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‘They thought I was a ghost’

In an exclusive interview, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid shares how he lived under US forces' nose

By Shahabullah Yousafzai |
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PUBLISHED September 12, 2021

The story of the war in Afghanistan has been by and large one-side up till now. Over the two decades that spanned it, the dominant narrative as well as coverage of the news was reported from a single lens and through a single filter - that of the US and coalition forces and the government they had set up in the country. It is then no surprise that as Kabul fell to the Taliban, many experts, observers and pundits felt as if they had been blindsided.

But with the fall of Kabul and as the US hastily withdrew from the war-torn country, glimpses have begun emerging from corners previously ignored, either wilfully or unintentionally. For the first time, the rest of the world can see how the other side fought and survived the military might of the world’s foremost superpower.

In this regard, The Express Tribune has managed to secure an exclusive interview with the spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid. In a candid conversation, he shared how his ‘uncanny’ ability to evade scores of raids and operations during the course of the war in Afghanistan made him appear as a ‘ghost-like’ figure.

‘Under their nose’

“They [US and Afghan National Forces] used to think I did not exist,” said Zabiullah Mujahid. “I escaped so many times from their raids and attempts to capture me that they seriously considered that ‘Zabiullah’ was a made up figure, not a real man who exists.”

“And yet, I managed to move about Afghanistan freely. I think this perception helped with that,” he explained. “I lived in Kabul for a long time, right under everyone’s noses. I roamed the width and breadth of the country. I also managed to have first-hand access to the frontline, where the Taliban carried out their actions, and up to date information. It was quite puzzling for our adversaries.”

Despite the constant manhunt for him, Zabiullah claimed the thought of leaving Afghanistan during the course of the two-decade-long war never crossed his mind. “The United States forces would often pay off locals to obtain some information about my whereabouts. Using that information, like I said, they must have launched dozens of intelligence-based operations hoping to find some trace of me,” he said. “But I never left or tried to;  not even thought about trying to leave Afghanistan.”

He added that as the Taliban carried on, the people of the countryside in particular became more and more sympathetic to their cause.

Before the Taliban

Speaking to The Express Tribune about his personal life, Zabiullah shared that he was born in the Gardez district of Paktia province. “I was born sometime in 1978. I would not be able to give you an exact date since we used the lunar calendar back then. But that means I am 43 years old now,” he said.

According to him, he received his initial education at a local school. “But soon after, I was enrolled into the local madrassa.” A life of religious education saw Zabiullah travel between Jalalabad, Khost and other cities of Afghanistan, and even Pakistan. “We used to travel to various seminaries. I specialised in Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) from the Haqqani seminary in Nowshera, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” he said. During his stay at the Haqqani seminary, Zabiullah shared that he published many research papers on Fiqh.

Taking up arms

According to the Taliban spokesman, his part in the struggle against foreign troops in Afghanistan began when he was still a teenager. “I joined the struggle against occupation forces when I was just 16 years of age,” he said. “In the initial stages, I took part in fighting in various locations of the country. I was also imprisoned for six months in the Mehsud era,” he shared.

Asked how he was chosen to be the voice, and later face, of the Taliban, Zabiullah said he began with his work for the group’s publication. “This part of my journey started when I became a writer for the Dari portion of the Taliban’s Sarak magazine,” he said. “I also served as the anchor of the radio station in Paktika while I was enrolled in the madrassa there. I would deliver the news on the radio in both Pashto and Dari languages up until 1999.”

Zabiullah said that his formal appointment as the spokesman of the Taliban came following the arrest of his predecessor. “When then spokesman of the Tehreek, Dr Hanif, was arrested, the shura reached out to me. They knew of my skills in writing and communication based on my earlier work for our magazine and radio, so they thought I had the aptitude.”

Family and struggle

Sharing details about his personal life, Zabiullah said that he is married with four children. “I have two sons and two daughters. My eldest, Hidayatullah is twenty years of age. The next, Muhammad, is aged ten. My daughters are very young – five and three respectively,” he said.

According to him, he was engaged in 1999. “But because of my work it would take me two years before I could get married,” he said.

Asked if his work ever came in the way of family life, or whether his wife or children expressed frustration with the Taliban, he said: “My wife holds the Tehreek very close to her heart. She is dedicated to the cause even more than me, I think.”

“So we have never had any difficulties and she has never been annoyed with me or with the Taliban on account of my work. Beyond that, she is happy with me as I am a caring husband to her, and a loving father to our children.”

Real name or nom de guerre?

So, is Zabiullah Mujahid a nom de guerre or an actual name? “Zabiullah is my actual name,” the Taliban spokesman confirmed. “Mujahid, however, is something my seniors in the Tehreek started calling me,” he said. According to him, far from ever trying to change it, he grew affectionate of the name chosen for him by his leaders.

On having lived a life with the Taliban, Zabiullah said he tried to be as free from stress as possible. “But due to the nature of this job, there have been times where I could not sleep enough or eat enough. Coordinating with our commanders is a round-the-clock job, as is answering phones and providing information to media outlets,” he said. “But I have dedicated myself to the cause”

Zabiullah also shared that he had never seen the former head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar. “He was in hiding all the time, so I never had that honour. But I have worked with Sheikh Mullah Mansoor and Sheikh Haibatullah, and the two leaders have applauded my work and my professional approach. I feel very proud that they have stated their love for my work.”