ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Taliban are no longer on the run and have teamed up with al-Qaida once again, according to officials and former Taliban who say the religious militia has reorganized and strengthened since their defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition nearly two years ago.
The militia, which ruled Afghanistan espousing a strict brand of Islam, are now getting help from some Pakistani authorities as well as a disgruntled Afghan population fed up with lawlessness under the U.S.-backed interim administration, according to a former Taliban corps commander.
"Now the situation is very good for us. It is improving every day. We can move everywhere," said Gul Rahman Faruqi, a corps commander of the Gardez No. 3 garrison during the Taliban's rule.
"Now if the Taliban go to any village, people give them shelter and food. Now the people are tired of the looters and killers," Faruqi told The Associated Press, referring to regional warlords aligned with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.
In most parts of Afghanistan regional powers operate with relative impunity, terrorizing residents, extorting money, dealing in drugs and running lucrative smuggling routes.
"Before people didn't believe the Taliban were around. They thought we were finished so they were afraid. But now they see that we are active and they see there is no other alternative to the looters and killers," said Faruqi, who was interviewed Monday in neighboring Pakistan.
"We know they don't like the Taliban, but they hate the looters and killers even more."
In the Afghan capital, a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the religious militia, working with al-Qaida, has regrouped, changed tactics and now operates in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.
Faruqi scoffed at suggestions that coalition forces have them on the run.
"We have new bases all over Afghanistan. We have just reached to Faryab province. There are 10,000 American soldiers. They can't be everywhere. We are not afraid . . . we know we can move freely," Faruqi said.
The Taliban have appointed military councils in each Afghan province, re-established military bases in the country, developed a command structure and injected discipline into the ranks, he said.
On the newest battlefield in southeastern Zabul province — where U.S. special forces, the 10th Mountain Division and Afghan government soldiers are waging "Operation Mountain Viper" — Faruqi said the Taliban's military command structure is fixed: Abdul Jabbar, a former aide to the Taliban's Balkh governor, is in charge. His field commanders are Amir Khan Haqqani and Ghulam Nabi. All three are from Zabul province.
The Zabul provincial chief of intelligence for Karzai's government, Khalil Hotak, agreed that the Taliban have strengthened.
"The Taliban are regrouping, having meetings in districts. In Zabul province 80 percent of the people in every district are loyal to the Taliban," Hotak told AP on Tuesday.
"They are uneducated people," he said. "They are close to the religious people. The Taliban are preaching in the districts and have convinced people that the U.S. people are infidels and that the Afghan government is supporting infidels against Islam."
An incident one month ago in a village in southern Afghanistan was evidence of the Taliban's propaganda campaign.
When the U.S. military entered the village to search for suspected Taliban, residents wrapped copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, in white cloth and hid them in a dry riverbed. They were frightened the American soldiers would arrest or kill them because they were Muslims, said a U.S. military statement.
American soldiers reassured village elders that they had nothing to fear because of their religion.
In recent months the Taliban have targeted Afghan police, blowing up their vehicles, ambushing their patrols and attacking their stations.
Before attacking a police station, the Taliban send a letter. "We tell them that the Americans are their enemy and that they should let us cross. If they say yes, we don't attack; if they say no, we attack," Faruqi said.
He said they draw support from some conservative tribal people and from some in the Pakistani military and intelligence community.
"There are some in the army who are under the influence of the CIA, and they will hand us over, but there are many who are Muslims and will not," he said.
About two months ago, the Pakistani military captured several Taliban, including a former deputy governor.
However, Faruqi said, "One of the big intelligence men in Pakistan sent a letter to a local ISI (Pakistan's spy agency) person and said, 'If you are Muslim you will release the Taliban you have arrested and if you don't release them then know that you are still a human being and they will kill you.' They remain in jail, but Faruqi said, "I can tell you that they will be released."
Small training camps exist in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said.
"We don't need to learn about jihad, we know how to fire our guns. It is to teach about explosives, and bombs and ambushes," he said.
The theory of bomb making is taught in camps in Pakistan, he said, gesturing to indicate the explosions are carried out in Afghanistan.
A second former Taliban, who speaks Arabic and identified himself only as Abdullah, was interviewed in northwest Pakistan, where he had come from Afghanistan to buy old, broken radios and televisions and circuitry to use in making remote-control devices.
"There will be more explosions," the man said. "You should know we will not stop. We are stronger."