Rise of the Taliban’s kneecap commanders

The Sunday Times

The young Taliban commander with a penchant for severing spies’ heads with strands of thin wire dragged 28 of his foot soldiers from a makeshift jail and lined them up against a mud wall at his base.

Pacing along the row of handcuffed men, the fresh-faced 21-year-old — surrounded by bodyguards — drew his pistol.

“You’re about to be punished because you’ve taken money from infidels by working on building projects in winter,” shouted Ferozuddin. He had arrived in the east Afghanistan province of Ghazni in March to take command of Andar district after an American airstrike killed his predecessor.

As the fighters begged forgiveness, Ferozuddin marched up to the first one and shot him in the left knee. One by one he kneecapped the others.

“Ferozuddin is possessed,” said a Taliban judge from the same notoriously dangerous district. “He listens to no one, not even his elders. He is more sadistic than any commander Andar has ever seen.”

Ruthless young commanders like Ferozuddin are a by-product of Nato’s campaign to kill or capture Taliban commanders, say Afghan intelligence officials, analysts and western diplomats. They claim the new breed of militants replacing commanders killed or captured by Nato have stronger links to extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Pakistani Taliban. Nato’s kill and capture campaign has also hampered negotiations with the Taliban, they say.

“They’re killing people we want to talk to and the new generation aren’t interested in talking at all,” said Haji din Mohammed, head of the contact committee of the High Peace Council, the Afghan government body responsible for liaising with insurgents. “The operation has been successful — Nato is killing a lot of people — but the patient is still dying.”

Nato believes that by weakening the insurgency on the ground, its kill and capture campaign will force the Taliban’s leaders into negotiations, but Afghan officials and some western diplomats believe the strategy has made Taliban leaders deeply sceptical of America’s intentions.

“On the one hand America says it wants to talk and on the other US and British special forces continue to kill fighters in increasing numbers,” said a western official. “Shooting and talking at the same time won’t work. The Americans need to make concessions if they truly want formal negotiations.”

Western officials with knowledge of the latest round of informal talks, held in Germany in May, said the Taliban had three main demands.

Taib Agha, the Taliban representative, asked American officials to release at least five influential Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and Bagram airbase and to lift bounties from the heads of Taliban leaders. The two sides also discussed opening an office, perhaps in Turkey, from which the Taliban could conduct formal negotiations, but US officials fear that freed prisoners will simply rejoin the insurgency.

“There’s an ocean of mistrust and a lack of confidence between the Taliban and the Americans,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the Taliban’s former United Nations envoy and the current deputy head of the High Peace Council.

“There is a serious contradiction in US policy: they talk for peace and at the same time increase military operations. To the Taliban, it looks like they are not sincere about peace.”

Adding to the suspicion is a claim that Nato’s campaign to decapitate the Taliban’s ground command was designed to stoke up Taliban brutality against civilians. It has emerged on WikiLeaks that Peter Lavoy, then the US national intelligence officer for south Asia, told a Nato meeting in 2008 that western forces should put intense pressure on the Taliban “to bring out their more violent and ideologically radical tendencies”. He added: “This will alienate the population and give us an opportunity to separate the Taliban from the population.”

Afghan and western officials say the policy has damaged attempts to reach out to insurgents. In May last year US soldiers arrested Dr Haji Naim Faruq, a former police officer who had once worked for the Taliban. Hours earlier Faruq was in talks with the governor of Paktia province about how best to persuade militants to lay down their arms.

“We wanted him to work on talking to the insurgents because of his past connections to the regime and the deep respect he has among the community,” said Maulawi Khaliqdad, head of the province’s peace council. Yet more than a year later Faruq is still held in Bagram, as the United States believes he supported Taliban bombmakers.

“This is happening the whole time: people we are in touch with get arrested and disappear. The insurgents see this and say: how can we trust you? Your own men get arrested so why should we talk to you?” said Khaliqdad.

Taliban commanders in Pakistan are becoming more reluctant to cross into Afghanistan as their comrades are dying in ever greater numbers. “Some of the commanders I know have turned off their mobiles and gone to stay with friends, like recalcitrant teenagers dodging school,” said Michael Semple, a Taliban specialist.

“The Talibs are unsure of their safe haven in Pakistan and worried about being zapped. They are caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Afghan and western officials say those who brave the risks are more violent and harder to talk to.

“If the Americans keep killing and arresting people, we will have no one left to talk with,” said din Mohammed.

“We’ll be left with the hard core who don’t care about anything except destroying this country.”

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