Unholy Allies

At sundown, the most- wanted man in Ghazni province comes roaring down a country road astride his motorcycle. Mohammed Daud, 35, commands the biggest Taliban force in this area roughly 100 miles southwest of Kabul. But today he travels with just one bodyguard. The two bikes wheel into a melon patch, trailed by a billowing cloud of red dust. Climbing off his machine, Daud launches into a glowing account of where he spent the first few months of this year and what he's done since his return. "I'm explaining to my fighters every day the lessons I learned and my experience in Iraq," he tells a NEWSWEEK correspondent. "I want to copy in Afghanistan the tactics and spirit of the glorious Iraqi resistance."

A crueler setback would be hard to imagine for America and its Afghan allies. At the same time as more than 12 million registered Afghan voters were getting ready last week for their first real parliamentary elections since 1969, insurgents in Baghdad continued their homicidal campaign to make Iraq ungovernable. In the Iraqi capital's deadliest day of direct attacks since the U.S. invasion, terrorists slaughtered more than 160 people--most of them civilians, including roughly 112 jobseekers at a hiring center for day laborers. After nearly three decades of unrelenting carnage in Afghanistan, even some Taliban veterans may not have the stomach for Iraq's levels of indiscriminate bloodshed.

Nevertheless, Daud and other Taliban leaders tell NEWSWEEK that the Afghan conflict is entering a new phase, with help from Iraq. According to them, Osama bin Laden has opened an underground railroad to and from jihadist training camps in the Sunni Triangle. Self-described graduates of the program say they've come home to Afghanistan with more-effective killing techniques and renewed enthusiasm for the war against the West. Daud says he's been communicating a "new momentum and spirit" to the 300 fighters under his command.

U.S. military officers in Afghanistan say they've seen no evidence of any direct collaboration between the Taliban and Iraq's insurgents. "That's not to say that it couldn't happen or be in the process of happening," says one senior U.S. military officer who can't be quoted by name because of the sensitive nature of his job. "If I started to see that," he adds, "then I would begin to worry." Afghanistan's top brass is worried now. Taliban forces are larger, more aggressive and better armed and organized than at any time since the end of 2001, says Defense Minister Abdur Rahim Wardak: "They have more men, equipment, money, better explosives and remote-controlled detonators." Worse yet, he says, there are "strong indications" that Al Qaeda has brought in a team of Arab instructors from Iraq to teach the latest insurgent techniques to the Taliban.

After last October's unexpectedly peaceful presidential vote, U.S. and Afghan officials were nearly playing "Taps" for the Taliban, calling it a spent force, no longer able to carry out serious military activity. Al Qaeda was skimping on the Afghan rebels in order to build up the insurgency in Iraq. Now, Wardak says, bin Laden evidently is helping the Taliban get more and better arms from Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. "We have information that the Taliban have received new weapons and explosive devices," says a European diplomat who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, "most probably because of increased financial support from abroad and some traffic between Iraq and Afghanistan through Iran."

One beneficiary of Al Qaeda's renewed interest in Afghanistan is Hamza Sangari, a Taliban commander from Khost province. Late last year, he says, he received an invitation from none other than bin Laden's chief envoy to the insurgents in Iraq, Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi. Sangari, 36, says he jumped at the chance for advanced field training in the Sunni Triangle: "God heard and granted my request to see and learn from the Iraqi mujahedin." In December he traveled there with a select group of eight Afghan Taliban, two Central Asians and five Arab Qaeda fighters. They set out from Pakistan's Baluchistan province, south of Afghanistan, carrying a letter of introduction from al-Iraqi and traveling afoot, on motorbikes and in four-wheel-drive vehicles to the Iranian border. Late one moonless night, a heavily armed convoy of Baluchi drug smugglers took them across the border and deep into Iran. Sangari and his companions were relayed from one band of smugglers to another until early January, when they finally crossed the unmarked desert border into Iraq.

Sangari spent his time in Iraq being escorted to guerrilla bases in towns like Fallujah and Ramadi, and in remote desert regions. He says he was welcomed wherever he went. "I've never been so well received," he says. He was impressed with what he saw. "The Iraqi mujahedin are better armed, organized and trained than we are," he says. He stayed four weeks at a remote training camp called Ashaq al Hoor, he says, where he saw adolescent boys being trained as suicide bombers.

