“If I met you a few years ago, I would’ve killed you. Killing [was] the first option, because we were really angry with the foreigners. We would use a Kalashnikov (AK-47) to kill you. And we would be very happy, because it was really good for us to kill a foreigner."
Mullah Jilani is speaking in the past tense and we are glad for this. While I’m the only foreigner here at the moment, Jilani assures us my colleague Matin, an Afghan journalist, would not be spared either.
“Because you’re working with him,” Jilani says to Matin, “you would be killed as well. You are the same.”
This conversation with this former, reformed, reconstructed, whatever the proper adjective, Taliban fighter, seems safe enough as it’s taking place under the roof of the area’s chief Taliban killer, a Qalizal District warlord named Nabi Gechi.
We are Nabi Gechi’s guests and so is Jilani. It’s remarkable that he’s here, because only two years ago Jilani wanted to kill Nabi Gechi too.
He came gunning for Nabi Gechi with more than 200 of his Taliban comrades. But according to Jilani (and confirmed by village elders), Gechi executed a flanking maneuver that corralled most of the Taliban in one of the village market stalls. Then using his favourite weapon, a rifle-mounted grenade launcher, he killed Jilani's Taliban commander.
“After that,” says Jilani, “we called off the attack and left the village.”
When Gechi routed the Taliban a second time, Mullah Jilani arranged a meeting with the warlord.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to fight you anymore. There’s no benefit for either of us,’” Jilani says. Then he switched sides and began fighting with Gechi against the Taliban. He tells us he was never convinced of their cause, but joined out of fear.
His fear of Gechi was apparently greater. After dinner, we watched a video of the warlord’s latest attack against the Taliban in which their dead bodies are piled into a pickup truck.
“Yes, I chose the right way,” Jilani says, when we ask him about the gory video, “I could have been one of those bodies.”
But Jilani says it wasn’t only his respect for Gechi’s fighting prowess that made him jump the Taliban ship. He says he also had a minor epiphany of sorts.
When he developed kidney stones he said the pain was so bad he eventually went to a German-military hospital, which was part of NATO’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the region.
Jilani says the staff treated him with such kindness that he began to see what the Taliban was telling him about the foreigners as propaganda.
“I found them to be really good people, they were helping me a lot and everything was free. They weren’t just in Afghanistan to kill people, but to help others. I was blind.”
Matin and I agree that it’s impossible for us to gauge just how genuine Jilani’s conversion is, but for some reason he’s gained Gechi’s trust. It’s likely he wouldn’t last long around here otherwise.
He begins to tells us, over two separate conversations, one with Gechi listening and one without, details about his Taliban organisation, the leadership in Pakistan and their fear of the NATO special forces night raids, the Taliban’s local military structure and even how they were always able get medical help, even in the middle of enemy territory.
His story, a fascinating inside look at how the Taliban operate, is far from unassailable. He is at times both candid and relaxed and evasive and squirrelly. What he tells us, however, does not seem to be self-serving. Although it could be an effort to convince all within earshot, he’s on Team Gechi. This is what he said:
“The Taliban is really from Pakistan, they came here to destroy our country. That’s clear to everyone,” says Jilani.
“In the beginning, I thought it was Jihad against international troops. But I found out we were fighting for Pakistan interests, we were getting orders from Pakistan.”
“Most of them (the leaders) are not religious, they want to come to Afghanistan and tax the locals during the time of the harvest to take the money back to Pakistan. There is no Jihad.”
“Our leaders were in Pakistan in nice houses spending a lot of money on themselves, good food, good clothes, but they were asking us to go to Afghanistan to fight on the front line, “Jilani says.
“They were giving us 500 Pakistani rupees for a week (about $5 USD). You cannot eat for a day on that,” he says. “It was a really hard time when I was with the Taliban, during the day we were fighting and at night we had to be careful because we were afraid of the night operations (NATO special forces). We changed our positions several times a night.”
NATO Special Forces Night Raids
“When special forces targeted Taliban leaders it was very effective. The night operations are directly targeting the leadership – the leadership was very afraid of the night operation. They were always afraid the helicopters would come.”
“If the night operations stopped,” says Jilani, “the Taliban would be back at full strength in 24 hours.”
Taliban Unit Military Organisation
“At the beginning of an operation we would pray and then the commander would divide us into small groups of about ten men called a delgai. In each delgai there was one fighter with an RPG launcher (rocket propelled grenade) and one fighter with a (Russian) PK machine gun. The rest would be armed with Kalashnikovs (rifles) Each delgai has a commander.”
“For each District (village region) there are one or two (larger units) of 200 to 300 fighters called a Mahaz. The Mahaz has two leaders, a District Governor and a District Commander, “Jilani says.
“We used two kinds of attacks, either circling our enemy or an ambush which starts with the RPG and PK.”
“I never had any real contact with those who made the (roadside) bombs). They wore camouflage uniforms, sometimes the same as the ANA (Afghan National Army). These people were separate from us, not Afghans. [They were] either Uzbeks, Chechens, Al Qaeda. I also never saw a suicide bomber, but I believe they were the same people. I heard our leaders talk about them.”
Medical Support for Wounded Taliban
“We had contacts with doctors everywhere and when one of our men got wounded, we would call them and they would come quickly with the medicine. Sometimes the doctors would even come in the Afghan National Police vehicles.”
In a moment, after dinner, Matin used his computer to Skype a colleague while Jilani watched. He was amazed by the technology and a bit circumspect. Perhaps demonstrating that the change he had made was real, or he wanted it to be.
“This takes education,” Jilani says of the Skyping. “All the educated youth like you are good for our country. I am an uneducated person so why should I kill you?”
All video and photos by Kevin Sites unless noted otherwise.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.
More on VICE from Kevin Sites: Afghanistan's Combat Sport Makes Peaceful Warriors
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kevinsites
And visit his personal website: KevinSitesReports.com