In the darkness, we roll into the village of Nughi. We no longer have cellphone reception; the Taliban shut down the phone towers after sunset, when they stop for the night, to prevent U.S. surveillance from pinpointing their position. It is the holiday of Shaab eh Barat, when Muslims believe God determines a person's destiny for the coming year. Young boys from the village gather to swing balls of fire attached to wires. Like orange stars, hundreds of fiery circles glow far into the distance. The practice is haram — one of many traditions banned by the Taliban, who consider it forbidden under Islam. The fact that it is being tolerated is the first indication I have that the Taliban are not as doctrinaire as they were during their seven years of rule.
Shafiq maneuvers the car on the bumpy dirt road between mud houses. After a few stops in the village we are led to a house where a group of young Taliban fighters emerges. Several of them are carrying weapons. We greet the traditional way, each man placing his right hand on the other's heart, leaning in but not fully embracing, inquiring about the other's health and family. Ibrahim, who had promised to protect me on the trip, decides to go home, leaving Shafiq to guide me the rest of the way.
With the moon lighting our path, Shafiq and I follow the Taliban on foot to another house, entering through a low door into a guest room with a red carpet on the floor and wooden beams on the ceiling.
A dim bulb barely illuminates the room. A PKM belt-fed machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher lean against a wall, next to several rockets. We are joined by Mullah Yusuf, Ibrahim's nephew, who serves as a senior commander in Andar.
Yusuf has dark reddish skin and a handsome face. He wears a black turban with thin gold stripes and carries an AK-47. A boy brings a pitcher and basin and we rinse our hands. We drink green tea and eat a soup of mushy bread called shurwa with our hands, followed by meat and grapes.
Yusuf became a commander last year, when the Americans killed his superior officer. He sleeps in a different house every night to avoid detection. Only 30 years old, he has big ears and an almost elfin air; the ringtone on his cellphone is a bells-and-cymbals version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice theme. A year and a half ago, Yusuf was injured in his thigh by a U.S. helicopter strike, and now walks with a limp. He joined the Taliban in 2003 after studying at a religious school in North Waziristan, the border region of Pakistan where many Afghan refugees live. He seems less motivated by religious ideals than by defending his homeland: He took up jihad, he tells me, because foreigners have come to Afghanistan and are fighting Afghans and poor people.
"The Americans are not good," he says. "They go into houses and put people in jail. Fifteen days ago the Americans bombed here and killed a civilian."
The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has not been helped by its rash of misguided bombings. This year, according to the United Nations, 1,445 Afghan civilians were killed by coalition forces through August — two-thirds of them in airstrikes. On July 6th, a bombing raid killed 47 members of a wedding party — including 39 women and children — near the village of Kacu. On August 22nd, more than 90 civilians — again mostly women and children — were killed in an airstrike in Azizabad.
Yusuf makes it clear that it is only the Americans he has a problem with. Once the foreigners leave, he insists, the Taliban will negotiate peace with the Afghan army and police: "They are brothers, Muslims." What's more, he says, girls will be allowed to go to school, and women will be allowed to work. It is a stance I will hear echoed by many Taliban leaders. In recent years, recognizing that their harsher strictures had alienated the population, the Taliban have grown more tolerant. To improve their operations, they have even been forced to adopt technologies they once banned: computers, television, films, the Internet.
After we finish eating, we walk to a mud shed. Shafiq opens its wooden doors to reveal another white Toyota Corolla. The men load the RPG launcher and four rockets into the car, along with the PKM machine gun. We drive through the moonlit desert on dirt paths to the village of Kharkhasha, where Shafiq lives. On the way, Shafiq pops in a cassette of Taliban chants. They are in Pashtu and without instrumentation, which is forbidden by the Taliban.
Arriving at Shafiq's house, we enter the guest room in darkness and sit on thin mattresses. A small gas lamp is brought out, as well as grapes and green tea. Shafiq says he fought the Soviets in the 1980s and spent five years in jail. But following the Soviet withdrawal, as the mujahedeen turned on one another, Shafiq felt they had become robbers. He joined the Taliban in 1994, he says, because they wanted peace and Islam.
Shafiq has met Osama bin Laden twice — once before the Taliban took over, and once during the Taliban reign. He was impressed by bin Laden's knowledge of Pashtu. He has also met Mullah Muhammed Omar, the one-eyed cleric who calls himself the "commander of the faithful." Omar, who served as leader of the Taliban government, is now in hiding across the border in Pakistan, where he rebuilt the Taliban with the help and protection of Pakistani intelligence. Shafiq hopes that Omar will return to lead the country, but other Taliban leaders no longer view him as the only option. The shift is significant — a sign that the Taliban are not fighting merely to restore the hard-line government they had before but are prepared to move forward with a greater degree of flexibility and pragmatism than they have shown in the past.
The next morning, we get back into the Corolla, loading the PKM, the RPG launcher and four rockets into the trunk. Shafiq and the machine gun are in the front passenger seat. Yusuf drives, his AK-47 beside him. Another Taliban fighter rides a Honda motorcycle alongside us, an AK-47 strapped to his shoulder. They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in action: going out on patrols, conducting attacks, adjudicating disputes and providing security against bandits and police. As we head deeper into the province, the land becomes increasingly flat and arid. Everything is the color of sand. Even the dilapidated mud homes, bleached almost white by the sun, look like sand castles after the first wave has hit them.
Yusuf points to a police checkpoint. The police know him, he says, but do nothing to stop him. "Every night I go on patrol, and they don't fight me," he says. "They don't have guns, and they are afraid."
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