To many, Taliban leader is a hero

March 09, 2002

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GARDEZ: As bombs rained down and American forces seized a strategic ridgeline from a nest of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, details emerged about the veteran Taliban commander US troops may be facing.

Rather than being an Arab import, Mullah Saifur Rahman Mansour is a lanky home-grown radical from Paktia province, where the battle is raging, officials and former comrades in Gardez said.

That he is a native of the region, a commander respected both for his religious purity and sacrifices in past Afghan wars, may help explain the persistent reports that some Paktia residents have been rallying to his aid, even while under fire from US helicopters and gunships and deadly B-52 bombings.

It also helps illuminate how Rahman and his followers managed to remain relatively undisturbed in the mountains around here for nearly three months after the collapse of Taliban authority in most of the rest of Afghanistan.

“There are some people who say: ‘Saifur Rahman is a nice person. Why must we fight him?’ “ admitted Abdul Mutin, commander of one of Gardez’s US-allied military brigades, who sits in the same office Rahman once used.

During Taliban rule, Rahman, who is thought to be about 40, was a commander on the northern front against the forces of the Northern Alliance.

His father was the governor of Paktia province and made his son a commander of one of the city’s three brigades. Later, his father was killed by a warlord. The young commander embraced the Taliban cause in the mid-1990s, a time when the fundamentalist movement was promising to put an end to the chaos caused by feuding warlords who were destroying and pillaging the country.

Safiullah, a spokesman for the local council, or shura, of Gardez, said on Thursday that Rahman was wounded three times in three wars — against the Soviets in the 1980s, in the fighting among warlords of the early 1990s, and on behalf of the Taliban — and has a maimed hand as a result.

“He is famous in his native place, among his people, but now people don’t really like him because he has stood against the interim government,” Safiullah said. “The shura of Gardez asked him in the first days after the fall of the Taliban to surrender and not to gather people around him against the government. But he did it anyway.”

According to Safiullah, Rahman initially pretended when he withdrew to the mountainous Shahi Kot district that there were no Al Qaeda members with him, only Afghans.

The shura urged him to lay down his weapons and accept an amnesty like many other Taliban commanders had done. But Rahman continually delayed and refused until it was later revealed that Arab and Pakis-tani Al Qaeda members had been accompanying him all along.

“After that, we did not want to negotiate with him any more because he had deceived the council,” Safiullah said.

As frigid storm clouds shrouded the high mountain passes of eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, US military officers said their forces had attained overwhelming ground and air superiority.

MajorTimothy Brooks, an operations officer at Bagram air base that now serves as US headquarters for the operation, said about 1,000 American forces have managed to secure high ground on the eastern ridge overlooking the Shah-i- Kot valley. —Dawn/LAT-WP News Service (c) Los Angeles Times.