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How the Taliban surpassed a great power: endurance and carnage



ALINGAR, Afghanistan – Under the shadow of a mulberry tree, near tombs dotted with Taliban flags, a top outrageous military leader in eastern Afghanistan acknowledged that the group had suffered devastating losses from US strikes and government operations over the past decade.

But these losses have changed a bit on the ground: The Taliban continue to replace their dead and wounded and deliver brutal violence.

“We see this fight as worship,”

; said Mawlawi Mohammed Qais, chief of the Taliban military commission in Laghman province, while dozens of his fighters were waiting nearby on a slope. “So if one brother is killed, the other brother will not fail God’s will – he will step in the brother’s shoes.”

The Taliban has surpassed a great power through nearly 19 years of grinding wars. And dozens of interviews with Taliban officials and fighters in three countries, as well as with Afghan and Western officials, highlighted the meltdown of old and new approaches and generations that helped them do so.

After 2001, the Taliban was reorganized as a decentralized network of low-level fighters and commanders who were empowered to recruit and find resources locally while senior management remained protected in the neighborhood of Pakistan.

At the same time, the Taliban have officially changed some of their hard core ideology as they prepare to start direct talks on power sharing with the Afghan government.

“We prefer the agreement to be fully implemented so that we can have an all-encompassing peace,” said Amir Khan Mutaqi, chief of staff of the Taliban’s senior leader, in a rare interview in Doha, Qatar’s capital, with The New York Times. “But we can’t just sit here when the prisons are filled by our people, when the government system is the same Western system and the Taliban should just sit at home.”

“No logic accepts it – that everything remains the same after all this sacrifice,” he said, adding, “the current government relies on foreign money, foreign arms, foreign funding.”

Many Afghans are afraid that the uprisings will bully negotiators to give them a dominant stake in the government – whose institutions they have undermined and whose officials they continue to kill with cargo bombs and ambushes.

Taliban field commanders made it clear that they were only lighting fire on American troops to give them safe passage – “so they dust their buttocks and leave,” as a senior Taliban commander in the south said. But there was no reserve to continue attacking the Afghan security forces.

“Our struggle began before America – against corruption. The corrupt asked America to come because they couldn’t fight, says a young commander of the Taliban elite “Red Unit” in Alingar. He was a small child when the US invasion began and met with a Times reporting group in the area where government control gives way to the Taliban.

“Until an Islamic system has been established,” said the commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, “our jihad will continue until the day of judgment.”

The Taliban now have somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 active warriors and tens of thousands of armed men and facilitators part-time, according to Afghan and US estimates.

Sometimes the casualty rate went so high – losing up to hundreds of fighters a week when Americans conducted an air campaign where they dropped nearly 27,000 bombs since 2013 – that the Taliban developed a reserve force system to continue applying pressure where it had lost losses, according to the group’s regional commander. Last year was particularly devastating, with Afghan officials claiming they killed the Taliban at unprecedented rates: more than 1,000 a month, perhaps a quarter of their estimated strengths at the end of the year. In addition to air strikes by Afghan forces, the United States dropped some 7,400 bombs, perhaps the most in a decade.

Even on top of the long US military presence and the concerted effort to help the Afghan government win the hearts and minds of the countryside, the Taliban could continue to recruit enough young men to continue fighting. Families are constantly responding to Taliban calls and booming profits help keep everything together.

Mawlawi Qais explained how his military commission in Laghman Province, where Alingar is, has an active “Guidance and Invite” committee whose members go to mosques and Quran lessons to recruit new warriors. But he noted that most recruits come from current warriors who work to make friends and relatives.

There has been a constant need for new blood, especially in the last decade. “In our immediate dilgai alone,” he said, referring to a unit of 100 to 150 warriors, “we have lost 80 men.”

Still, fighters continue to sign up, he said, in part because of deep disgust for the Western institutions and the values ​​the Afghan government has raised from its allies.

“Our problem is not with their flesh and bones,” said Mawlawi Qais. “It’s with the system.”

Afghan officials say that in places where the Taliban do not have stable control for local recruitment, they still draw heavily on the roughly two million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and on the seminars there to recruit front-line fighters.

Taliban recruitment officials and commanders say they do not pay regular salaries. Instead, they cover the challenges for the fighters. What has helped in recent years has been to give their commanders a free hand in how they used their local resources – and the change of war.

Some revenue collection, such as taxation of goods, was centralized. But increasingly, the movement became deeply intertwined with local crime and drug problems, which increased the financial incentives to continue its holy war.

