The First Post, December 16, 2008
Meet the Taliban Commander Who Likes Girls And Shopping
"All international and Afghan officials are corrupt - that's why all the money disappears"
By Julius Cavendish
For a man in the heart of enemy territory, Qadir was in jovial form. The Taliban commander's eyes creased up with laughter as he explained that he had bought the military-style jacket he was wearing - olive green, complete with epaulettes and cuffs - to woo Kabul's female population.
"There were two girls looking at me as I was shopping," he said from the back of a taxi in the Afghan capital. "They should have been wearing tighter T-shirts," he chuckled, cupping his hands in front of his chest suggestively and exhorting: "Tighter! Tighter!"
Qadir, a short plump man constantly on the phone making social arrangements, did not join the Taliban for ideological reasons. He was in Kabul on an infrequent shopping trip, ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid. With deep black hair, beard and eyes, Qadir is Pashtun - the ethnic group from which the Taliban draws most of its support - and he sprawled low in the back of the taxi until we were able to stop and find a private room with draped windows where he propped himself up on a pile of cushions and smoked ferociously while we talked.
Known to Afghanistan's secret police - or at least believing he is known to them - Qadir has become increasingly skittish about passing through government checkpoints since joining the insurgency five years ago. He visits the capital less and less and, when he does, prefers to travel with the friend who set up our meeting - another Pashtun, but one who lives in Kabul, shaves, and lamented the lack of whisky to hand.
Like many insurgents, Qadir took up arms after losing patience with house searches by foreign troops, the insensitive treatment of women this entails (visit an Aghan household and you are supposed to wait until the women have made themselves scarce) and the disrespect paid to tribal elders whose pleas for greater cooperation are often ignored by Western forces in the belief that some elders will pass on information to the Taliban. Most inflammatory of all has been the mistaken killing of civilians by foreign forces.
"To begin with I thought the international forces would bring peace and stability," Qadir said. "Then they started treating Afghans as their enemies. Their Apache helicopters killed civilians working in the fields."
As a wealthy landlord, disaffected tribesmen looked to him for leadership. The Taliban draws the majority of its fighters from the poor, so Qadir is unusual in that respect and more akin to the mujahideen who fought the Soviets and then each other. Now in his mid-30s, he roams the badlands stretching between his native Wardak, near Kabul, and Helmand province in the south.
He has over 600 men at his disposal, he told me, and described a battle last month in which he lost 21 fighters but "killed lots" of Americans. Inspecting the carnage afterwards, Qadir found a leg severed at the thigh but still wearing a US army boot.
Yet for all his talk of killing foreign soldiers, Qadir is one of the insurgents President Hamid Karzai's administration is courting.
With the support of the international community, Afghan officials have been making overtures to the Taliban for months, reckoning many insurgents are motivated by local grievances, cash or the desire for revenge against the invaders - but not ideology. The country's increasingly powerful Independent Directorate of Local Governance was recently charged with establishing
an organisation to identify these rebels and offer them incentives to switch sides, such as retraining and government jobs.
Although the US is preparing to increase its force in Afghanistan - and Nato allies including Britain are under pressure to do the same - both Nato and the UN endorse a political solution. US General David Petraeus, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and President-elect Barack Obama have all spoken of bringing some Taliban in from the cold. According to Petraeus, there is "no alternative to reconciliation".
That said, Karzai's offer of asylum to anyone willing to talk peace - specifically Taliban leader Mullah Omar - has been diplomatically ignored by the international community, and Omar remains on the UN's blacklist.
Analysts warn that "reconcilable Taliban will see no point in defecting" until the war starts going the way of the US, coalition and government forces. Karzai, meanwhile, has accused foreign troops of alienating the population, and interviews with some Afghans suggest they see the Taliban as the lesser of two evils - barbaric, ruthless and backward, yes, but more effective guardians of justice and order than the government.
Qadir told me that seven years of war have left him bitter about the wasted aid dollars, corrupt government officials and the innocent dead. His laughter grew less infectious and he became morose, pulling himself into a sitting position and fiddling with his glass of green tea. He is unready to negotiate.
He said he could have stabilised Wardak province - where the US now intends to deploy thousands of fresh troops - with a fraction of the money spent there on aid projects. "All international and Afghan officials are corrupt - that's why all the money disappears," he said. He admonished the international community for "obliging us to fight against them" and failing to appoint the right people to the right positions.
Just as vehemently, he criticised those insurgents he said are linked with Pakistan's intelligence service, and whom he accused of attacking teachers, journalists and civilians, and destroying schools and bridges. The fact that he thought al-Qaeda was "okay" suggested he was letting traditional Afghan animosity towards Pakistan blinker him.
He was cagey over how extensively he supported the Taliban's political agenda, simply saying that life had been safer under the old regime. And he berated the suicide bomber who, apparently targeting a convoy passing near the US embassy in Kabul last month, succeeded only in killing four civilians.
"Small children became orphans," he said, suddenly tutting. "I really felt pity when I saw it on TV."
To Qadir's mind, Afghanistan will never be stable again. He appeared to see no contradiction between this sentiment and taking his men south over winter to fight the British.
Characters Count: 6882