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If you thought the longtime head of the Taliban was bad, you should meet his no. 2.
Soon after 4,000 U.S. marines flooded into Afghanistan's Helmand River Valley on July 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar called top Taliban regional commanders together for an urgent briefing. The meeting took place in southwestern Pakistan—not far from the Afghan border but safely out of the Americans' reach.
Baradar told the commanders he wanted just one thing: to keep the Taliban's losses to a minimum while maximizing the cost to the enemy. Don't try to hold territory against the Americans' superior firepower by fighting them head-on, he ordered. Rely on guerrilla tactics whenever possible.
The only Taliban leader most people know is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the unworldly, one-eyed village preacher who held the grand title amir-ul-momineen—"leader of the faithful"—when he ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Omar remains a high-value target, with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. But he hasn't been seen in at least three years, even by his most loyal followers, and rarely issues direct orders anymore. In his place, the adversary that American forces are squaring off against in Afghanistan—the man ultimately responsible for the spike in casualties that has made July the deadliest month for Coalition soldiers since the war began in 2001—is Baradar. A cunning, little-known figure, he may be more dangerous than Omar ever was.
Baradar can take much of the credit for rebuilding the Taliban into an effective fighting force. For at least the past three years, Mullah Omar has had little or no say in the group's daily affairs. His most recent public pronouncement came last December, when two statements were issued in his name denying "baseless" reports of peace talks with the Afghan government and repeating his demand for the withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. Some Taliban members speculate that Omar might be dead, although Baradar, his lifelong friend and comrade in arms, denies any such thing. "He is hale and healthy, and not only taking part in but currently leading the jihad," he told NEWSWEEK. U.S.
After the Soviets withdrew and the Kremlin's puppet regime in Kabul collapsed, Omar and Baradar tried to settle down in Maiwand and run their own madrassa. But they were disgusted by the behavior of the local warlords, who had taken to kidnapping and raping village girls and boys. Omar led a revolt against them with a tiny force of some 30 men and half as many rifles, and Baradar was among his first recruits.
Baradar determines much of the Taliban's grand strategy as well. In late 2007 he ordered Taliban forces to focus their attacks on disrupting the flow of U.S. and NATO military supplies, and to push closer to the cities, especially Kabul. U.S. military chiefs were dismayed by his success. This spring he issued another battle plan, code-named Nusrat ("Victory"). Taliban sources say the new targets are the previously safe provinces of Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan, where military supplies flow in from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Baradar has also ordered his senior commanders to spend at least two months a year on the ground with their fighters inside Afghanistan. Taliban attacks and U.S. deaths have now hit unprecedented levels. According to iCasualties.org, 120 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year, compared with 155 in all of 2008.