A powerfully built man with a flowing beard and a disarmingly soft voice, Commander Mansoor is — according to checks with Western and Afghan sources — a mid-level Taleban commander from southern Helmand, part of the bloody insurgency fighting against US and British troops in Afghanistan.
At a meeting with The Times arranged by tribal intermediaries, however, he painted a picture of war weariness and of local communities desperate to find a way to escape a war that is seemingly without end.
As the conflict enters its eighth summer Nato is hoping that it can exploit such popular disillusion. Mullah Mansoor (not his real name), meanwhile, is simply looking for a way out. “Local people do not like the Taleban or the Western forces, they even don’t like us local Taleban” he conceded. “They say to us, ‘if you want to go to Paradise fight in the desert, fight in the mountains but don’t fight in my house’. My wish is just to have peace and security in my area.”
It is hard to assess the prevalence of such feelings within the Taleban in parts of the south of Afghanistan. There are signs, however, that the insurgency is suffering internal turmoil brought on by opposition from local communities who blame all sides for the ceaseless fighting and more than 2,000 civilian deaths last year.
A tribal elder linked to Mullah Mansoor said that ten villages were ready to support him if he was able to deliver a deal with the Afghan Government that would bring local peace. “The Taleban will attack us but we have a lot of people and a lot of guns,” Mullah Mansoor said.
Other tribal elders in Helmand told The Times that communities were terrified by the prospect of US reinforcements and an increase in fighting. Some have been petitioning the Helmand Governor, promising to keep out the Taleban themselves if Western forces promise not to conduct operations in their areas, though some suggest that this is a tactic to protect the local drugs trade or even to buy local insurgents respite from attack.
The offers have echoes of the “Musa Qala deal” of 2006 in which British troops withdrew after receiving assurances that local tribes would prevent the Taleban from taking control; that deal was opposed by US officials and failed after four months, with the Taleban seizing the town.
Since that time there have been persistent reports that the Taleban is worried that its credibility is being damaged, not just by the anarchy and violence the war has unleashed but also by charges of criminal behaviour. “There is a very big increase in the number of criminals in the Taleban in Helmand,” Mullah Mansoor said. “When someone grows poppy and the Government tries to stop him he says ‘I am a Taleb, you can’t touch me’. When he is a robber he says ‘I am a Taleb, you can’t touch me’; when he kills someone he says ‘I am a Taleb, you can’t touch me’.”
It is a charge that undermines the Taleban’s strongest suit: its reputation for bringing security and impartial, if brutal, justice.
Some analysts now believe that Nato could make significant gains by playing on such concerns. “At a district level, communities are saying to the Taleban, ‘we are Taleban supporters, we have this district for the Taleban, now please keep your fighters out of this area’,” says Martine van Bijlert, a director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Britain and America have both publicly stated their support in recent weeks for attempts to peel away what are regarded as moderate elements within the insurgency but it is not clear how that will be achieved in practice, considering the decentralised nature of the Taleban. In Helmand the British Government is supporting a shift towards a bottom-up approach to local government that seeks to empower local tribal leaders. With British support the “Afghan social outreach programme” has recently created paid councils of local elders in the Nad Ali and Garmser districts of Helmand. British diplomats talk about the “grassroots legitimacy” that these structures have quickly acquired.
It is part of a significant refocusing away from strong central government development, which has been beset by corruption and incompetence, and the early signs in southern Helmand offer some encouragement. “Local people in Garmser are happy, they see progress,” claimed Haji Mahboob Khan, an Afghan senator from Garmser. “Garmser is now the most stable district in the province.”
Further north in Wardak province, American forces are supporting the development of village defence forces, as military commanders look for a way to replicate the impact of the “Sons of Iraq” militias that dramatically altered the power of Iraq’s insurgency.
Last Wednesday, though, the US envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, complained that Western intelligence services were still ignorant of the inner workings of the insurgency.
The Taleban is working to counter the damage to its reputation caused by indiscipline within its ranks. The movement conducted a reshuffle of its shadow government provincial governors in January. One Helmand Taleban commander told The Times: “The leadership has even killed some Taleban commanders for being criminal.”
“There is no control for the Taleban or for the Government,” says Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taleban minister regarded as one of the movement’s few serious intellectuals. “There is no justice. This is even worse than 1994 [when Afghanistan collapsed into factional anarchy].”
Figures such as Mullah Mansoor profess little enthusiasm for staying within the Taleban. “People want reconstruction of the area but the Taleban won’t allow it. The people ask us [the Taleban] to leave and they want to form their own government,” he said. “My last message is that all our tribe want is peace.”
Splitting the faithful
4,500 Taleban insurgents defected between 2005 and last year
95% want reconciliation if they can be assured of security, according to the Governor of Musa Qala
7,000 to 11,000 Insurgents in total, according to 2008 estimates
5% are “hard core”, say US officials
25% estimated as uncertain or wavering
70% fighting for the wage alone
$8 a day paid to Taleban footsoldiers