KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) - The Taliban are moving fighters into Kandahar, planting bombs and plotting attacks as NATO and Afghan forces prepare for a summer showdown with insurgents, according to a Taliban commander with close ties to senior insurgent leaders.
NATO and Afghan forces are stepping up operations to push Taliban fighters out of the city, which was the Islamist movement's headquarters during the years it ruled most of Afghanistan. The goal is to bolster the capability of the local government so that it can keep the Taliban from coming back.
The Taliban commander, who uses the pseudonym Mubeen, told The Associated Press that if military pressure on the insurgents becomes too great "we will just leave and come back after" the foreign forces leave.
Despite nightly raids by NATO and Afghan troops, Mubeen said his movements have not been restricted. He was interviewed last week in the center of Kandahar, seated with his legs crossed on a cushion in a room. His only concession to security was to lock the door.
He made no attempt to hide his face and said he felt comfortable because of widespread support among Kandahar's 500,000 residents, who like the Taliban are mostly Pashtuns, Afghanistan's biggest ethnic community.
"Because of the American attitude to the people, they are sympathetic to us," Mubeen said. "Every day we are getting more support. We are not strangers. We are not foreigners. We are from the people."
It is difficult to measure the depth of support for the Taliban among Kandahar's people, many of whom say they are disgusted by the presence of both the foreign troops and the insurgents. Many of them say they are afraid NATO's summer offensive will accomplish little other than trigger more violence.
Mubeen said Taliban attacks are not random but are carefully planned and ordered by the senior military and political command that assigns jobs and responsibilities to its rank and file. The final arbiter is the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who heads the council, or shura, that decides strategic goals which are passed down the ranks to commanders in the field, he said.
"We are always getting instructions from our commanders, what suicide attacks to carry out, who to behead if he is a spy," Mubeen said, gesturing with a maimed hand suffered during fighting in 1996 when the Taliban were trying to gain control of the capital of Kabul.
Then, like now, his enemies were members of the Northern Alliance, dominated by Afghanistan's minority ethnic groups and returned to power by the U.S.-led coalition following the Taliban's collapse in 2001.
Mubeen, a native of Zabul province, worked with the Taliban's civil aviation minister, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, during the Taliban's five-year rule. In the final days before the Taliban abandoned Kandahar in 2001, Mubeen played a crucial logistical role, helping move weapons and supplies to hideouts outside the city.
Mullah Mansoor was one of two senior Taliban figures named by Mullah Omar to replace the No. 2 commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, who was arrested in Pakistan in February.
Mubeen said that in the first years after the Taliban were routed, fighters had to survive in the mountains, rarely making forays into Afghan towns and villages. He attributed the Taliban comeback to deep resentment - especially among ethnic Pashtuns - to the presence of foreign military forces and public disgust with the Afghan government.
"Our brothers are already here and ready," he said. "Our people are skilled now. They know a lot of things, how to make things more difficult and to be more sophisticated in our attacks."
Mubeen said Taliban fighters had received better training, although he would not say where and by whom.
"But we were interested to get the training and we understood that we needed the training," he said.
Mubeen said the Taliban's main goal in the war is the establishment of sharia, or Islamic law, in Afghanistan. When they ruled the religious militia enforced an antiquated and regressive interpretation of Islamic law that appalled the West, including publicly amputating hands and feet for theft and carrying out public executions.
"We want sharia. That is first. Everything else comes after that," he said. "People want sharia and then development."
Mubeen said he was confident that efforts by President Hamid Karzai and his international partners to win over rank-and-file members with promises of amnesty, jobs and money would not succeed in undermining the insurgents.
"The government and the Americans did a lot of work to make disputes in the Taliban and to give money to the Taliban," he said.
He also said peace negotiations with the Taliban leadership would not take place without the blessing of Mullah Omar.
"The world community should leave our country and then we are ready to negotiate," he said.