Last Days of the Taliban? the One-Eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar Cruises the Afghan Countryside on a Motorbike Trying to Rally His Troops. but His Guerrillas May Be Tiring of the Fight

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Byline: Sami Yousafzai And Ron Moreau

Mullah Mohammad Rafiq, a 28-year-old Taliban fighter with kohl-lined eyes and shoulder-length hair spilling from his black turban, couldn't believe his good luck. Last summer his 20-man guerrilla unit was summoned to the district of Argandab in Kandahar province to rendezvous with Mullah Shahzada Akhund. A senior Taliban commander, Shahzada had just been released from nearly three years' imprisonment by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At sunset one day, Rafiq's unit was ordered to accompany Shahzada, who was alternately talking on a satellite phone and a walkie-talkie, on a hike into some rocky hills; there they camped for the night. Around 11 p.m. two motorcycles arrived. Shahzada greeted the heavily armed drivers, who then flashed their headlights in code toward a far-off hill. Some 40 minutes later six more motorbikes roared into the makeshift guerrilla camp. Riding on the back of one was a relatively tall man wearing a black turban, a scarf partially covering his face, a blanket over his shoulders and traditional, baggy, black shalwar khameez . Shahzada rushed over, then kissed the man's forehead and both of his hands.

Two subcommanders fell on their knees.

Rafiq says the visitor was the Taliban's elusive, one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Surrounded by bodyguards, he and Shahzada walked to a nearby orchard where blankets were placed on the ground. Rafiq, standing guard only a few feet away, says he could see the dignitary's face clearly in the light of the full moon. Rafiq had never seen Mullah Omar before--few Afghans ever have--but he recognized the Leader of the Faithful, as Omar is popularly known, by his fake right eye and by his relatively loud voice and fast-speaking style, which he'd heard many times on audiocassettes that circulate among the Taliban and are even sold in markets in Pakistan. He says Mullah Omar appeared in good health.

The Taliban leader told Shahzada, who was killed 10 days later in a friendly-fire incident, that he didn't want to hear about the rigors of his imprisonment. He said that the Taliban's so far unsuccessful fight to dislodge the Americans from Afghanistan was simply Allah's way of testing them. "Our jihad will be successful," he said. "We only have to fight harder and be patient." Then Mullah Omar turned his attention to rallying the troops. He urged the men not to be afraid of America's overwhelming military power. "You shouldn't be terrified of the U.S.'s aircraft, machines, technology and propaganda," he added. "If the Americans are so powerful then why can't they find this simple Taliban who walks openly on the earth?"

If Osama bin Laden is the most-wanted terrorist in the world, then his former host in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, is arguably the No. 2 man on the list. According to NEWSWEEK interviews with Taliban fighters, commanders and officials, the mysterious emir is not only alive but fully in charge of his hard-pressed guerrilla movement. Yet despite his efforts, the Taliban's three-year-old guerrilla campaign against some 18,000 American troops and Kabul's ragtag military may be in danger of collapsing. According to the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, the Taliban's roughly 2,000 insurgents have all but stopped fighting in recent months. Afghan security forces claim to have captured more than two dozen suspected Taliban operatives in the first two weeks of December, including two of the movement's most wanted, who were found in a house in Kandahar: Toor Mullah Naqibullah Khan was said to be a senior security aide to Mullah Omar during the Taliban's years in power, and Mullah Qayoom Angar was a senior guerrilla commander. Mullah Omar's top military commander, Mullah Dadullah Akhund, downplayed those two arrests, saying the men were merely "ordinary Taliban."

Whether the two men were leaders or followers, the Taliban is in bad shape. …