Holed up at a mud-brick house in eastern Afghanistan’s mountainous Paktika province, 28-year-old Mujahid Rahman says he can’t remember how long he’s been battling the Americans. Seven or eight years is his best guess. The past three years have been particularly tough, the Taliban subcommander says. He tells of being held prisoner by the Americans at Bagram Airfield from early 2009 to August 2010, and then enduring an even grimmer month and a half at an interrogation center run by the Kabul government’s intelligence agency. He speaks of comrades who have been killed, disabled, or captured, and how he and his small band of fighters were driven away from their home base in neighboring Ghazni province. He sounds worn out, on the verge of giving up.
But he stiffens when a Newsweek reporter asks if the Taliban should strike a deal with the Americans and the Kabul government. “No!” he practically shouts. The fight will continue until the Americans are defeated, he insists, no matter how long it takes and what the sacrifices. He recalls a prison guard at Bagram who was gleefully preparing to return home to America. The soldier gave Rahman a bottle of juice as a farewell gift and asked how long the Afghan expected to remain behind bars, and what he hoped to do afterward. “Time in jail and time in the jihad mean nothing to us,” Rahman claims to have told the American. “Your watch’s battery will run down, and its hands will stop. But our time in the struggle will never end. We will win.”
His words continue to haunt us. We’ve covered the war in Afghanistan from the start, and we’ve always been fascinated by the contrast between the two sides’ attitudes toward the conflict. It’s summed up in an expression often attributed to a captured Taliban fighter: “You have the watches. We have the time.” The insurgents seem utterly confident that both God and time are on their side. Everything else is irrelevant detail: the anniversaries, deadlines, and timelines, and all the economic, financial, and political constraints that occupy the waking hours of U.S. policymakers. The insurgents show no interest in numbers or statistics or schedules; they focus only on the victory they’re sure will someday be theirs.
When Mullah Mohammed Omar and his religious students launched their battle against the country’s brutal and rapacious mujahedin warlords in 1994, they didn’t set a target date for the capture of Kabul; they just started fighting. Later they would recall their surprise at how quickly they took the capital, after just two years of fighting; they had assumed the war would take far longer. Five years later, when America attacked, they were no less surprised by how fast their Islamic emirate collapsed. But they set about rebuilding their shattered movement, still with no set time frame. “We never have calendars, watches, or calculators like the Americans do,” says a former Taliban government minister who is now a leading member of the insurgency’s propaganda cell. “From the Taliban point of view, time has not even started yet.”
Oct. 7 marks the 10th anniversary of America’s war in Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history. On that date in 2001, American bombs began raining down on the Taliban’s forces, decimating their ranks. Thousands of Omar’s men were killed and wounded; stunned survivors of the massive explosions could only stagger around aimlessly, some bleeding from the nose and ears. The Taliban seemed finished. And yet a decade later the United States is still fighting a war that has taken the lives of nearly 1,800 U.S. troops and now costs more than $9 billion a month, according to the Congressional Research Service. Many Americans have grown fed up with the seemingly endless carnage and expense. President Obama has set a 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of most, if not all U.S. forces, but that’s not fast enough for a lot of Americans.
In fact, at least four of the Republican presidential candidates have urged a quicker pullout. “My hunch is the American people want to be out of there as quickly as we can get it done,” former Utah governor Jon Huntsman said on a TV talk show earlier this year. Opinion polls suggest he’s right. For the GOP candidates, the tantalizing question is whether they can find a way to subscribe to that view without laying themselves open to the charge of being weak on national security. It’s clear that America’s Afghanistan commitment will be an issue on Election Day 2012.
By then the White House desperately wants to show real progress in Afghanistan. This past June, when then–defense secretary Robert Gates made his farewell tour of U.S. bases in Afghanistan, he repeatedly told the troops that he expected positive strides there by the end of the year—and sure enough, the Taliban have been largely expelled from their longtime stomping grounds in the south and east—even from their birthplace, Kandahar. But those impressive gains have been mostly ignored in favor of headline-grabbing insurgent strikes in Kabul: the Mumbai-style rampage at Kabul’s Inter-Continental Hotel in June, the 20-hour siege outside the U.S. Embassy on Sept. 13, the suicide-bomb assassination of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani by a supposed Taliban peace envoy on Sept. 20.
And while Americans argue about whether Afghanistan is worth the effort, the Taliban are fighting for their homes. Some have been making war ever since the creation of the Taliban in 1994, and at least a few are veterans of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, back in the 1980s. Now they’re taking encouragement from the onset of the U.S. military drawdown. “We have not warmed up yet, but the enemy is already leaving,” gloats Mullah Abdul Jabar, a Taliban subcommander from Helmand province. That rush to the exits is not good, according to Seth Jones, a RAND Corporation specialist on the Afghan war. In an analysis of Obama’s withdrawal timetable published this past May, he warned: “As Winston Churchill observed over a century ago during the British struggles in the Northwest Frontier, time in this area is measured in decades, not months or years. It’s a concept that doesn’t always come easy to Westerners.”
No senior commanders of any consequence have switched sides or given up the fight.
