Not Your Father's Taliban

By Yousafzai, Sami; Moreau, Ron | Newsweek, May 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

Not Your Father's Taliban


Yousafzai, Sami, Moreau, Ron, Newsweek


Byline: Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau

How a radical new generation is defying the old guard and upending America's plans for a lasting peace.

Abdul Malik describes the confrontation with unconcealed relish. The 25-year-old Taliban tells how Mullah Juma Khan, 26, a fellow subcommander in a nearby Afghan district, began to suspect a merchant of passing information to the Americans. Unable to prove it, Khan told the merchant to clear out of Helmand province or be killed. The merchant went away, but he returned early this January with a letter signed by no less than Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar--the right-hand man of the Afghan Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar--vouching for the merchant and instructing Khan to leave him alone. Khan tore it up, pistol-whipped the merchant, and ordered him to get out of Helmand and stay out. "If you see Baradar, tell him not to give me orders not to hurt someone," Khan told the merchant. "I'm here risking my head fighting the Americans, and he's eating chicken and pilau in Pakistan."

Malik takes a sip of his tea and mentions to a NEWSWEEK reporter that U.S. Marines often pass directly outside the house where they're sitting. Khan's and Malik's lives on Afghanistan's front lines are a far cry from the relative comfort and security of Karachi, where Baradar was arrested in February, only a month after Khan's outburst. As far as Malik is concerned, Baradar's detention was no loss. "Young commanders like me had little or nothing to do with men like Mullah Baradar," he says. "We are here on the ground with our Kalashnikovs and RPGs, and we live or die by our own quick judgments. We don't need to listen to anyone who is not out here putting his life on the line." And he launches into another story, this one about another young Taliban commander who captured a bandit gang that had been preying on Taliban-protected drug convoys en route to Iran. Malik says the commander received a message from Baradar saying not to execute the thieves. The commander shot them anyway.

That kind of insubordination used to be unthinkable for the Taliban, but now it's widespread. The old generation of fighters is mostly gone from the battlefield; most were killed, captured, or disabled before they reached their late 30s. And yet by all accounts the number of insurgents on the ground keeps rising, with ever-younger recruits joining the fight. Malik and Khan had scarcely been born when Baradar took up arms against Soviet invaders, and they hadn't yet reached their teens when Mullah Omar's fighters seized Kabul from feuding mujahedin factions in 1996. According to a senior Taliban intelligence officer, speaking to NEWSWEEK on condition of anonymity, roughly 80 percent of the group's fighters are now in their late teens or early 20s, and half the commanders in the field are 30 or under. The best young fighters tend to be promoted quickly, thanks to combat losses.

The young guns are a breed apart from earlier Taliban generations. In a series of interviews for this story with more than a dozen young insurgent leaders over the past three months, they showed themselves to be more hotheaded and less respectful of authority than their elders. War against America has steeled these young fighters in combat with an enemy that employs more accurate and lethal firepower than the Russians or the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance ever had. The experience has only made them tougher and more uncompromising, in the judgment of veteran Taliban members. "The difference between these young Taliban and those of us who fought against the Northern Alliance or even the Russians is huge--like between earth and sky," says the senior intelligence officer who is in his mid-40s, but knows many commanders in their 20s. "These young men have seen and suffered more, and have a much stronger emotional and religious commitment than we ever did."

They're also impulsive and lacking in discipline. …

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