Inside the Jihad: Remembrances from a Former Taliban Prisoner

Take it from the man held captive by the Taliban for 45 days: The mujahideen will fight to the end.

In their last interviews before leaving Afghanistan in July, General David Petraeus and second-in-command General Dan Rodriquez said that the United States would shift its focus this winter from southern Afghanistan to the east.

In 1973, I was a young traveler and drove my old Volkswagen from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan. It was like going on a Sunday drive. I returned in 1981 as a freelance reporter for The New York Times and rode with the mujahideen, America’s proxy army fighting the Soviet Union, from Peshawar down through the tribal areas, hiked up into Afghanistan, and lived with Jalaladin Haqqani, a mujahideen commander, and later in the south. I returned to Afghanistan for CBS News in 2001, looked for old Kabul—once called Paris of the East—kept returning to the border region and went south, thinking of the men who fought the Soviet Red Army with old, heavy, bolt-action, British Lee Enfield rifles,and saved my life.

From December 2006 to February 2008, I traveled, off and on, disguised as a Pashtun along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. I wanted to find out who the Taliban really were, and through them learn about al-Qaeda. In December 2006, I went into the mountains for the first time in twenty-five years. I realized I had been here before, with Haqqani’s men. Everything was the same, except I was now the enemy.

We reached the canyon where Pat Tillman, the U.S. Army Ranger and football star, was killed. My guide pointed east. “The Taliban come across the border through that valley,” he said softly. “Jalaladin is over there. Today he is the patriarch of the Haqqani network, the most lethal insurgent group in eastern Afghanistan. Congressman Charlie Wilson, of Charlie Wilson’s War, called Haqqani “goodness personified.” When I first arrived at his compound he gave me a plate of honey to go with my tea. “I wish Haqqani had come over,” a former CIA official told me in 2006.

November 11, 2007—Veteran’s Day. I was a veteran waiting to meet the Taliban. I hated this, but I was here now. A young man, called Abu Hamza, a nom de guerre, entered the room and sat down, pointing his rifle low, but at me. He wore an infrared light on his turban. Someone was backing him. Why was he fighting? “We are fighting jihad,” he said. Who supported him? “Elders,” he replied. “Pakistan. We live in the mountains, but for training we go to Pakistan. Sometimes the army comes and trains us. “We know they are in the army, but they have gray beards, like you.”

I felt that he wouldn’t kill me. He was Pashtun, the main ethnic group in eastern and southern Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. Adab, a tenet of Pashtunwali, their tribal code, said he had to treat an elder with respect. “Islamic parties in Pakistan, and the people, support us because we are fighting for Islam,” he continued. Which was more important, Pashtunwali or Islam? “Islam,” he responded quickly.

In the 1980s, a tribal chief from Kandahar, living, like Taliban leaders today, in Quetta, Pakistan, told me that in the south Pashtunwali was more important than Islam, but that Islam was more powerful, because of Pakistani influence, in the east.

Haqqani was once a lowly mullah, who ministered in a small baked-mud mosque outside of Khost. Today, his giant marble mosque, with turquoise minarets, looms over Khost, like a cathedral over a village in France or Spain. In 1981, an Egyptian army major came to stay with us. He was arrogant and no one liked him, but they deferred to him, because he seemed to have power over Haqqani. He was the beginning of what would become al-Qaeda. In 2010, a man from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point told me the United States was trying to find him.

I asked Hamza what the difference was between him and the mujahideen. “We are the same,” he said. “They fought to expel the Soviets and we fight to expel the Americans. He had heard that there were secret ties between the ISI and religious parties. “We don’t know what they are, but there are ties.”

Some of his men watched us talk, among them a thin young man wearing a red and white kefeyyah, like men wore in the Middle East. He said something in Arabic. He was al-Qaeda. I asked Hamza who was in charge, the Taliban or al-Qaeda. “We are in charge,” he said. “Al-Qaeda is also fighting for Islam and they are our friends.”

A month later, at midnight, I sat in the mountains south of Tora Bora. A Predator buzzed above us and I shivered in the cold. A Taliban commander, about forty years of age, quoted from the Koran before he answered each of my questions. Their support came from God, from the tribes and religious parties in Pakistan, he said. Jihad was jihad. They didn’t care about or look for support from the Pakistani army. He was from Waziristan. I asked about al-Qaeda. “The Taliban and al-Qaeda are the same,” he responded. “We fight under Mullah Muhammad Omar. He started on the mountain tops as we do now.” A dozen teenagers and young men in their early twenties sat with us. I asked how they trained. “They are the sons of the mujahideen,” he said proudly. “Fighting is in their blood, as it was in the blood of their ancestors.”

They wore the same clothes, carried the same weapons as the earlier mujahideen—Soviet AK-47s, PK machine guns and grenade launchers—and lived in the same mountains. “We live in caves” said a fighter. “We have blankets and food, everything we need.” Was it hard to be away from his family? “I am proud that I am in the mountains,” said their leader. “I have an ideology and I am fighting for something I believe in.”