KABUL – The first time Mullah Ibrahim Sadar confronted US forces in Afghanistan he was given a lesson in the brutal reality of war that he would never forget. To those who later watched him rise through the Taliban’s ranks and win the respect of al-Qaeda’s inner circle, his sense of purpose was evident even then.
It was the autumn of 2001 and Sadar was a mid-level Taliban field commander tasked with organizing the defense of Kabul. As US airstrikes pounded the city, he put his fighters through training drills designed to repel a ground offensive and handed out gas masks in the mistaken belief that they were about to be targeted with chemical weapons. His tactics and outdated equipment were useless in the face of the American onslaught from above.
“With one bomb, all the mountains in Kabul were shaking,” recalled one of his men, Haji Sayed.
Those who didn’t run were killed, either by the B-52s circling overhead or the rapidly advancing militias of the Taliban’s Afghan enemies. Sadar held firm for as long as he could before he conceded that it was pointless trying to stay and fight. As the Taliban regime collapsed around him, he made his way south to Kandahar. After that, he disappeared – his whereabouts known only to his closest confidants.
Sadar’s narrow escape had a profound impact on the outcome of the longest war in American history.
Over the next 19 years, he would draw on that first bitter taste of defeat to play a pivotal role in transforming the Taliban from a humiliated pariah government to one of the world’s most effective guerrilla armies. Despite this, very few people in Afghanistan or the US have heard of him – a fact that suits the secretive nature of his work.
Sadar is the Taliban’s military chief, with nationwide responsibility for the insurgency. Under his watch, the Taliban have used a mixture of suicide attacks, roadside bombings, assassinations and large-scale urban assaults to devastating effect.
More than 3,500 American troops and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died since the war began in 2001. Now, the US is finally preparing to withdraw from the country under the terms of a deal it struck with the Taliban in February, but the bloodshed is far from over. In one week of June alone, 291 Afghan soldiers were killed, according to the Afghan National Security Council.
That Sadar has managed to orchestrate such an extraordinary turnaround in his – and the Taliban’s – fortunes while continuing to keep a low-profile does not surprise those who know him. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, friends and acquaintances described him as a gifted commander who is uninterested in fame. He also remains fiercely loyal to the hardline interpretation of Islamic law that defined Taliban rule in the 1990s.
Sadar’s rise to the top of the insurgency has been decades in the making. He was born in the village of Jogharan, in the southern province of Helmand, some time around the late 1960s. His home district, Sangin, is a verdant area of pomegranate trees and poppy fields that has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the US-led occupation.
The middle son of a well-respected Pashtun from the Alakozai tribe, Sadar spent his youth known by his birth name, Khodaidad, rather than the nom du guerre with which he would make history. After Afghan communists seized power in a coup in Kabul in 1978 and Soviet forces invaded the country a year later, he and his family were drawn into the Islamist resistance.
Together with his father, Sadar ended up joining Jamiat-e Islami, one of the largest Afghan mujahideen parties. It was a pragmatic choice, recalled a resident of Sangin who fought alongside them. “We chose to be with Jamiat because they gave us the best food and weapons,” the elder said.
When the Afghan communist regime was toppled in 1992, Sadar refused to get involved in the civil war that erupted between the victorious mujahideen factions. Instead, he went to Peshawar in Pakistan to study in a madrassa.
By this point, he had already changed his first name to Ibrahim, after one of Islam’s prophets. Soon, his fellow students gave him the honorific Sadar – meaning ‘president’ in Farsi – in tribute to his natural leadership skills. He adopted it as his surname.
As the civil war raged across Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged and vowed to restore law and order. Sadar already knew some of the founding members and was among the first wave of recruits to heed their call, joining the movement as it swept through Kandahar and Helmand weeks after forming in 1994.
“He was close to the leaders but stayed silent around them and did not act as a commander,” said one former Taliban fighter who is now working as a businessman in Kandahar and has known Sadar for years.
It was not until the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996 that Sadar truly came into his own. He was appointed as head of the capital’s airport and, more importantly, commander of the air force for Kabul – overseeing the Taliban’s patchwork fleet of rundown Soviet fighter jets, helicopter gunships and transport planes.
Like the rest of the Taliban leadership in those days, Sadar took pride in living modestly. He dressed in the traditional clothing of a pious Pashtun man from southern Afghanistan, wearing a shalwar kameez and black turban even on official duties. But the charisma and ambition that would define him as a prominent guerrilla leader were already evident.
In his role commanding the air force for Kabul and the surrounding countryside, Sadar played a small but important part in crushing the Taliban regime’s domestic opponents.
His pilots carried out airstrikes and logistical operations against the Northern Alliance – the coalition of ex-mujahideen, former communists and warlords that would later aid the US invasion. As his status grew, he developed a number of relationships that would help him in the decades ahead.
In particular, Sadar became increasingly close to a future leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, who was serving as minister of civil aviation at the time. Sources told Asia Times he also began to form strong ties with foreign jihadists stationed in Kabul, including members of al-Qaeda.
When the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, Sadar was stationed on the frontlines in Shomali, just north of Kabul, conducting operations with several Arab fighters. Unable to hold his ground, he retreated to a military base on Kabul’s southern outskirts. It was there that he distributed gas masks to his men, said his fellow Talib, Haji Sayed, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
“I didn’t see anyone else taking a lead in those days apart from him. He was anchoring the war effort,” Sayed recalled.
Little is known about Sadar’s whereabouts and activities in the years that followed. He is believed to have become head of the Taliban’s military commission in 2014, around a year after the movement’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, died from natural causes.
His promotion to arguably the most important position within the insurgency owed much to the fact that the former civil aviation minister, Mullah Mansour, had succeeded Omar as leader of the Taliban. Mansour was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan on May 21, 2016, but by then Sadar had proved he was more than capable of doing the job.
“He controls all the foreign fighters and the opium trade,” claimed the former Talib working as a businessman in Kandahar.
Earlier this year, there was speculation that Sadar had been replaced by one of Mullah Omar’s sons in an effort to heal internal divisions within the Taliban. However, Asia Times sources said any change to his role was purely cosmetic: Sadar remains in overall charge of the movement’s military affairs.
This claim is supported by a recent UN Security Council report, which described Sadar as leader of the Taliban’s military commission. According to the UN report, he even met Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza, in his home district of Sangin in the spring of 2019 “to reassure him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with al-Qaeda for any price.”
A few months later, US President Donald Trump announced that Hamza bin Laden had been killed in an American “counter-terrorism operation”, without specifying exactly when or where the attack happened. Sadar, meanwhile, continues to ride his luck just as he did in 2001, only this time it is the US that stands on the brink of defeat.
Under the terms of the withdrawal deal Washington signed with the Taliban in February, the last American troops will leave Afghanistan next year. In return, the Taliban’s political emissaries have agreed not to harbor foreign terrorist groups – a commitment that is unlikely to have gone down well with their military chief and many rank and file fighters.
Now the Taliban must decide whether to end the insurgency and make peace with the Afghan government or try to seize power by force after the Americans leave. Sadar’s opinion will be crucial. “He is very strong-willed,” said the businessman in Kandahar. “With him, yes means yes and no means no.”
Fazelminallah Qazizai is an Afghan journalist and co-author of Night Letters: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Afghan Islamists who Changed the World. He tweets at @FazelQazizai