They came for Maulvi Manzoor at his home early in the morning. Five masked gunmen carrying AK-47s in two four-wheel-drive cars. All he was able to do before they ran up and opened fire was fling his six-year-old daughter out of harm’s way.
“It was shooting at very close range. I was hit in the stomach, in the chest, in the shoulder. One man had raised his rifle to my head to finish me off, but I managed to grab hold of the barrel, but he still fired a couple of rounds. Luckily they were not straight, and my thick turban and Allah protected me,” he recalls.
“My legs went. I knew the only chance of staying alive was to be dead. So I made myself shake like the spasm men have when they are killed. I heard one of them say I was finished, and then they left. I looked down and saw my intestines were spilling out: I pushed them back in as hard as I could. A couple of men came running over and helped me do this. The last thing I saw before becoming unconscious was my little daughter weeping and throwing dust over her head. She thought I was dead.”
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Speaking for the first time to a foreign journalist, Manzoor describes how his role as a formidable and active Taliban commander ended with the attempted assassination, and how his current life brings with it regular threats but also enticements from both sides to join in Afghanistan’s brutal conflict.
The men trying to kill Manzoor at his home in the Pakistani town of Chaman did not have to say who they were. His family and friends knew who was responsible as they rushed him to the hospital. Some of them were aware that he was living on borrowed time for refusing to obey the orders of a powerful Pakistani organisation, one confident enough not to worry about executing a senior figure in the Taliban hierarchy.
Even now, five years on, Manzoor does not want the organisation named publicly, such is its malevolent reach. He survived the shooting, miraculously, according to doctors, after being shot so many times, and withdrew from his post. But then he heard that another attack was being planned, and fled to his homeland in next door Afghanistan.
He crossed the border as he had done so many times before, fighting first the Russians and then the Americans and the British, this time in disguise and knowing that he could never go back.
Manzoor is one of the most significant figures from the Taliban’s military wing to have left his ranks in recent times. He now lives at a secret address in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, where he had served the regime of Mullah Omar before the invasion by American and British forces. He has refused Afghan government posts, he says, and offers of lucrative work with the CIA. The former fighter wants instead, he says, to swap the gun for votes and try to become a member of parliament.
Manzoor’s former Taliban comrades have sent him threats from their Pakistani safe-havens, but also cajoled him to rejoin and lead his fighters again. There had been a misunderstanding with the Pakistani organisation concerned, they have explained, and there will be no recurrence of what happened.
There are people in the Taliban hierarchy who have warned that killing Manzoor would lead to a backlash from the loyal followers he had led into battle. They also think it may be advantageous for him to stay in Afghanistan at a critical time for the Taliban, when they are the closest they have ever been to the levers of power since their regime was overthrown 18 years ago.
Direct talks between the Taliban and the US which were being held in Doha ended abruptly in early September, with a tweet by Donald Trump. The US president was reacting to the death of an American soldier in a Taliban bombing. There is widespread expectation, however, that the talks will restart. Trump is seemingly desperate to bring the troops home in time for the election next year and claim credit for ending America’s longest war.
There are also changing dynamics for the Talibs. It has long been held by officials in the west and Afghanistan that the movement was fed and watered in Pakistan by elements of the country’s military and intelligence service, the ISI, who carried out their wishes, targeting their enemies.
In 2010, Pakistani authorities arrested and imprisoned a Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had tried to hold peace talks with the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai without the knowledge of the ISI and the military.
Mullah Baradar has now been freed after 10 years in jail by the Pakistani government to play a leading part in the talks, supposedly following American pressure, and there are those in the Taliban hierarchy who have been seeking to follow a policy more independent of the Pakistani security state and are seeking to get other senior leaders on their side.
There is no doubting Manzoor’s seniority. He was among the first Mujaheddin fighters who joined the Taliban and, in his time, has served as the district governor of Dand in Kandahar and held the same post at Ghazni and south Kabul. He has also been police chief of Baghdis and then military commander, successively, of Herat, Nimruz, Baghdis and Ghor and, in his last post, he headed operations in an area from Ghazni to Kabul.
Manzoor knew Mullah Omar well and got to meet Osama Bin Laden. “Mullah Omar was a good man, a very kind man. Every time we met him he was reciting the Koran or saying his prayers. History, in fact, will judge him to be a great man,” he insists.
“It is the west which had made Osama Bin Laden into this big figure for jihad. He was not even very religious when he first came to Afghanistan. He had enjoyed life abroad, he was shaving, he only grew his beard in Afghanistan. I met him in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. The last time was in Swat; that was 14 years ago. He was much more at home in Pakistan than Afghanistan, look at where the Americans found him and killed him.
“Mullah Omar did not even like Bin Laden. He told him not to travel outside without permission from the government. He told him not to cause trouble abroad. We know all that, we were there. But most of us do not believe Bin Laden carried out the attacks in New York, it was too complex for his people.”
Manzoor had kept a low profile during the time he was rising through the ranks of the Taliban. There was little known about his movements, and very few photographs of him are publicly available. It was this caution that may have saved him from the fate of a close comrade, Khairullah Khairkhwa, who was arrested in Chaman and spent the next 14 years in Guantanamo Bay.