An Arab named Abu Nasser taught him to make armor-penetrating weapons by disassembling rockets and RPG rounds, removing the explosives and propellants and repacking them with powerful, high-velocity "shaped" charges. Another Arab trainer, Abu Aziz, trained him to make and use various kinds of remote-controlled devices and timers. A veteran Arab fighter named Abu Sara showed him how to spring ambushes and engage in urban fighting. Sangari said he often heard the sounds of battle nearby. He volunteered to fight, but his instructors told him his job was to study and get home alive to fight in Afghanistan. He did as he was told, only to be put out of action during a shoot-out with U.S. and Afghan forces in July. When he talked to NEWSWEEK he was in a mud-brick house on the Pakistan border, recuperating from a bullet wound in his shoulder.

Both Sangari and Daud say the demolitions training was particularly useful. (The two commanders tell of strikingly similar itineraries, although they claim they have never met.) Sangari says his men had been relying on obsolete land mines left over from the Soviet occupation, but thanks to Abu Nasser and Abu Aziz, now they are building Iraq-style IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and setting them off by remote control. Daud particularly likes a device he calls a "TV bomb": an IED in a black and silver plastic box, like a portable television. It's a shaped-charge mechanism that can be hidden under brush or debris on a roadside and set off by remote control from 300 yards or more. Triggered, it springs toward its target and explodes with armor-penetrating force. "That remote system is very effective in Iraq," Daud says. In the past two months, he says, his men have used 18 or so of these bombs against Afghan and U.S. patrols, inflicting more than 20 casualties.

Still, the Taliban is barely a shadow of the military juggernaut that seized Kabul in 1996. Afghanistan's cities are returning to vibrant life, and most of the countryside is peaceful. The main exceptions are the impoverished backwaters of the south and east, where Mullah Mohammed Omar's guerrilla movement began more than a decade ago. Even in those areas, America's troops--roughly 20,000 in the country, all told--are hunting down the jihadists. In the last four months alone, according to U.S. military statistics, at least 450 Taliban fighters have been killed, out of a total estimated fighting force of several thousand.

And yet the war continues. The guerrillas seem to have no trouble recruiting and arming new fighters. Daud says his forces have tripled from 100 to 300 since last year. This year at least 51 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, compared with a total of 60 in the first three years of combat. One big reason for the jump in the U.S. fatality rate seems to be the guerrillas' shift to shaped-charge IEDs. Even crudely manufactured devices can be far more deadly than Soviet-era land mines.

The big worry is that studying Iraqi tactics will make the Afghan resistance significantly stronger and more lethal. During a recent sweep of pro-Taliban sites along the Afghan frontier in north Waziristan, Pakistani troops collected a mound of Arabic-language training manuals, apparently copies of the ones used by insurgents in Iraq. Sangari says he was impressed by way Iraqi insurgents created combat videos to help fund-raising and recruiting efforts; now similar videos of Taliban attacks are showing up in bazaars along the Pakistani border. An even scarier development was a suicide bombing at a mosque in Kandahar in early June that was eerily similar to atrocities against places of worship in Iraq. The blast killed at least 19 people and wounded more than 50 others at the funeral of Maulavi Abdul Fayaz, a prominent pro-government cleric. (The Taliban claimed responsibility for his death, but denied any role in the mosque bombing.)

The trouble is, people grow accustomed to atrocities. Commander Daud boasts of having assassinated at least 12 Afghans since July--"American spies," he calls them. He says his men also killed a popular local parliamentary candidate back in May--a mistake, he says. The real target was not Akhtar Mohammed Khan, but his brother, a provincial official whose car he had borrowed that day. Late last week yet another candidate, Abdul Hadi, was shot dead at the door of his house in the southern province of Helmand, apparently by Taliban gunmen, bringing the number of candidates murdered during the campaign to seven. If people in Taliban country don't like such doings, few of them dare show it. Daud says he could never have ridden into villages in Ghazni two years ago as brazenly as he does now. "Everyone knows who I am," he says. "If we didn't have support from local people, we couldn't operate in this area for a single day." It could be that people are just plain scared of him, but still, he has a point.