Mullah Mujahed, a veteran Taliban commander who has taken four bullets in his career as an Islamic warrior, is in a surprisingly good mood for a guy sharing a Kabul jail cell with a hungry rat. A burly figure with black locks and a black beard, Mujahed prays in a corner, oblivious to the progress of the rat as it tunnels under a gray blanket toward a bag of dates. Rising from prayer, the devout Taliban says through the bars of the cell, "When I was on jihad, the holy Prophet Muhammad talked to me in my dreams."
Mujahed's Afghan and American interrogators are interested in other voices he heard during his time fighting U.S. forces, especially those voices that came from Pakistan. Mujahed was captured four months ago in the mountains of Afghanistan's Uruzgan province after an epic chase involving eight helicopters and dozens of troops. Afterward, Afghan intelligence found stored in his satellite telephone the numbers of several top Taliban military commanders, all hiding in Pakistan. His warden says Mujahed was caught with 60 remote-controlled bombs that he allegedly confessed to picking up in Pakistan after attending a Taliban war council in the southern city of Quetta.
In the Afghan theater of the war on terrorism, Pakistan--despite its close alliance with George W. Bush's Administration--is playing something of a double game. On the one hand, Islamabad has aggressively pursued al-Qaeda operatives since 9/11. It has arrested more than 600 suspects and handed most of them over to the U.S. Also, Pakistan has sent thousands of troops into the tribal areas to drive out al-Qaeda fighters hiding in the mountains along its Afghan border.
But President Pervez Musharraf's government has done little to capture the many Taliban commanders who have fled into hiding in the country, according to Afghan officials and Taliban fighters and sympathizers in the frontier Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar. Those exiles include Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed mullah who formerly led the Taliban. Pakistan's reluctance, according to a senior Kabul official, stems from its "nostalgia" for when Afghanistan was firmly within its orbit of influence. Letting the Taliban remain free gives Pakistan a card to play if or when the U.S. decides to vacate Afghanistan. "If money and support were to stop from the Pakistani side, the Taliban would be finished," says Mullah "Rocketi," a former Taliban commander who earned his nickname for his accuracy in shooting Soviet tanks and who spent time at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Islamabad's reluctance to crack down has allowed Afghan fundamentalists to use Pakistan as a refuge from which to recruit fresh militants and launch cross-border ambushes against U.S. and Afghan troops. Some ex--Taliban fighters even allege that several colonels in Pakistan's security agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), are funding former Taliban protégés through madrasahs, or religious schools, and mosques in border villages. "The ISI knows where the Taliban live," Mujahed says. "They could arrest us all in a day. But they don't bother us."