Khairkhwa was released in 2014, one of the “Taliban Five” whose participation was deemed essential in talks with the group under the Obama administration. Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who had been held by the insurgents since 2003, was freed in return.
Khairkhwa had been one of the leaders in the Doha talks. “I knew him from Herat; he is a good man and a friend. I was getting shot when he was getting released,” says Manzoor. “Mullah Baradar was also a friend and a neighbour in Chaman. But then he was arrested by the Pakistanis and I didn’t see him again until he appeared at the talks.”
Manzoor’s own troubles began after he was approached by an official from the powerful Pakistani organisation. “He told me that he will choose the operations my men carry out, the targets they hit in Afghanistan from now on. I wasn’t happy with this, we argued about this for hours and then I had to say, at least, that I agreed – otherwise he would have caused trouble.
“For the next three months I managed to avoid him, ignore his orders. But then time ran out and they sent the guys to my house. I don’t want to say too much publicly about these people, they are dangerous. They are supposed to be allies of the Americans, but I wonder if the Americans even know what they are doing most of the time. Anyway, I had to leave Pakistan.”
Manzoor travelled to Kandahar. But he was far from safe, not only apprehensive about his former Taliban comrades and their Pakistani backers, but the Afghan authorities and, in Kandahar, one man in particular – General Abdul Raziq Achakzai.
General Raziq had become the pre-eminent security official in Afghanistan through a ferocious campaign against the Taliban. There was a personal note in the violence: the Talibs had killed both his father and his uncle. The campaign had been accompanied by allegations of human rights abuses, but as police chief of Kandahar, Raziq was seen as someone who drove down the insurgency and raised safety.
“General Raziq found out I was here three days after I arrived. I left for Kabul immediately, I didn’t want to take a chance, I knew his reputation,” Manzoor explains. “But we are from the same tribe and the tribal elders arranged a meeting.
“I came back to Kandahar and told the general about the attack on me, I said I did not want to do anything against the Afghan government. I just wanted to live out my life. I told him that if he was going to have me shot, there was nothing I could do. But if he was going to put me in prison, to do so please in Kandahar, I would be killed anywhere else.”
The two men got on well together, and, according to Manzoor and Afghan officials, General Raziq suggested making him the mayor of Kandahar. He, however, turned down the offer, saying he just wanted some time to ensure the safety of his family, his two wives and 16 children.
There were other offers, including one from the Americans, says Manzoor. He was invited to the CIA base in the city and asked if he wanted to work for them. “I refused, I told them I was fed up with war and violence. It was a friendly conversation. At one point they asked me what I thought of Donald Trump. I said, ‘We have had some crazy, deranged leaders on our side, now they know themselves what that’s like. They thought that was funny,’” he says, a big belly laugh accompanying the recollection.
A US official confirmed that a meeting had been held with Manzoor in Kandahar. He refused to confirm details of what was discussed or any offer made.
General Raziq had survived a number of assassination attempts over the years. But the Taliban finally succeeded last October when he was shot dead inside the governor’s house by a fighter who had infiltrated the security forces. It was a measure of how much they wanted him dead that when the killer had the brief opportunity to shoot either Raziq or General Scott Miller, the US commander in Afghanistan (before he was shot dead himself), he turned his gun on the Afghan commander.
The Independent has obtained a Taliban video of Raziq’s killer training for his mission, with praise for his dedication in seeking to eliminate a hated enemy.
Manzoor says he met the general three days before his death. “I told him to avoid invitations to meet people at night and also to be careful of people they had got into the police and the army, I knew they were doing that”, he recalls. “I was really sorry about what happened, I helped put his body into the ground at the funeral. We had fought against each other in the past, but he was doing the best for people of Kandahar and Afghanistan. This just shows how much we need peace.”
Hayatullah Hayat, the governor of Kandahar, acknowledges that the region is a power base for the Taliban, but holds that their influence in calling people for jihad has diminished. He says: “With the efforts of the Afghan government and the fatwas from religious scholars in Mecca, Jedda, Kabul, we think the Taliban has lost a lot of its fighters who have realised that this is not a holy war. It’s a political issue with political agendas.
“They don’t have the strength to overrun provinces, so their targets are much more specific, they are carrying out much more things like assassinations and kidnappings, trying to find our weaknesses. This is a definite change.”
The governor also feels that the process of negotiations has weakened the hold of Quetta Shura (the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan) among the foot soldiers. “One of the reasons they are not accepting a ceasefire now is because they think they will lose control of more of their fighters, they have lost face to them,” he says.
“They also face dissent in two directions. If the Taliban does reach an agreement with the US, I am quite sure some of the hardliners in the movement will leave and join up with al-Qaeda. At the same time there are those asking, ‘Why are the leaders talking to the Americans, and not fellow Afghans?’ But talks may take place again in the future, let’s see what happens.”
Some senior figures who were prominent in Mullah Omar’s regime and retain contact with the current Taliban leadership hold that a deal is quite possible. Abdul Hakim Mujahid was the sole international face of the Kandahar-based regime and had a stint as the UN Envoy. He had tried, without success, for the Taliban to send a message of condolence and condemnation following the 9/11 attacks.