As tenacious as the Taliban may be, they still have serious weaknesses. For one thing, they’re almost totally dependent on their safe havens in Pakistan, where their leaders live openly. Pakistan is also the Afghan insurgents’ chief portal for cash, supplies, munitions, and explosives, without which the Taliban would be hard-pressed to survive. And yet Pakistani authorities seem unwilling to interfere with Taliban leaders or their operations. In fact, senior American officials say the Pakistanis are pouring resources into the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied group of Afghan insurgents who are believed to have played major roles in the Rabbani assassination and the attacks on the Inter-Continental and the U.S. Embassy. (The Pakistanis vehemently deny any such collusion.)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has repeatedly given Pakistan what amounts to an ultimatum. “The message they need to know is: we’re going to do everything we can to defend our forces,” Panetta told reporters two days after the embassy siege. “I’m not going to talk about how we’re going to respond. I’ll just let you know that we’re not going to allow these types of attacks to go on.” The CIA already has paramilitaries leading local forces inside Pakistan’s tribal areas, but so far their targets have been limited to Al Qaeda commanders. Will their mission now expand to target the Haqqanis? Or will the administration nerve itself to send regular troops over the border? One U.S. official with vast experience of Afghanistan tells Newsweek he thinks it’s “more than evens” that the U.S. could send troops over the border by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, America’s forces try to intercept Taliban recruits, funds, weapons, and explosives as they pour in from Pakistan. U.S. and Afghan patrols on the border keep discovering and destroying massive caches of explosives—often a ton or more—waiting to be moved deeper into Afghanistan and used in the IEDs, truck bombs, and car bombs that cause most coalition casualties these days. Only 40 pounds or so are needed for an IED that can destroy an armored vehicle. “We found 300 percent more caches this past winter than the previous winter,” says Australian Maj. Gen. Michael G. Krause, a senior coalition planner in Kabul. “Already we believe the enemy is running short of ammunition and supplies.” A senior U.S. intelligence officer agrees. “We can hear commanders squawking about the lack of ammo and supplies,” he says. “We hope the tension will break down the sense that they can wait us out.”
But the Taliban insist it’s the Americans who will quit first. “When a U.S. soldier arrives here, he starts his stopwatch, counting every second, minute, and hour until he gets home,” says the former government minister. Unlike American soldiers, young Taliban have few home comforts to miss, he says. “Our young fighters are having an ideal life with a motorbike, an AK-47, an RPG, long hair, and a holy cause to fight for,” he says. “They are not thinking of time and consequences, only of the endless fight for victory.” He says that if the young fighters measure time, it’s only by the length of their hair: “It takes about a year for their hair to grow one-half-meter long.”
The incessant boasts about their endurance may sound like propaganda, but when challenged on that score, the fighters have a compelling answer: despite all the deaths and injuries, the long stretches in prison, the lack of funds, food, and medical care, and their spartan existences far from their loved ones, relatively few Taliban have ever defected. No senior commanders of any consequence have switched sides or given up the fight, and only a few thousand low-level fighters have joined the Kabul government’s amnesty and reintegration programs. “If the Taliban were worried about the length of the war and how much longer they can sacrifice, there would have been big defections already,” says the former minister. “That just hasn’t happened. And we still get all the new recruits we need.”
Thanks to the insurgency’s dauntingly high casualty and capture rates, those youngsters are the Taliban’s lifeblood. Most of them know nothing of recent history and have no interest in the past or future, according to the older hands. “Sixty percent of our fighters are too young to remember Sept. 11 or the Taliban’s collapse,” says a senior Taliban operative known as Zabibullah. “They only know that there are invaders and their puppets occupying our land, and that they must be defeated no matter how long it takes.” That attitude is what keeps the insurgency going, he adds: if the Taliban worried about how long the struggle will take and the odds against them, the insurgency would have collapsed years ago. “The U.S. never believed we could survive for long against B-52s, drones, SEAL commando raids, and an endless supply of dollars thrown at us by the richest nation on earth,” he says. “If we ever thought about the odds and time frames, we would be finished.”
Jabar is another insurgent who looks at first glance like a beaten man. The 26-year-old Taliban subcommander is encamped in a village near the Pakistani border, where he’s being treated for migraines and a left hand that is partially paralyzed and missing three fingers. That doesn’t keep him and his seven fighters from engaging in firefights with U.S. and Afghan forces. “Only Allah knows how many times we have ambushed and attacked the enemy over the past few years,” he says. “I can only remember a dozen of them.” He joined the Taliban as soon as he could grow a beard, he says, and he recalls being present as a new recruit at a speech by the brutal senior commander Mullah Dadullah Akhund shortly before he was killed in 2007. “There is no time limit in winning this war,” declared Dadullah, who had lost his left leg fighting the Soviets in the 1980s.
Jabar says he hasn’t seen his wife and three children since February 2010, when U.S. Marines drove him and his men out of Marja, his home district. Occasionally he phones home, but he knows he’s taking a chance: the call might give away his position and bring down a Special Forces raid or a drone strike. On the phone to his eldest son, Jabar says that if he dies in combat he hopes the boy will grow up to take his place in the Taliban’s ranks. “I’m sure we’ll still be fighting when my son becomes a man,” Jabar says. “He’ll be proud to take my place.” The boy is about 6 years old.
With John Barry in Washington