ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan – A Taliban commander said in an interview that insurgent fighters will battle "Christian" troops until they leave Afghanistan and an Islamic fundamentalist government is established in Kabul, warning that hundreds of militants are ready to launch suicide attacks to again install strict Islamic law.
The regional-level commander, Mullah Nazir Ahmed Hamza, said the Taliban still has thousands of fighters despite NATO reports of heavy losses in recent battles, that support for the hardline movement is increasing every day and that U.S. and NATO forces would have a tough time beating the fighters without air support.
"We want an Islamic state and Islamic law," Hamza told The Associated Press while sitting next to a dozen armed fighters in Afghanistan's southern mountains over the weekend. "We don't want the Americans or any other Christians."
"As a Muslim it's my duty, I have to fight and I have to carry out jihad against the Americans until they leave."
The Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan from 1996 until being ousted from power in late 2001 by the U.S.-led coalition, instituted a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without a man and girls couldn't attend school. Men were forced to wear long beards, and movies, television and music were banned.
Hamza said Taliban fighters were moving from province to province to launch ambushes — roadside and suicide bombs — against Western and Afghan security forces. He said fighters by the hundreds are ready to launch suicide attacks.
"Whenever the mujahedeen are preparing for jihad, it means they made a decision to sacrifice their lives," Hamza said while sitting next to an isolated mud compound in Zabul province.
"Whenever we need a suicide attack, (I will) give my life and that day will be the luckiest day of my life," he continued. "I am always ready to carry out a suicide attack against the Americans and their allies."
A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said Afghanistan's Constitution specifically spells out that no Afghan laws can contradict Islam.
"Killing a Muslim is against Islam. Exploding a bomb and killing innocent Afghans in Kabul is against Islam. How can (they) say (they) are a Muslim?" said Khaleeq Ahmed. "The Afghan people are the poorest and most devoted Muslims in the world."
Taliban militants have launched a growing number of attacks this year, including a record number of suicide bombings. NATO said Sunday that there have been 78 suicide attacks this year that killed 142 Afghan civilians, 40 Afghan security personnel and 13 international troops.
"It continues to shock and disgust me and others that the insurgents seem proud of their ability to indiscriminately kill so many of the people that they should be supporting in other means," NATO spokesman Maj. Luke Knittig said Tuesday.
Hamza said the Taliban — who claim to control large areas of mountainous terrain in southern and eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan — now control most of Zabul province, saying that "even one kilometer (mile) from Qalat the government doesn't have control," referring to Zabul's provincial capital.
Knittig said NATO's International Security Assistance Force is aware of Taliban activity in Zabul.
"But they are headed for the hills there. That's something we do know about and are addressing," he said. "Qalat city in Zabul is growing and has a good deal of development beyond the city itself. That's our focus, not chasing Taliban in the hills."
NATO Gen. David Richards told the AP on Sunday that a majority of Afghans would likely switch their allegiance to the Taliban if their lives show no visible improvements in the next six months.
Hamza said the fighters do not get paid, though Western military officials and analysts say many Taliban fighters are villagers who fight only for a paycheck, anywhere from US$5 to US$10 a day, a decent sum in Afghanistan. Police and teachers make only US$70 per month, by comparison.
"They are saying that we are getting money to fight," Hamza said. "It's all rumors that the Americans and our government are spreading. We are mujahedeen. We are just fighting for our country, for Islam."