A new report from Wall Street Journal (WSJ) says undercover operatives for the Taliban "spent years infiltrating Afghan government ministries, universities, businesses and aid organizations" to seize control of Kabul and other cities in Afghanistan eventually.
They were lying in wait.
"We had agents in every organization and department," said Mawlawi Mohammad Salim Saad, a senior Taliban leader. "The units we had already present in Kabul took control of the strategic locations."
WSJ reports Saad "directed suicide-bombing operations and assassinations inside the Afghan capital before its fall."
Saad's operatives are part of the Badri force of the Haqqani network (designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization). These operatives "stepped out of the shadows in Kabul and other big cities across Afghanistan" when the U.S. was in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, WSJ reports.
The report details how the Taliban slowly gained influence and power in Afghanistan, long before Kabul's collapse.
The Badri force had cells working on three main tasks:
- armed fighters
- propaganda and recruitment
"The 20-year war in Afghanistan was often seen as a fight between bands of Taliban insurgents—bearded men operating from mountain hide-outs—and Afghan and U.S. forces struggling to control rural terrain. The endgame, however, was won by a large underground network of urban operatives," WSJ reports.
"On Aug. 15, after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul, it was these men who seized the capital city while the Taliban's more conventional forces remained outside."
An example of one of these "urban operatives" is Mohammad Rahim Omari "was working undercover at his family's gasoline-trading business in Kabul," according to WSJ. Omari is now a "midlevel commander in the Badri force."
"[Omari] said he and 12 others were dispatched to an Afghan intelligence service compound in the east of the city, where they disarmed the officers on duty and stopped them from destroying computers and files," the report reads.
Another example given in the report is a man named Kamran who was "tasked with taking over his alma mater, Kabul University, and the Ministry of Higher Education."
"[H]e said he became a Taliban recruiter when he was pursuing a master's degree in Arabic at the university in 2017," the report reads. "He estimates that, over the years, he persuaded some 500 people, mostly students, to join the insurgency. To maintain his cover, he shaved his chin, wore sunglasses, and dressed in suits or jeans."
Kamran describes how many of his colleagues and acquaintances from the university were "surprised" to see him in his new role as head of security for Kabul's several universities.
In Kandahar, described by WSJ as "Afghanistan's second-largest metropolis," a university lecturer named Ahmad Wali was assigned to focus on recruitment and propaganda for the Taliban.
"I was ready to take the AK-47 and go because no Afghan can tolerate the invasion of their country," Wali said. "But then our elders told us no, don't come here, stay over there, work in the universities because these are also our people and the media and the world are deceiving them about us."
Wali is now the chief spokesman for the Taliban's finance ministry.
The report concludes with Saad describing how Kabul residents reacted to the Taliban's takeover:
Saad, the Badri commander, said he was shocked by his initial encounters with Kabul residents like Ms. Abbasi as he arrived to take charge at the Kabul airport at 7 a.m. on Aug. 16. Many of them screamed "You are death" at the Taliban, he recalled.
"It was painful to see Afghan women flee abroad, leaving their bags behind," he said. "The generation of the past 20 years hadn't seen us at all and were afraid of us."