Mujahid, now a member of the Afghanistan based High Peace Council, says that “President Trump promised the people of America that he will withdraw from Afghanistan and this very long war. We feel he needs to show before the next election that he has fulfilled his obligation and take his troops back to America. The talks are at an advanced stage and we think they will be concluded soon if they are restored.”
He continues, saying that “they [the Taliban leadership] wanted some of us to go to Doha and discuss strategy. There are the terminologies, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan or Islamic government of Afghanistan as it is now, among the things that concerned them.
“We have advised them to accept the first three articles of the constitution which guarantees its Islamic nature cannot be changed. This is something accepted by the people of Afghanistan for 18 years and would be an easy win for the Taliban. Just what sort of Islamic government the people of Afghanistan want can be decided in the intra-Afghan talks after the ones with the Americans finish.
“The problem is uncertainty about what Mr Trump will say next. He is not someone who is very trustworthy. But the US thankfully has a very professional bureaucracy, a very well-made political system, they may be able to make sure the negotiations continue despite the problems of Mr Trump’s mentality”.
A small, informal group of former senior Taliban figures in Afghanistan have been liaising with the Taliban leadership, says Mujahid, but they have to do so discreetly “because of the very delicate security situation here. There are people here ready to accuse us of having contact with terrorists. Quite a few people have been killed. I have got three bodyguards, but in Afghanistan now you don’t know when you leave home if you will come back alive.
“I don’t think the Taliban would try to impose the type of rules from the time when I was in the government. Then the system was spiritual rather than political, there was little written down. Don’t forget that was a wartime government, but the Taliban has said at the [Doha] meetings it would not make the same mistakes as it made then.”
Another former Taliban commander, Syed Mohammad Akbar Agha, was preparing to travel to Doha from Afghanistan to speak to Taliban officials. “I was confident from day one that the Taliban will not disappear after 2001. The Taliban stayed strong because the government the Americans put in place was corrupt and they and the Americans were targeting innocent people. People were being arrested simply because they knew someone who was a Taliban,” he says.
“Let’s not forget that the Qatar talks were started at the request of the Americans. They didn’t want to face the same consequence the Russians ended up facing, they did not want to be humiliated. It has now stopped because of one man, Trump. But they will start again: the Americans need to have a solution.
“There will be elections, but the Taliban will at the end want a government like in Iran, they will have Islamic scholars who will monitor the work of the government, it’ll be watched over by a strong shura.”
Both Mujahid and Akbar Agha believe that the Taliban will not accept one of the conditions the Americans had been pressing for in Doha: leaving behind up to 8,000 troops, from the current total of around 14,000, for a transitional period.
“They will not agree to one single foreign solider staying behind,” declares Akbar Agha. “The Americans have talked about some bases, but that is not acceptable. The Taliban is already preparing forces who can fight whoever necessary, they even have their own special forces.”
Footage had appeared on Taliban propaganda sites of fighters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, their government in waiting, with labels of “special forces” and “quick assault team” and “red team”. Their kit appears to be new and the weapons well maintained.
The men are trained, according to the Taliban, in facilities such as the Salahuddin Ayubi military camp and Mahmud Ghaznawi military camp which are supposedly in southern Afghanistan, where a significant amount of territory is held by the insurgents.
Swathes of the countryside to the south of Kandahar are officially under the control of the Afghan government, but pass into Taliban hands at night. In a hamlet a short drive from the city limits, local people, including two farmers, spoke cautiously of the insurgent presence.
“The police stay in their posts at night and the Taliban can use the roads, so that’s when they come out,” says one. “They are on motorcycles, in cars, some groups on foot. They carry guns. There are shootings, we hear of kidnappings, but we need to keep our mouths shut”.
His companion adds: “This is Kandahar, you must expect the Taliban to be here. There is a lot of violence, big people in government and police are getting killed. There was more security when the police chief (Raziq) was around. Of course we all want peace. My family has known nothing but war. But we don’t know if peace will be possible.”
Manzoor and his sons are armed as they travel around Kandahar and areas outside. “Maybe we won’t have to sometime in the future, I hope that is the case. I am tired of fighting and I want to see if I can work to change things through politics, try to get into parliament…” But Manzoor then pauses and reflects that “we know that 1,800 officials and religious scholars were killed in Kandahar in the last 10, 12 years. So perhaps we’ll have to keep carrying guns here for a while longer.”
Read the first part of the Conflict Without End series here: Afghanistan election marred by bloodshed and corruption; the second part here: Afghanistan families torn apart by deadly carnage: ‘My grandson will have to see more dead bodies when he grows up’; the third part here: Raid on al-Qaeda bomb factory leaves dozens of wedding-goers dead, in latest Afghan violence; the fourth part here On the Afghan campaign trail in the shadow of the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, talk of Taliban return divides the fifth part here: As Afghanistan heads to polls, Middle East rivalries threaten already fraught political scene and the sixth part here: ‘Mumbai-style’ terror attacks thwarted in run-up to Afghanistan election