As Marine Corps forces roll into southern Afghanistan, they face an enemy familiar to US officials — Mullah Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who now leads a reconstituted Taliban.
Abdul Qayum Zakir, also known as Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, is from Helmand Province and has taken a circuitous route to become head of the radical Islamic group.
Zakir was a senior fighter during the Taliban regime in the 1990s. In a memorandum prepared for his administrative review board at Guantanamo, Zakir apparently "felt it would be fine to wage jihad against Americans, Jews, or Israelis if they were invading his country."
And he acknowledged that he was "called to fight jihad in approximately 1997," when he joined the Taliban.
In 2001, he surrendered to US and Afghan forces in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif as the regime was collapsing. He spent the next several years in custody, was transferred to Guantanamo around 2006, then to Afghanistan government custody in late 2007, and was eventually released around May 2008. American officials won't say why he was let go and have not released a photograph of him.
Zakir wasted little time rekindling his relationship with the Taliban, especially its inner shura, or leadership council, based in Pakistan. According to some accounts, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar appointed Zakir as a senior military commander in mid-2008. He quickly developed a reputation as a charismatic leader.
By this time, the Taliban had established a system of shadow-government structures in parts of Afghanistan: provincial governors, military commanders, and mullahs who served on Islamic courts.
The Taliban's goal, as with many insurgent groups, has been to provide more effective law and order than the Afghan government. But it has been one of the most oppressive governments in modern history, banning many forms of entertainment, prohibiting women from working, and conducting public executions of suspected collaborators.
It was in this context that Zakir made his defining contribution to the southern insurgency — and created an opportunity for US forces to exploit. Early this year, he began to reorganize the Taliban. He helped create an "accountability commission" to monitor and evaluate the performance of key Taliban leaders and track spending.
In some ways, Zakir's efforts paralleled those of the United States, which was laying out a new Afghanistan strategy under the Obama administration at about the same time. The Taliban, apparently concerned that some governors and military commanders had become ineffective and bracing for the growing US military presence, announced its own new strategy in April.
They called it Operation Nasrat ("victory") and pledged to use "ambushes, offensives, explosions, martyrdom-seeking attacks, and surprise attacks." The Taliban also warned that they would attack "military units of the invading forces, diplomatic centers, mobile convoys and high-ranking officials" of the Afghan government.
As Marines move through Helmand, they will be on the lookout for Zakir and his support network. But like many senior Taliban leaders, Zakir spends a lot of time in Pakistani cities like Quetta and Karachi, frightened he'll be killed in an attack.
Zakir's restructuring presents an opportunity for NATO and Afghan forces. As in any business reorganization, firing senior leaders is bound to create a contingent of disgruntled individuals who may be co-opted to turn against the Taliban. A number of fired Taliban commanders have apparently refused to give up their jobs.
As part of the current US military offensive, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson stated that "where we go, we will stay and where we stay, we will hold, build, and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces."
The allies will need the support, or at least acquiescence, of local Afghans — including tribes and subtribes that oppose the Taliban but have been intimidated because Afghan and NATO forces have failed to protect them.
The face of the Taliban may not be new, but defeating the Taliban and other insurgent groups requires taking advantage of their vulnerabilities and better understanding local politics in Afghanistan.
Seth G. Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corp., is author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan," out now.
This commentary originally appeared in New York Post on July 5, 2009.