KABUL -- "In squads of roaring dirt bikes and armed to the teeth," Joshua Partlow reports in The Washington Post, "Taliban fighters are spreading like a brush fire into remote and defenseless villages across northern Afghanistan."
Two other cartoonists and I were a day away from heading to Faryab--a remote, rural, Uzbek-dominated province in the northwest known for its brutally entertaining matches of buzkashi--when Partlow's piece appeared. He described a phenomenon that deploys novel tactics out of a bizarre 1970s action flick.
It was years after the 2001 U.S. invasion before the Afghan national police began to take control of the country's major highways. Now there are government-run gun nests every few kilometers.
Insurgents have responded to government control of the highways by basing themselves in rugged villages far away from the freshly-paved asphalt. Riding Pamir motorcycles supplied by Pakistani intelligence--thus paid for by American taxpayers--Taliban bike gangs swoop across the desert, taking one village after another.
"They move constantly on unmarked dirt roads outside the cities to ambush Afghan police and soldiers and to kidnap residents. They execute those affiliated with the government and shut down reconstruction projects," wrote Partlow.
They now control every district in Faryab province, a vast region that borders Turkmenistan. But Afghan sources across the country say their reach is far broader. Talibikers control the center of the country in a north-south axis that begins with Faryab and Baghlis and runs all the way down to Helmand and Nimruz.
Their checkpoints and raids along the three main east-west traffic arteries have effectively bifurcated the country. Whether it's government officials, members of NGOs or the media, you have to fly if you want to get from Kabul to Herat or vice versa.
Partlow's article, and his personal feedback, prompted us to cancel our plan to travel to Herat via Faryab. We left Mazar-i-Sharif for Kabul. Now we're looking for a driver willing to take us via the Central Route to Herat: a scenic, bucolic, previously calm stretch of unpaved road that begins at Bamiyan, site of the ruined Buddha statues, and runs west via Ghor province. So far, no luck.
"I wouldn't take you there for $10,000," is a typical response. "Why do you want to die?" runs second.
The average Afghan earns $40 a month.
South of Mazar we noticed our driver nervously scanning the desert. Several recently charred trucks testified to the presence of the Taliban. "The Taliban," our driver said, "here they come on motorcycles."
I asked: Even during the day?
"Even during the day," he confirmed.
Like "Mad Max."
What's really worrisome is the behavior of these self-described Talibs. Like the Taliban regime that ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they enforce an extreme form of Sharia law. In village after village, they have been stoning people accused of adultery and shooting those accused of working for the Karzai puppet regime. But the similarity stops there.
The first-gen Taliban led by Mullah Omar practiced what they preached. They were scrupulously honest. Living ascetic lives, they didn't tolerate corruption or dishonesty among their own ranks.
The so-called neo-Taliban were the second generation: the madrassa kids, many of them orphans, who grew up in the refugee camps in Pakistan during the war. Less worldly and completely uneducated, this coarse bunch came to dominate the anti-U.S. resistance from 2003 to 2009.
Here comes Taliban Mark 3: the Taliban biker gangs from hell. They're still radical Islamists. But they're also gangsters, brazen thieves who have adopted the thuggish behavior of the warlord class during the so-called "mujahedeen nights" of the early 1990s.
These aren't your father's Taliban. They don't follow the rules: certainly not the Koran.
Like the "moojs," Talibikers set up checkpoints and ambush points to catch motorists. They're yanked out of their cars, robbed at gunpoint, and sent on their way--if the victims are lucky. Many have been shot to death.
"Taliban" and "bandit"--once mutually exclusive, even opposite terms--are now used interchangeably.
Everyone expects the Taliban to control most, if not all, of Afghanistan by next year. Whether it happens then or it takes longer the question is, which Taliban? As the U.S. presence wanes and influence of the Karzai regime fades even further, I foresee a clash, perhaps even a civil war, between the "real Taliban" (sales pitch: we're tough but honest) and these self-branded Talib-cum-robbers (motto: shut up and pay up).
In the meantime, this new breed of fanatically religious desperadoes goes to prove something Afghans have always known. As bad as things seem, they can always get worse.