On a recent bitterly cold winter day, I sat huddled on a red Persian carpet in an unheated Kabul office, waiting for a visitor who, I was told by a trusted friend, would help me understand why America is not winning its war in Afghanistan.
A stocky, bearded figure in a gray vest, a faded brown shalwar kameez and a cream-colored Pashtun shawl appeared at the door. He removed his shoes and walked on cracked, callused feet over the carpet to sit cross-legged beside me. Our meeting was conducted in secrecy. My guest was, until early 2007, a Taliban commander of 50 fighters in North Waziristan, Pakistan, one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the Afghan border where both al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents operate. Ever since he left the Taliban, he has been living in fear of assassination for treason. I thanked him in English for his willingness to meet, and he answered me in Pashto, the chief language of southern and eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan's Tribal Areas, without a trace of emotion.
"If you had tried to interview me this time last year," he said, "I would have killed you." Then he reached past my feet and poured himself a glass of sugary green tea.