KABUL--"In squads of roaring dirt bikes and armed to the teeth, Taliban fighters are spreading like a brush fire into remote and defenseless villages across northern Afghanistan," Joshua Partlow wrote in the Washington Post.
Two other cartoonists and I were a day from heading to Faryab--a remote Uzbek-dominated province in the northwest known for its brutally entertaining matches of buzkashi--when Partlow's piece appeared.
Insurgents have responded to government control of the highways by basing themselves in rugged villages far from the freshly paved asphalt. Riding motorcycles supplied by Pakistani intelligence, Taliban gangs swoop across the desert, taking one village after another.
"They move constantly on unmarked dirt roads outside the cities to ambush Afghan police and soldiers and to kidnap residents. They execute those affiliated with the government and shut down reconstruction projects," wrote Partlow.
Their checkpoints and raids along the three main east-west traffic arteries have effectively bifurcated the country. Government officials, members of NGOs and the media must fly if they want to get between Kabul and Herat.
Partlow's article and his personal feedback prompted us to cancel our plan to travel to Herat via Faryab. We left Mazar-i-Sharif for Kabul. Now we're looking for a driver willing to take us via the central route to Herat: a previously calm stretch of unpaved road.
"I wouldn't take you there for $10,000," is a typical response. "Why do you want to die?" runs a close second.
South of Mazar we noticed our driver nervously scanning the desert. "The Taliban," our driver said, "here they come on motorcycles."
What's really worrisome is the behavior of these self-described Talibs. Like the Taliban regime that ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they enforce an extreme form of Sharia law. They have been stoning people for adultery and shooting those accused of working for the Karzai regime. But the similarity stops there.
The first-gen Taliban led by Mullah Omar practiced what they preached. They were scrupulously honest, lived ascetic lives and didn't tolerate corruption or dishonesty.
The so-called neo-Taliban were the second generation: the madrassa kids who grew up in the refugee camps in Pakistan. Less worldly and uneducated, this coarse bunch dominated the anti-U.S. resistance from 2003 to 2009.
Here comes Taliban Mark 3: the Taliban biker gangs from hell. They're radical Islamists, but also gangsters who have adopted the thuggish behavior of the warlords. They don't follow the rules, certainly not the Koran.
Like the "moojs," Talibikers set up checkpoints to catch motorists who are yanked out of their cars, robbed at gunpoint and sent on their way--or shot to death. "Taliban" and "bandit" are now used interchangeably.
Everyone expects the Taliban to control most, if not all, of Afghanistan by next year. The question isn't when, but which Taliban? As U.S. presence wanes and influence of the Karzai regime fades, I foresee a clash, perhaps even a civil war, between the "real Taliban" and these self-branded Talib-cum-robbers.
In the meantime, this breed of fanatically religious desperadoes goes to prove something Afghans have always known: As bad as things seem, they can always get worse.