KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A former Taliban fighter has provided a gripping first-hand account of being secretly trained by members of the Pakistani military, paid $500 a month and ordered to kill foreigners in Afghanistan.
Mullah Mohammed Zaher offered a vivid description of a bomb-making apprenticeship at a Pakistani army compound where he says he learned to blow up NATO convoys.
He’s one of three former Taliban fighters introduced to The Canadian Press by an Afghan government agency that works at getting rebels to renounce the insurgency.
Zaher insists he was neither forced to go public with his story nor coached by Afghan officials, whose routine response to terrorism on their soil is to blame neighbouring Pakistan.
Pakistan officially sides with the West against the insurgents and vigorously denies mounting accusations that it is a two-faced participant in the war on terror.
A report produced for the Pentagon and released this month by the Rand Corp., a U.S. think-tank, claims individuals in the Pakistani government are involved in helping the insurgents.
An illiterate, career warrior, Zaher has not seen the 177-page report. But he made a series of claims in a 90-minute interview that supported its broad conclusions - and offered a deluge of new details.
He described how men in khaki army fatigues housed, fed, paid and finally threatened insurgents into carrying out attacks on foreign troops.
Perhaps most startling of all was his description of the repeated warning from Pakistani soldiers about where trainees would be sent if they refused to fight: Guantanamo Bay.
He said there was an inside joke among insurgents whenever the Pakistanis turned over a high-profile rebel to the Americans for detention at the U.S.-run prison camp in Cuba.
"Whenever we heard on the news that Pakistan caught a Taliban commander, we used to say: ’He stopped obeying them’," Zaher said through a Pashto-language interpreter.
Two other former insurgents interviewed by The Canadian Press said they were aware of colleagues being trained in Pakistan, but said such fighters were part of an elite minority.
Mullah Janan said he heard that some of his Taliban comrades had received training in Pakistan, with many more receiving shelter or medical treatment across the border.
When infighting broke out between Taliban factions, Janan said, mediators from Pakistan even came across the border to help settle the dispute.
Zaher said he was among the elite.
He said he arrived in 2003 for his first of several training sessions at a walled military compound in the Nawakilli area outside Quetta, Pakistan.
He said he was greeted warmly by men in military fatigues, introduced to his fellow trainees and taken to a single-storey white building where for the next 20 days he would eat, sleep and learn the finer points of waging jihad.
On his first day there he quietly sipped tea and gobbled down a hearty meal of chicken curry, and said he was brought to a classroom the next morning.
He said he remembers only the last name of the man in the khaki uniform, Khattak, who presided over the orientation session.
The man told his pupils their homeland had been invaded again by non-Muslims, just as it had been by the Soviets in the 20th century and the British in the 19th.
Zaher said the group was told that the infidels had been stopped before and they must be stopped again.
"You are supposed to get good training here - and you are supposed to go and kill them there," Zaher recalled being told.
"We have to kick their asses out of Afghanistan and send them back to their own country ... We have to fix mines for them, destroy them and get them out of Afghanistan."
Zaher said he learned to produce a variety of explosives. They ranged from a crude bomb with wiring and fertilizer stuffed into a plastic jug, to more sophisticated remote-contolled devices.
"I can even make a bomb by buying stuff at the bazaar - for $10."
Zaher said he attended three sessions at the compound, lasting from 20 days to two months.
A half-dozen trainees would sleep on the floor in a common dormitory in the single-storey white building, he said.
On a typical day, they had breakfast at 10 a.m., lunch at 2 p.m., and spent every other waking hour learning how to kill foreigners.
Zaher said he doesn’t know how many soldiers died from the bombs he planted on roads in Zhari, Panjwaii, Khakrez and Maywand districts of Kandahar province. And he said he has no idea whether the vehicles he blew up were Canadian, American or British.
He showed no remorse.
On the contrary, his dark eyes softened, his smile sparkled and his nasally voice quivered with excitement as he listed the places where he had ended enemies’ lives.
"Sure, I’ve killed many foreigners," he said. "I was very happy when I killed people. That was supposed to be my task - and it made me very happy."
Zaher said he doesn’t know much about Canada except that it’s a foreign country.
The Canadian military began moving operations from Kabul to Kandahar in August 2005, initially establishing a provincial reconstruction team. By February 2006, some 2,000 Canadian troops had arrived and taken charge of security in Kandahar province.
Zaher said he left the insurgency about two-and-a-half years ago - around the time the Canadians entered Kandahar in force.
He wanted to come back home.
Upon being offered amnesty under the Afghan government’s reconciliation program, he crammed his family and a few possessions into their Mazda minivan, rolled out of Pakistan in the middle of the night and moved into Kandahar city’s District Six.
Zaher has since trimmed his once-bountiful beard and turfed his turban in favour of a white skull cap.
But he eagerly showed off old pictures of himself holding rocket launchers, AK-47 assault rifles and dressed in trademark Taliban garb.
Zaher said he was a district commander outside the capital under the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan. After the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led forces in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, he returned to Kandahar and struggled to adapt to the changed life.
He said he grew tired of being harassed, threatened and extorted by corrupt officials in the new Afghan government.
Like many of his friends, he fled to Pakistan in 2003.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Quetta, he said he received phone calls from his old allies offering him a lucrative opportunity to work with the Pakistanis.
He called them generous employers.
They gave him a motorbike and later upgraded it to the minivan. He said he lived in a rent-free house in Quetta big enough to accommodate him, his wife and their 10 children.
And he said he could ask anytime for an advance of up to three months on his salary.
Because he was illiterate, Zaher said the soldier who handed over the cash accepted an ink thumbprint as proof of payment.
But the generosity came with strings attached.
He was expected to spend about half the year fighting in Afghanistan.
If he wanted to see his family in Pakistan, he had to find someone to replace him in Afghanistan. It was like shift work. "He would come from Pakistan, replace me, and I would go home to Quetta. It was very important for me to find a replacement."
There was another catch.
Each time he received his payment, and every time he went for training, soldiers would remind him about what happened to trainees who refused to fight in Afghanistan.
"’If you don’t go there, you will go to Guantanamo’," Zaher said.
"People who were saying they didn’t want to do the training ... they were sent to Guantanamo. They were accused of being Talibs and they’re getting punished over there."
The Pakistani government has strongly denied allegations that hardline Islamist factions within its security forces have been helping the Taliban.
How could the army possibly be aiding the insurgency, Pakistani officials argue, when pro-Taliban rebels have killed far more soldiers from Pakistan than any other country?
The Rand Corp. report offered several possible reasons why certain elements in the Pakistani government would support the Taliban.
Islamic militancy is only one of those factors, wrote Seth Jones, the report’s author.
His report said Pakistanis want to continue exerting more influence in Afghanistan than their arch-nemesis, India - an emerging economic superpower that has helped bankroll a number of construction projects including Afghanistan’s new parliament building.
Jones suggested some people in Pakistan may want to hedge their bets in Afghanistan in case of a NATO defeat, maintaining close ties to the rebels as a backup plan.
Finally, Jones said they want to keep Pakistan’s Pashtun population loyal - an unstable Afghanistan next door will solidify their sense of belonging to Pakistan.
Among former insurgents, Pakistan’s involvement is described as a matter of fact.
Mullah Mirza Akhun said he met some of his old friends two months ago when he travelled to Quetta to get medical treatment for his mother.
"I met some Taliban there - and they offered me a job," said the Kandahar resident, a self-described former Taliban commander.
"I was told by some of my friends that the Pakistani government can give you training to destroy Afghanistan."
"But I refused."
A.R. Khan, a Kandahar-based journalist, did additional reporting and provided translation during the interviews.