He sat on the floor of a large, cold, wooden-ceilinged room, back against the wall, an embroidered grey shawl wound over his black turban, eyes wearily surveying his visitor.
"An adviser to the Taliban elders of Kandahar" was how he asked to be described. I could call him Mullah Abdullah, although the 32-year-old graduate of Sheikh Hassanjan's madrassah (religious school) in Kohat is known by a different name and holds a far more important post in the Taliban hierarchy. The great mud-walled hujra (guest room) in the family home below the mountains was blasted by a vicious little wind that had given the mullah a bout of flu. Defeat is hard.
So are words in this cold climate. "The people think we are defeated because we have lost many of our men,'' Mullah Abdullah conceded. "But our men lost their lives in martyrdom and therefore they were successful. So we don't think we have been defeated. We have given up some land to Mr Rabbani [of the Northern Alliance] who was there before [between 1992 and 1996]. But when the Americans go home, we'll have the land back.'' It was the authentic voice of Kandahar. And who knows – given the murder and pillage already re-emerging in Northern Alliance areas – if it may not prove to be true.
The mullah had just arrived from the Taliban's besieged little caliphate, trekking six hours into the desert to avoid the American air raids around Takhta-Pul, resting in his family home overnight before returning to Kandahar, a man in denial or a man who has already decided to go into the mountains. The Americans had secured only a humble airstrip more than 60 miles from Kandahar, he added, a place of no importance. "But the Americans didn't come here for Osama bin Laden – that's not their main reason. They are here because they don't want a country run under an Islamic system of law. They want a government which will do what they want.''
Mullah Abdullah seems almost disinterested in the strategy of war. He held a post in the Taliban defence ministry in Kabul, but every military question receives a theological reply. "Even now the Americans have not succeeded in finding Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida. They haven't achieved this mission of theirs for us, Osama is a Muslim and a Muslim from another country is a brother. As for us, we will fight on in the mountains as guerrillas if we lose Kandahar – and if we achieve martyrdom, this is victory.''
I was beginning to understand. Victory comes with success and victory comes with defeat. "The Afghans," Lt Col Alexander Burns observed in 1841, "are not deficient in the imaginative faculties, and they may be quoted as a proof that invention precedes judgement.''
Yet for Mullah Abdullah, history and politics and defeat appeared part of a religious text. "A hadith [saying] of the Holy Prophet says that it is the right of Muslims to perform jihad," he said. "It was not necessary for us to rule the whole of Afghanistan when the Taliban started its existence from a tiny village. There were only a few Talibans who began all this. At the start, we stated that this was enough. We never cared that we succeeded in gaining 95 per cent of the land of Afghanistan. So we don't care about the land we've lost.
"The Taliban doesn't want the land as such, our main purpose is to convey Islam to the people. If our people return and take back this lost land, it's a success. If we are killed trying to do so, we have received martyrdom and this will be a great success for us too.''
This circular argument can have a dizzying effect. The Taliban had operated an "Islamic system'' in Kabul – they can say that again – but even if this only applied in Kandahar, it would be a success. Only occasionally did that little worm of doubt creep into the mullah's conversation. "Only time can tell if we can hold Kandahar or not – we are doing our best.'' It could have been an editorial from a Taliban newspaper – always supposing they hadn't banned newspapers and television. "If we are thrown out of Kandahar, we will go to the mountains and start the guerrilla war as we did with the Russians.''
I tried to argue that the Americans were not the Russians, that this was not a simple repeat performance, that the Taliban had been fighting their fellow Afghans this time rather than fighting US forces. But it was no use. "We will die to defend our land,'' Mullah Abdullah kept repeating. Which is what the Taliban said before the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul and Kunduz. And now they say it before Kandahar.Reuse content