“The friends who are with us on the front lines of jihad, they do not get exact salaries,” said Mullah Baaqi Zarawar, a unit manager in Helmand Province. “But we take care of their pocket money, the gas for their motorcycle, their travel expenses. And if they catch destruction, it is their profit. “

In areas where they have convenient control, many Taliban fighters and even the leaders retain other jobs.

During his interview, Mawlawi Qais paused to apologize for his dusty clothes – he said he had been grinding flour all morning, which is his day job. Many of his fighters also have other jobs when they are not fighting.

To ensure that recruitment streams would not dry up, the uprising prioritized an increasingly sophisticated information operation, and shaped the Taliban story through licked video productions and an aggressive social media brigade.

Instances of American or Afghan forces causing civilian casualties, whether real or composite, are splashed across social media in connection with the Taliban’s educational videos of their fighters jumping through fiery rings and drilling with their weapons. The message has been consistent: Joining us is taking up a life of heroism and sacrifice.

Following their agreement with the Americans, the Taliban propaganda has only intensified and adopted an unfortunate triumph. In its annual announcement for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, released last Wednesday, the Taliban’s supreme leader made a promise of amnesty for enemies who have renounced their loyalty to the Afghan government.

Alingar is also an example of how the Taliban have calculated local arrangements to act as a shadow government in areas where they have established control. The rebels are collecting taxes and sending about 20 percent to the central leadership while keeping the rest for the fighters locally, Taliban leaders in the district said. They have committees that oversee basic services to the public, including health, education, and operation of local bazaars.

Supplies and salaries for health clinics and schools are still paid by the Afghan government and its international donors. But the Taliban manages everything in its own way – a compromise that was reluctantly approved by aid organizations because the alternative would be no services. And the rebels’ attitude to the school provides the strongest evidence yet that the movement is sticking to its old ways of oppressing women, art and culture.

Of the 57 schools in Alingar, 17 are girls’ schools, according to Mawlawi Ahmadi Haqmal, head of the Alingar Education Committee. But the local Taliban insists that girls’ education must be completed after the sixth grade, in violation of international education aid requirements. In the curriculum, the Taliban have also dropped the culture as a subject because it promoted “vulgarities like music,” Mawlawi Haqmal said.

After the Taliban swept to power in the 1990s and defeated other factions in the vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal, the United States seemed most indifferent to the group’s oppressive rule. But that changed in 2001, when Al Qaeda leaders took shelter in Afghanistan on September 11, terrorist attacks on American soil.

Al Qaeda’s Saudi leader, Osama bin Laden, had spent a long time in Afghanistan and once fought even on the American side against the Soviets at the end of the Cold War. The Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, allowed him to stay in Afghanistan and the two had grown close, with Bin Laden pledging allegiance to him as an Islamic emir.

Bush wounded and seeking immediate revenge, the Bush administration had no patience for the Taliban’s proposal to find a way to get rid of Bin Laden without directly handing him over to the Americans. The United States launched a military invasion.

A group that had found success against Afghan factions quickly showed up before the US air strikes. Taliban fighters went home when the Islamic emirate disintegrated. Their leaders crossed the border into Pakistan or ended up in US prisons.

Many Taliban commanders interviewed for this article said that during the first few months after the invasion, they could hardly even dream of a day they might be able to fight the US military. But that changed when their leadership regrouped in the safe havens provided by the Pakistan military – even when Pakistanis received hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid.

From that security, the Taliban planned a prolonged war against US and NATO troops. Beginning with more serious territorial abuse in 2007, the rebels revived and refined an old plan that the United States had funded against the Soviets in the same mountain and terrain – but now it was distributed to the US military.

“Most of our leaders were part of the anti-Soviet war. This was our country, our territory and our colleagues had knowledge, “said Mutaqi, Taliban chief of staff. “Afghanistan’s history was ahead of us – when the British came, their strength was greater than the Afghans, when the Soviets came, their strength was greater, and the same goes with the Americans – their strength was much greater than ours. So it gave us hope that the Americans would eventually leave. “

From the outset, the insurgents seized corruption and abuse of the Afghan government introduced by the United States and cast themselves as arbitrators and Afghan traditions – a powerful part of their continuing appeal with many rural Afghans in particular. With the US mostly distracted with the war in Iraq, the rebellion expanded its ambitions and territory.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the Taliban had spread so far that it increased the number of American troops on the ground to about 100,000. In addition to an Afghan army and police that eventually grew to about 300,000 fighters, the US military also supported local Afghan militias that urgent action. The war had entered a vicious circle of killing and killing.

