Reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan —
Astride a black motorbike, he moves freely about the dusty, chaotic city he boasts the Taliban owns. "Our house," he calls it. "Our home."
His nom de guerre is Mullawi Mohammadi, and he coolly declares that he and the Taliban fighters under his command have nothing to fear here in Kandahar, which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has vowed to clear of insurgents this summer.
With tens of thousands of U.S. and other coalition troops either arriving or already deployed in Kandahar province to take part in the coming operation, it looms as one of the most crucial confrontations of Afghanistan's long war. But with the Taliban stitched into the city's fabric, it may prove a very difficult one.
Mohammadi granted a rare interview in a bid to dispel what he said were misconceptions about the insurgents' aims.
Before settling in to talk, he carefully removed the batteries and SIM cards from his cellphones, a precaution against electronic tracking by U.S. special operations forces and other coalition troops who have been methodically hunting midlevel Taliban commanders, especially in Kandahar province.
"We are safe and comfortable in our many hidden places," Mohammadi said, adjusting his bulky gray-striped turban and yellow-tinted sunglasses. "We are not scared of NATO, or of the Americans. Whoever comes, we will kill them."
No one knows how many Taliban fighters have ensconced themselves in Kandahar city, which has a population of nearly 1 million and is the hub of southern Afghanistan.
The birthplace of the militant Islamic movement, it remains the insurgency's "center of gravity," in the words of U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Kandahar's fate is widely viewed as a bellwether of the war's course. U.S. military officials say they believe that a two-pronged approach of establishing security, and a dramatic push to improve local governance will embolden Kandahar residents to reject the insurgents.
As the offensive looms, Kandahar has been shaken by an intensifying wave of suicide bombings, assassinations and threats against anyone associated with foreign forces or the government.
Scarcely a day passes without the assassination of a prominent tribal elder or local official in the city and its surrounding districts. The latest such death was reported Saturday: A member of the tribal shura, or council, was gunned down in the district of Argandab, just outside Kandahar city.
In a message e-mailed to journalists Saturday, Taliban officials promised more such killings. The statement announced a new offensive to expel "foreign invaders," coinciding with the start Monday of a visit to Washington by President Hamid Karzai.
Mohammadi's self-proclaimed status as a Taliban commander could not be verified with certainty. But he spoke knowledgeably — and accurately, according to several people familiar with the insurgents' activities in Kandahar — about matters such as weapons procurement and the massing in the city of Taliban fighters from surrounding provinces.
In the interview, conducted at a Kandahar hotel, he repeated the Taliban claim of responsibility for the assassination last month of the city's respected deputy mayor, Azizullah Yarmal. With chilling accuracy, he described some unreported details that were corroborated by Yarmal's family.
Speaking in his native Kandahar-accented Pashtu, Mohammadi was precise and articulate, sometimes pausing and offering a slight, even somewhat fussy rephrasing of a particular point.
Though his feet bore pale stripes from sandal straps, the markings of one who spends considerable time outdoors, Mohammadi's nails were clean and well-tended, his beard neatly trimmed, his white shalwar kameez immaculate.
His attention to appearance was at odds with the popular image of a rough-hewn village Talib, but Western military officials who have regularly dealt with insurgent detainees called his dress and demeanor typical of a religious scholar whose role in the Taliban is mainly organizational.
The interview, arranged by an intermediary whose attempt to meet in a more remote and possibly dangerous venue was deflected, was in some ways in keeping with a Taliban push to counter what the movement derides as Western military propaganda.
During an operation early this year headed by U.S. Marines in Marja, in neighboring Helmand province, Taliban leaders mounted a major public-relations effort, denouncing civilian deaths, inviting foreign journalists to "embed" with their fighters and providing daily accounts of fighting, though with greatly exaggerated claims of the casualties inflicted on coalition forces.
"We want our message to be heard and understood by all the world," Mohammadi said. "The foreign occupiers have come to our city, and we will fight them."