. After all, on the Americans' list of high-value targets, he presumably ranks second only to Mullah Mohammed Omar—the organization's founder and spiritual leader—as the Taliban's supreme military commander and head of its ruling council, the Quetta Shura. But no one thinks Zakir will run for cover. He's famous among the Taliban for his almost foolhardy courage, and he seems painfully aware that this could be a make-or-break year in the Taliban's long battle to reclaim its former supremacy in Afghanistan.

He and his men are operating with impunity in the high-desert landscape of southwestern Pakistan's Baluchistan province and its hardscrabble capital city, Quetta. The Pakistani military has declared the province off-limits to U.S. Predator strikes, and the country's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) seems to be giving the Taliban a free hand. "They are coming and going in groups without end," says a senior Quetta politician, an ethnic Pashtun (like the overwhelming majority of the Taliban). "Whatever the Taliban is doing is supervised and monitored by the [Pakistani] intelligence agencies." Old hands among the insurgents say it reminds them of 1980s Peshawar, where anti-Soviet mujahedin operated openly with the ISI's blessing and backing.

Zakir is taking full advantage of his freedom. A tall, dark 38-year-old with intense black eyes and an air of authority, he crisscrosses the province nonstop, usually astride his Honda 125 motorcycle, trailed by a half dozen or so aides on their own motorcycles. Taliban sources close to him say he's been holding eight to 10 meetings a day, from early morning until late at night, not only in Quetta's teeming, impoverished ethnic-Pashtun neighborhoods, but also in small towns and villages all along the bumpy roads to the Afghan border. Sometimes he shows up unannounced, wearing a large black turban, long-tailed tunic, and baggy pants, with a scarf over his nose and mouth against the ubiquitous dust.

His drive, charisma, and raw nerve have made him a very dangerous man. The son of a poor farmer in Helmand province, he joined the Taliban soon after the group was formed in 1994, and by 2001 he had risen to become one of Mullah Omar's top military commanders, heading an elite mobile reserve force that was on call to fight anywhere in the country. He was in the north that October, battling the Northern Alliance, when the U.S. bombing began. The airstrikes soon forced him to surrender, and although he convinced his captors that he was no more than a senior officer's bodyguard, he was sent to the U.S. lockup at Bagram Air Base, and from there to Guantánamo in early 2006.

Nevertheless, he continued to insist that he was just a nobody who wanted to go back to his farm, and he was finally returned to Afghan custody. Upon his eventual release in May 2008, he headed straight for Quetta to rejoin the Taliban. Since then he has won respect and loyalty in the Taliban's ranks. "He has had more direct dealings with commanders and fighters in the field than any other senior leader," says a Taliban subcommander in Helmand. "Unlike some other senior commanders he pays attention and listens to the concerns of ordinary fighters and villagers." But Zakir still hasn't forgotten his years in U.S. detention. "I have a strong feeling of revenge in my heart," the Helmand subcommander quotes him as saying in one meeting. "Until this fire of revenge is quenched, the jihad will continue."

He became Mullah Omar's second in command just over a year ago, after Pakistani security forces jailed the previous No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Taliban sources say Zakir is a tougher leader than his predecessor—more aggressive, more demanding, and hotter-tempered. Baradar may have had better credentials as Mullah Omar's brother-in-law and longtime confidant, but he was a consensus seeker, in the mold of a traditional tribal chieftain. Zakir is a warrior above all, seemingly unconcerned about keeping his fellow commanders happy, according to Taliban sources who know him. He tells his fighters they have one task: to wage jihad until death.

He may be responsible for more allied deaths than any other Taliban leader. More than 40 percent of the roughly 2,500 U.S. and NATO combat deaths since 2001 have occurred in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, most of them in the three years he's commanded the region. Zakir's roadside-bomb teams have caused more than half of NATO's total of more than 160 deaths this year. Still, his attacks have killed and maimed many more civilians. U.N. statistics say 2,777 died last year, nearly 75 percent at Taliban hands. And the Taliban's own losses under Zakir have been drastic. By the U.S. military's count, nearly 4,000 of his men have been killed or captured this year alone.

Zakir paid one of his surprise visits recently at a dirt-floored house in the crowded Quetta suburb of Pashtunabad. The senior intelligence officer was meeting with a dozen other commanders and intelligence agents when a pack of motorcycles roared up and Zakir walked in and quickly got down to business, asking what they needed to make their forces more lethal. More money for weapons, ammunition, and roadside bombs, they told him—and more suicide bombers. A major ambush, the kind that involves IEDs, RPGs, automatic weapons, and suicide bombers, costs some 200,000 Pakistani rupees, they said: the equivalent of $2,300. Zakir's secretary took notes, wielding a big, ledgerlike agenda.

The military chief was ready for the group's requests, promising to send cash, explosives experts, and suicide bombers. "We have plenty of melons [Taliban slang for IEDs] and fedayeen [suicide bombers] for this summer and fall," he said, according to a young Taliban intelligence agent who was also present. "This will be the year of bombs and fedayeen." In return for that help, Zakir tells his listeners, he expects total commitment from everyone. "His policy is that 100 percent of his mujahedin should be busy inside Afghanistan immediately," the Helmand subcommander says. "In the past, maybe 80 percent of the commanders were sitting and resting in Pakistan." The senior intelligence officer says Zakir makes clear that he expects his men to head for Afghanistan immediately, and not to come back until the fighting season is over. Before rushing off to the next meeting, he tells them: "We may see you again in Quetta this winter—but not before."

Thousands of Taliban slogans cover the walls in and around the dusty frontier town of Kuchlak, some 14 kilometers northwest of Quetta. "The Only Solution Is Jihad Against the Invaders," says one. "Mullah Omar Is a Dagger Raised to Strike Each Occupier," says another. A local government councilor says the area's mosques and madrassas are packed with insurgents in need of temporary lodging as they head back to Afghanistan. Way stations have been set up all over the region in rented houses, he says, and swarms of Taliban pass through town on motorbikes every day. Most carry Pakistani national identity cards. "They're enjoying the hospitality of the 'black legs' [derogatory slang for the ISI]," he says. He worries that the local culture is being Talibanized. At least 20 local madrassa students have disappeared, most likely to join the fight in Afghanistan, he says, and Taliban backers are even trying to stop the traditional music and dancing at weddings. " 'How can you sing and dance when we're dying?' they tell us."

Across the border in Afghanistan, the spring offensive has begun. Hundreds of Taliban have staged mass assaults in Nuristan province, and at least seven suicide bombers and dozens of gunmen launched a major attack in downtown Kandahar city on May 7, targeting as many as eight government compounds, including the governor's house and office. The assault lasted more than 24 hours, and although it failed to capture any of its targets, it proved that Kandahar remains as insecure as ever despite the heavy presence of U.S. and Afghan forces. In April alone, more than 50 NATO troops were killed—more than in any other April since the war began.

And worse may be yet to come. For most returning Taliban, the first order of business will be the monthlong annual opium harvest (a major source of funding for the insurgents), which is just now beginning in the south. After the crop is in, the guerrillas will retrieve their hidden weapons and head for the battlefield. The senior intelligence officer says he's heard that Mullah Omar considers this year an important test for Zakir. "Our emir is giving Zakir a chance to prove himself," he says. "If he does well, he stays; if not, there are others who can take over." Of course, no one has seen Omar since he fled into the mountains on the back of Baradar's motorcycle nearly 10 years ago. And Zakir might do well to remember what happened to Osama bin Laden.