RUSSIA is funding the Taliban’s guerrilla war against the American-backed government of Afghanistan, leaders of the fundamentalist group have claimed.
In a move that carries echoes of attempts by the United States to undermine Soviet forces during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russian intelligence is now providing covert backing to a resurgent Taliban, senior figures in the extreme Islamic movement have alleged.
The alarming claim will prove acutely embarrassing to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been trying to rebuild relations with the US in the wake of the acrimonious split between the two countries over Iraq.
Engineer Hamidullah, the Taliban’s former deputy chief of finance, says the Taliban now receive as much funding as they did when Osama bin Laden bank-rolled them before September 11.
"There are some countries that are against the policies of the US and the United Nations, and they support the guerrillas. The most important role belongs to Russia, Iran and Pakistan," he said.
In the 1980s, the CIA’s funding of the Afghan Mujahedin on a massive scale wore down the Russians and eventually forced them to leave. The backing, both financial and military, was never admitted by the US.
According to Taliban sources in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghan intelligence sources, the group has a new hierarchy of leaders orchestrating opposition to the US-sponsored Afghan government of Hamed Karzai from Afghanistan and Pashtun tribal areas of north-west Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has been mounting increasingly brazen attacks in Afghanistan. Last month its forces seized two remote districts near the Pakistan border and held them for nearly a week.
New-found confidence among the Taliban has led some of its leaders to speak publicly for the first time since the launch of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom 18 months ago.
Abdul Salam - the former chief justice of the Taliban’s Supreme Court - last week told the Christian Science Monitor newspaper that the Afghan people now want the Taliban back "because during the Taliban times, there was peace and security".
He was contemptuous of Karzai. Referring to the national council (loya jerga) that chose him, he pointed a finger to his head like a gun and said: "The last loya jirga was done by force. But if there was a real loya jirga, and the people who were appointed were good, then I would work with my head and feet and heart for my country."
Salam, who achieved notoriety in the days of Taliban rule by claiming that Afghanistan had the right to execute foreign aid workers who were trying to convert Afghans to Christianity, lives in his native Logar Province, near Kabul. He refuses to talk about his activities in the Taliban today, but admits that he maintains contact with the movement.
Commenting on the alleged backing of Russia, Pakistan and Iran, he said: "The Russians are not happy with the US presence here, and neither are Iran, Pakistan and even China."
Salam’s interview followed a public claim by another Taliban leader, Mullah Dadullah, that the Taliban had regrouped under the leadership of Mullah Omar, their one-eyed spiritual leader, who is still being hunted by the Americans. Dadullah claimed personal credit for a number of the recent Taliban attacks on coalition forces, and said that the Taliban would fight until "Jews and Christians, all foreign crusaders" were expelled from Afghanistan.
He added that the Taliban were also receiving money from the Afghan people.
A third senior Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Hasan Rehmani, former governor of Kandahar, has also re-emerged to renew calls for a "holy war" against the Americans and their allies.
Speaking to a journalist over a satellite phone, something no Taliban leader would have dared to do previously for fear of being tracked by American satellites, he described Karzai as "an American clerk and a toy in the hands of the Northern Alliance", which dominates the present Afghan government.
Despite the massive technological superiority of their forces in Afghanistan and the millions of dollars offered as rewards, the Americans have not managed to catch or kill any of the Taliban’s top leadership.
The fact that many of the names in the new leadership structure are well known from the former regime undermines last week’s announcement by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld that major combat operations in Afghanistan are at an end.
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University, said:
"They [the Taliban] are now organising for a new offensive and they are still getting some support from Pakistan. Even if Pakistan is not cooperating directly, it is not cooperating in efforts to end the support that is coming from Pakistani territory."
Shahzada Zulfikar, a Quetta-based political analyst, said Taliban commanders continue to receive support from Pakistan’s powerful and secretive intelligence agencies, as they did openly during the time of the Taliban government.
"Pakistan ditched the Taliban due to American pressure, for a while, but now there are fears that their relationship might be restored."
While Pakistan still provides a safe haven for the anti-government Afghan fighters as it did when the Mujahedin were fighting the Russians, there is now a new twist to the Great Game. The Russians, it appears, are on the same side, not on the receiving end.
No one was available for comment at the Russian embassy in London last night.
CHAIN OF COMMAND
AT THE top of the Taliban’s new military command structure is Mullah Beradar, a native of the home village of the infamous Mullah Omar.
Beradar has been hunted relentlessly by the Americans, and at various times has been reported injured or dead.
Under Mullah Beradar are Taliban commanders and religious leaders assigned to different territories. The most active region, from Nimroz Province to Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, and north to Urozgan, is under the joint control of Beradar’s top three deputies.
The first, Akhtar Usmani, former Taliban corps commander in Kandahar, is also a close companion of Omar. Both men taught in the same madrassa (religious school). Omar is said to have named Usmani as his successor in case of his death after he went into hiding from the Americans in November 2001.
Second is Mullah Abdur Razzaq, a founding member of the Taliban, who rose to head of the customs department and then interior minister.
According to Ahmed Rashid’s book Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, Razzaq admitted having given the order to kill General Mohammed Najibullah, the pro-Soviet president, who was executed when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996.
The third man, Mullah Dadullah, was military chief in Kunduz on the front lines against the Northern Alliance, and negotiated its surrender. In his former role he notoriously presided over public hangings from cranes.