KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban has merged its propaganda and field operations with those of the global al Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden, say senior Afghan officials and the group’s former leaders.
Afghan security officials say the association has enabled the Taliban to develop from a xenophobic, home-grown Islamist movement into a more outward looking force that is helping to advance al Qaeda’s global interests.
While there is no evidence the movement that ruled Afghanistan until it was ousted in 2001 has abandoned any of the fanaticism that led it to ban singing, shaving and schooling for girls, the group appears to have fed off the larger global jihad to hone previously nonexistent media skills as well as new fighting tactics.
“The Taliban have changed immensely in the last year due to the mentoring they are getting from leading Arab jihadists in Pakistan with al Qaeda, both in the realm of battlefield tactics and media operations,” said Lutfullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan’s National Security Council.
“They are doing what works in Iraq and often succeeding,” said Mr. Mashal, who as director of strategic communications designs media operations to oppose the Taliban.
A former leading Taliban official who recently spent four years in the U.S. government’s Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba and is living under house arrest in Kabul agreed that the movement is increasingly media savvy.
“When the Taliban were in power, they were not focused on this important thing, but they have learned from al Qaeda the importance of media in their operations,” said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the group’s once outspoken ambassador to Pakistan.
Afghan and Western analysts familiar with the changing face of the Taliban say the local movement is gaining sustenance through recruiting, propaganda and tactics such as suicide bombing. The strategy is gleaned from the godfathers of the global jihad — bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri — and from battlefield skills honed in Iraq.
Before his violent death this month at the hands of Afghan and U.S. Special Forces, the Taliban’s military commander, Mullah Dadullah, claimed that the Taliban’s planning and operations were one and the same with those of al Qaeda.
Afghan officials also said the Taliban’s suicide bombing attacks in Kabul and other large cities were approved in advance by senior al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.
“The Taliban is now an integral part of an internationalized jihad,” said Waheed Mujda, an Afghan writer who served as a deputy minister in the Taliban’s government between 1997 and 2001.
“The Taliban’s war has now moved outside the boundaries of Afghanistan and is part of a global struggle.”
Pakistan denies that al Qaeda is running its global terrorist network from its side of the border.
The transformation of the Taliban is best exemplified through its changing battle tactics and slick videotapes depicting training exercises and attacks on NATO, Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces.
A cameraman travels with Taliban fighters on most major operations, a major step for a group that once banned television.
The videos also show how al Qaeda’s trusted Arabs have resumed their roles as military trainers and media advisers for the Taliban, which is mainly an ethnic Pashtun-based movement. Pashtun tribes straddle the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The al Qaeda trainers also facilitate travel for Afghan militants who move between Afghanistan and Iraq and regularly “wave” to each other over the Internet.
In one recent video, Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Libyan trainer for the Taliban in Afghanistan, sends a message of encouragement to Iraqi insurgents from an al Qaeda and Taliban training base inside Afghanistan.
When in power, the Taliban regularly mangled its own media operations. But now its press statements and military gains are regularly featured in the independent Afghan media — so much so that officials from the government of President Hamid Karzai accuse the press of being too sympathetic to “the enemy.”
The Taliban insurgents, mimicking al Qaeda’s Web sites and its video production wing, Al Sahab, are producing daily news articles covering events in Afghanistan and the Muslim world, as well as slick videotapes that depict Iraq-style beheadings and young militants in al Qaeda training camps.
Mullah Zaeef denied that the Taliban “in their hearts” had global jihadist intentions. He said Afghans would not attack U.S. soil as long as the U.S. military abandons Afghanistan.
He insisted that Taliban fighters and leaders, isolated and hiding in Pakistan, have been forced into the arms of al Qaeda, with which they do not agree in full.
“If I am the Taliban, I must try to find something to help me fight with America to defend myself — if this [is] possible from al Qaeda, or if it is possible from Pakistan or from Iraq — because with empty hands it is not possible to fight.”