Zaeef, the former senior Taliban official, who spent four years in Guantánamo prison, confirmed that the American targeted-killing campaign of Taliban leaders has been successful, but he believes that the strategy will backfire for both the US and Afghan governments. "If these people, important, known people, disappear from the [Taliban] movement, what will happen? Who should [the Afghan government] make a dialogue with?" he asks. "The fighting will not stop. I know the new generation is more extremist than the last generation. The new generation will not listen to anyone. This is a dangerous thing. It will be bad for the Americans, but it will be worse for the people of Afghanistan."
Evidence of this can be found in a recent incident in Paktia province, when the Taliban leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, sent a representative to "reprimand a group of young commanders who were breaking the organization's rules," according to veteran Afghanistan journalist Anand Gopal. "But the defiant young commanders killed the cleric. While such incidents are still isolated, the danger is that as the Taliban undergo a massive demographic change in the coming years, this trend will accelerate, and the ability of Quetta to enforce decisions on its rank and file will be diminished."
Zaeef says the night raids and the targeted killings are strengthening the Taliban and inspiring more people "to become extremist against the Americans." US political and military leaders, he says, "are thinking, 'When we scare the people, they should be quiet.' But this is a different nation. When you are killing one person, four or five others rise against you. If you are killing five people, twenty, at least, are rising against you. When you are disrespecting the people or the honor of the people in one village, the whole village becomes against you. This is creating hatred against Americans."
The US killing of civilians, combined with a widely held perception that the Afghan government exists only for facilitating the corruption of powerful warlords, drug dealers and war criminals, is producing a situation in which the Taliban and the Haqqani network are gaining support from the Pashtun heartland in communities that would not otherwise be backing them. Since 2005, when Zaeef was released from Guantánamo, "the Taliban have become stronger," he says. "Are the Taliban coming from the sky?" Zaeef asks. "No, it's new people."
Zaeef and Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, insist that the Taliban is still the umbrella under which all of the insurgent forces operate. But at the same time they acknowledge that smaller, localized militias not loyal to Mullah Mohammed Omar or the Quetta-based Taliban leadership are popping up more and more. "By killing leaders, the war will not come to an end, but on the contrary, things will get worse, which will give birth to more leaders," says Muttawakil. "Many people might not like Taliban but join them because they are being harassed by powerful Afghans or foreigners and want to get revenge." Many of these newer insurgents live in rural areas of Afghanistan and, for now, fight in their own communities rather than as part of a cohesive national rebellion. "The nature of this kind of war is that it starts from the rural areas, as it started against the Soviet Union. Gradually the war spreads to district centers and then to the center of small provinces," Muttawakil says. "The war has started in rural areas and gradually will spread to big cities."
On a practical level, the discontent in those rural areas with the corruption of the Afghan government and the consistent killing of civilians by US forces is raising the prospect that Afghans offering assistance to the Afghan government and NATO forces—such as allowing safe passage to key supply convoys—may withdraw that support.
* * *
One community leader in Logar, Hajji Showkatt, works with a network of tribal leaders across Logar and its neighboring provinces who broker complex deals with the Taliban and Haqqani network forces to refrain from attacking oil and supply convoys headed to and from Kabul. Part of this involves paying bribes to the Taliban, but the deals also rely on assurances from Showkatt and the reconciliation commission to insurgent forces that they are working to end the night raids and arrests.
In the weeks leading up to Sahib Jan's killing, Logar officials say, there had been three other night raids in the area. Sahib Jan's killing was the final straw. "At the funeral everyone was so emotional when we took his body to be buried. We cursed the Americans," Showkatt says. In response, local people—not aligned with the Taliban—attacked an oil convoy, blowing up more than a dozen trucks, according to local officials. The scorched earth left by the attack can still be seen on the highway running through Logar. "Here is the bottom line: the US is conducting actions that are killing innocent people," Showkatt says. "The Taliban use this as propaganda and say to the people, 'This is what America is about.' It makes them more powerful."
Showkatt, who fought as a mujahedeen against the Soviets, continues to protect supply convoys for the United States and Afghan governments along key routes, but he says that this is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Showkatt and other leaders say they cannot guarantee they will continue to offer convoy protection. "In the mujahedeen times, we stopped all of the Russian convoys in this area," Showkatt boasts.
"We fought the Russians when they were here and we expelled them," adds Showkatt's friend Azrat Mohammed, a former mujahedeen commander from Logar. "Americans are not stronger than the Russians. If they continue with these actions, disrespecting our women, killing the wrong people, inshallah, we will rise up to defeat them too."
Throughout the Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan, police officials and civilians alike tell stories about personal grudges being settled through death by US night raids, where false intelligence is deliberately passed on to NATO forces to get a rival or enemy killed or captured.
Mohammed is living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, he says, for that very reason. He says he has been warned he is on a list for kill or capture. "I am too afraid to even sleep in my own home at night, so I spend most of my time in the camps in Pakistan. I am afraid the Americans will kill me," he says. "The way the Americans rely on bad intelligence to target people like me, the night raids we keep witnessing, the arrests and the torture and the killing is all making me want to pick up a weapon again. We are not by our nature against the government, but what they are doing is encouraging people to rise up against them."
In Afghanistan, Taliban commanders are fond of characterizing their fight to expel the United States and its allies with the phrase, "You've got the clocks, we've got the time." While US leaders are struggling to define what victory would look like in Afghanistan, the forces they are fighting are not. "We have two goals: freedom or martyrdom," says Taliban commander Salahuddin. "If we do not win our freedom, then we'll die honorably for its cause." The continuing US targeted-killing campaign and renewed airstrikes ordered by General Petraeus seem only to be further weakening the already fragile Karzai government. In plain terms, the United States' own actions in Afghanistan seem to be delivering the most fatal blows to its counterinsurgency strategy and its goal of winning hearts and minds. "I think that the Americans are already defeated in Afghanistan, they are just not accepting it," says former Taliban official Zaeef.
"If the US pulls out, my heart will be very sad because there will be a civil war," says Asif Mohammed, a young driver who escorts supply convoys to Kabul. "If they stay, they will continue killing our women and children." In the end, there could be the worst of both worlds: an escalation in raids by US Special Operations Forces, with their heavy toll on civilians, and a failed counterinsurgency campaign incapable of stopping a civil war.