During the second decade of the uprising, the Taliban have been defined by the powerlessness of their violence – and by their ability to strike at will even in the most guarded parts of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The Taliban revived the old fundraising networks in Arab states that had helped finance the U.S.-backed Mujahedeen movement against the Soviets.

A good example of how the Taliban took old guerrilla experiences into new brutality was the development of the Haqqani network and its integration into the leadership.

The Haqqanis turned their old smuggling routes and networks into a pipeline for suicide bombers and well-trained fighters who hit American targets and attacked critical Afghan authorities.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a leading Taliban negotiator, had just been released after ten years in Pakistani prison, arrested as he made contacts for peace talks with the Afghan government without the blessing of the Pakistani military establishment that had given rise to the uprising.

Each session, Mullah Baradar would arrive at the venue, a posh diplomatic club, in a pair of black Chevrolet Impala sedans. Half a dozen guards in white robes would rush between the American-made vehicles and the gate, one openly held the car door and led the weak, turbaned leader up the stairs into the marble hall where the Americans were impatient to end the war.

A major concern among American and Afghan officials was whether the Taliban’s political wing and those like Mullah Baradar had real influence among the military commanders of the uprising.

Another question was whether the Taliban would really target terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda when the Americans left.

During a session last spring, the commander of the US and NATO forces, General Austin S. Miller, appealed to the Taliban to find common cause with the US terrorist mission.

“Our guys could continue to kill each other,” he said, “or we can kill ISIS together.”

US officials say President Trump’s negative view of the talks improved dramatically as the Taliban began delivering on that front. The rebels intensified pressure on the Islamic State’s foothold in the east just as the United States bombed them from the sky and Afghan commands pushed from a different direction.

About two weeks after the Taliban signed its deal with the United States, in a statement Al Qaeda hailed it as a “big victory” against America.

The Taliban demonstrated their ability to control their rankings through another test. When both sides conditioned the signing of their agreement on a week of violence with violence, violence levels dropped by as much as 80 percent, Afghan and American officials said.

That would not have been a sure thing. Mullah Baradar constantly refused to turn the seven days into a complete weapons weapon – a move many Afghan and Western observers believe gave the Taliban leadership little room not to lose face in the event that some rogue cells disobeyed the order to stop fighting.

There were other signs that Mullah Baradar had to keep up a sophisticated juggling behind the scenes. Some Afghan officials said they had intelligence that Mullah Baradar had issued an ultimatum to the Taliban military wing, saying that if it insisted on trying to win by force, there was no need for him to continue to spend his days arguing with Americans. for words. , come off come.

As the week of violence reduction began, the Taliban commanders – on WhatsApp groups and on military radio channels – rushed to bring their fighters and units in line. The victory is near and this is what the leadership wants and we have to deliver, they would tell their fighters, according to intelligence reports shared with the New York Times by Afghan officials.

One thing that slowed down negotiations with the United States was that the Taliban political leaders wanted to bring down all the little questions to their commanders and bring them on board to avoid riots and outbreaks.

For weeks, the turbaned negotiators would sit opposite the Americans in conference rooms in Doha and then send delegations back to Pakistan for consultation with the leadership.

In between, there was always WhatsApp. When the rebellious negotiators took punctual breaks from prayer calls, they picked up their phones from the cabinet on the way. The incoming messages beeped throughout the prayer in the mosque, and the scrolling began as soon as the hands touched the face at the end of worship.

Even when new commanders have emerged in recent years, a large part of the management council consists of the older crew that established the uprising in the years following the US invasion. The old political leaders acknowledge that the balancing they face is like no challenge the insurgency has faced before. They have made sure to control the cause of their violence – it is a holy war as long as their supreme leader and clergy prescribe it to be.

Mr Analyst, Sharan, said that unity has been easier to maintain with a common enemy, the US military, to fight. But if the Taliban eventually wins their dream of an Afghanistan without the Americans, he said, they will face many of the challenges that once drew the country to anarchy.

“The relationship between the political leaders and the military commanders who have a monopoly on resources and violence will be tested,” he said. “The 1990s civil war in Kabul did not happen because the political leaders could not agree on each other – it happened because the commanders who had a monopoly on violence at the bottom wanted to increase their resources. The political leaders were hopeless when they controlled them. “

Taimoor Shah contributed with reports from Kandahar and Zabihullah Ghazi from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.


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