PESHAWAR – He used to wear a black turban, khol (eyeliner) and a battered brown shalwar kameez (knee length tunic and loose pants). He sported a very long beard, carried a Kalashnikov and rode a Toyota pick-up.

He now wears a small white round cap and a light cream-colored shalwar kameez. His face is clean-shaven, he is unarmed and he moves by rickshaw or public bus. He is the same man. Yesterday he was a Talib. Today he is a nondescript tribal in Peshawar, Kohat or even Miram Shah – a rugged frontier Pakistani town swarming with American special forces.

Or he is one of the top men being hunted down by these forces, such as Mullah Taj Mohammed, former deputy chief of intelligence of the Taliban. During the regime’s five years in power in Afghanistan, he was one of the selected few with full access to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar, and a self-proclaimed “close friend” of Osama bin Laden.

Reached on a satellite telephone through an elaborate series of go-betweens, Taj Mohammed confirmed that he and “several thousand Taliban commanders and troops” were now deeply involved in organizing a guerrilla war through which, “Allah willing, we will throw the foreigners out of our country.”

Taj Mohammed may have been one of the most illustrious Taliban who looted and fled Kabul on Sunday, November 10 last year, the day before Northern Alliance troops entered the city in triumph. Taj, with other Taliban commanders and, he says, “thousands” of soldiers, went southeast and crossed the border to Pakistan east of Khost – probably to Miram Shah. He confirms that “a few thousand” Taliban held the ground against US-led forces in the Tora Bora mountains in December, alongside Arabs from al-Qaeda, but most managed to escape. Taj himself came back to Afghanistan in March, where he says he fought against the Americans at Shah-e-Kot, near Khost.

To wage a guerrilla war foretold since last December, the Taliban can count on the full support of the Pashtuns in their tribal belt in south and southeastern Afghanistan – where everybody and his neighbor deeply resents the Tajik stranglehold on Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul, not to mention American military movements and constant incursions into Pashtun areas. Faithful to the Pashtun warrior code, Taj Mohammed and other commanders swear they fear neither American forces nor the Pakistani military.

Other Afghan Pashtun sources confirm the undercover Taliban are still following instructions delivered by Mullah Omar himself. At the beginning of the American bombing of Afghanistan last October, Mullah Omar said that the Taliban and Afghans had weapons to fight foreign invaders for another 100 years. The Taliban have already devised their guerrilla strategy – with a crucial input from their former top military commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and they may have already elected another leader in the event of Mullah Omar being found and “smoked out” by the Americans.

Some reliable Pashtun sources in Peshawar swear that Mullah Omar is not holed up in the mountains of Uruzgan, north of Kandahar province, but in Kunar province, not far from the Chitral Valley on the Pakistani side of the border. Only a few hours before General Tommy Franks – head of the US Central Command – arrived last Sunday at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, US soldiers came under Taliban rocket fire near Asadabad, in southern Kunar.

As early as last June a fatwa against the American military forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan was circulating in Peshawar, issued by the notorious fugitive Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former ultra-hardcore mujahideen and Afghan premier, calling for a “new jihad against the foreign invaders.” According to privileged Pashtun sources, Hekmatyar is also hidden in Kunar province, where he has access to “an unlimited amount of weapons.”

Hekmatyar’s jihad call has been echoed by none other than Osama bin Laden in a handwritten letter posted this past Sunday on the website IslamOnline.net. The letter – which according to the site was written a few weeks ago – was received by a Pakistani correspondent from an Afghan source. It is signed “Abi Abdallah” – “the father of Abdallah,” the name of bin Laden’s elder son. The jihad calls confirm that the Americans in Afghanistan face a guerrilla coalition of remaining al-Qaeda, Taliban and Hekmatyar’s Pashtun followers, which should not be underestimated at any cost.

Military sources in Peshawar remain confident that the operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as far as the Pakistani side of the border is concerned, will be successful because of a key strategic switch: now the Pakistani commandos are no longer working alongside FBI or American special forces. The government’s position is that Pakistani commandos and paramilitary forces acting alone are receiving more tribal cooperation – citing as evidence the situation in North and South Waziristan, ultra-hardcore tribal areas very close to the Taliban.

Part of the new intelligence strategy is to recruit children for 200 rupees a day (a little more than US$3) to find people who were or who had harbored al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Some tribal leaders, like Malik Mamoor Khan, chief of the Toorikhel tribe, are saying that “siding with al-Qaeda or the Taliban may hurt our own interests.” And others, like Malik Tooti Gul, chief of the Daryakhel tribe, remark that “if we don’t back the government against al-Qaeda, our freedom will be taken away from us.” All this may be only pro-forma, because tribal leaders simply cannot afford to ignore the overwhelming popular perception of the Americans as an invading force which totally controls the Pakistani military.

The main worries for the average tribal in Peshawar or elsewhere in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) are far from being the Taliban regrouping or the whereabouts of bin Laden. An influential local player observes that “even average people now think that America wants to fight and finish with Islam in this part of the world, starting with Pakistan.” There is plenty of resentment against President General Pervez Musharraf, his blind following of US priorities in the war against terrorism, and his latest alleged rigging of the forthcoming October 10 elections. The resentment is not necessarily expressed in political language, but in comments like “Why doesn’t Musharraf ask the US to finish poverty in Pakistan?” A Peshawar analyst says that the population is extremely frustrated: “They are even attacking the police because they have been constantly harassed.” Peshawar’s police department is notoriously corrupt, even by Pakistani standards.

On the political front, many are saying that the only hope is to vote for the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six religious parties which will contest the October elections. MMA’s secretary-general is the notorious Fazlur Rehman, chief of his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), which had and still has extremely close ties with the Taliban. From his headquarters at Dera Ismail Khan, Fazlur Rehman keeps doubting the impartiality of the October elections, but he assures that the MMA is engaged in bringing “a social, mental, economic and political revolution” into Pakistan. And he warns that in the event of the MMA coming to power, it would finish with “foreign interference,” devolve real sovereignty to the country and combat unemployment.

Other leaders? Their rhetoric is more incendiary. Maulana Samiul Haq, chief of his own faction of the JUI and also one of the leaders of the MMA, has warned from Haqqania – his sprawling and wealthy madrassa (religious school) that educated most of the Taliban elite – that “the West is in a pact with the enemies of Muslims all over the world.” For Samiul Haq, “One billion Muslims will become a military force because of these policies.”

Qazi Hussain Ahmad, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, has been more moderate, concentrating his attacks on Musharraf, whom he accuses of “imposing constitutional amendments at gunpoint” – an act that “reminded him of the age of Genghis Khan.”

The overall sentiment in Peshawar is that Musharraf will rig the October elections to a point where, according to an influential local player, “he can say that the MMA has no popular support, and then he can move to smash the religious parties for good.” If that is the case, Taliban support will be unbeatable in the Pashtun tribal belt – on both sides of the border.

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