Children living in an encampment. After fleeing violence, there are now two and a half million internally displaced Afghans.
Trump upended peace talks. Civilian casualties keep climbing. After eighteen years of war, Afghans are suffering more than ever.
(October 28, 2019 Issue) — In 2008, when Zubair was seventeen years old, he left the refugee camp in Pakistan where he’d grown up, crossed into Afghanistan, and joined the war against the Americans. Although he and his family had fled the country during the Taliban regime, everyone Zubair knew seemed to agree that it was his religious duty to resist the foreign occupation of his homeland.
One of his teachers arranged his enlistment in the Taliban. Zubair underwent a brief training program in Kunar Province, in northeastern Afghanistan, where his father had died during the war against the Soviet Union. He was deployed to his native village, in the Korengal, a narrow, cedar-forested valley that harbored one of the US Army’s remotest outposts.
For more than a year, Zubair conducted ambushes, engaged in firefights, and hid from jets and drones. He lost eight friends. Forty-two Americans were killed and hundreds were wounded in the Korengal, which became known as the Valley of Death. In 2010, the Americans surrendered it to the Taliban. Some of Zubair’s comrades remained to launch attacks on Afghan government forces; Zubair asked to be sent to neighboring Nangarhar Province, where there were still foreigners to fight.
In June of 2018, the Taliban and the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, announced a three-day ceasefire—the first of the war—for the Eid al-Fitr celebrations at the end of Ramadan. Zubair was in Shirzad, one of Nangarhar’s most restive districts. In the provincial capital, Jalalabad, he had aunts, uncles, and cousins he hadn’t seen for almost a decade.
The government promised the Taliban freedom of movement during the festivities, but Zubair’s commander forbade him to leave. On the second day, Zubair hopped on a motorcycle and went anyway. Unsure what to expect, he wore a pistol under his vest. He’d passed through Jalalabad only once, at night, and he’d never visited any other city. He had spent most of his life on the front lines of the insurgency, where it was a given that urban Afghans were infidels. He knew that many of them despised the Taliban. Confronted with them in the flesh, what would they do?
“I was amazed,” Zubair told me this summer. “They welcomed us.”
It wasn’t only in Jalalabad—the glimpse of peace offered by the ceasefire inspired a national outpouring of optimism and unity. On social media, people uploaded photographs and videos of citizens, soldiers, and police jubilantly embracing Taliban fighters. The day that Zubair left Shirzad for Jalalabad, Muhammad Ajmal Omar, a member of Nangarhar’s provincial council, left Jalalabad for Shirzad.
Although Omar represented the district, he hadn’t been there in fifteen years, because it was so firmly in the grip of insurgents. When I met him, in June, he showed me a cell-phone video of his arrival. Walking side by side, Omar and a Taliban commander raise their arms in mutual submission, as a crowd surrounding them chants, “We want peace! Afghanistan is great!”
“These are all Taliban,” Omar said, looking at the screen as if, a year later, he still couldn’t believe it. “We were crying the whole way.”
Zubair heard that Omar was returning to Jalalabad with a large caravan of Taliban fighters. The governor of Nangarhar Province had invited the militants to spend the night at his guesthouse. Zubair decided not to join them.
While wandering around the city—which teemed with mango-colored rickshaws, raucous bazaars, and pink bougainvillea spilling over compound walls—he had been surprised to discover that it was full of mosques. Everywhere, Muslims were praying. At some point, Zubair asked himself, “What if I stayed here? What would my life be like?”
On the final day of the ceasefire, as some of the Taliban from Shirzad were leaving the governor’s house, a suicide bomber attacked them, killing eighteen. No one claimed responsibility, but the culprit was widely thought to be a member of ISIS. A branch of the organization had appeared in Nangarhar four years earlier, and had since become the Taliban’s staunch enemy.
The Taliban subscribe to a nationalist agenda: they wish to overthrow the government and impose Sharia law, but their ambitions do not extend beyond Afghanistan. ISIS, which seeks to create a global Islamic caliphate, does not recognize the existence of Afghanistan as a sovereign country, and accuses the Taliban of practicing a lax interpretation of Islam that accommodates heretical Pashtun customs.
Zubair felt caught in the middle of this fight. The teacher who had recruited him to the Taliban had subsequently joined ISIS, and had sent him text messages urging him to do the same. In recent months, Zubair had been fighting against ISIS more than against American or Afghan forces. What had begun for him as a resistance against a foreign occupation increasingly felt like Muslims killing Muslims. Zubair was at his uncle’s house when he learned of the suicide attack. By then, he’d made up his mind. His war was over.
During our interviews, which took place in my hotel room in Jalalabad, I never had the impression that Zubair had renounced the Taliban or what it stood for. He was simply tired. “I want a normal life,” he told me. “I want a piece of land and a house, that’s all.” Zubair asked that I not use his real name, and he kept his face wrapped tightly in a scarf, though it was oppressively hot.
“The Taliban want to kill those of us who quit,” he said. Muhammad Ajmal Omar told me that the Taliban had been unnerved by how many of their fighters had defected during the ceasefire, and Zubair confirmed that many of his comrades who went to Jalalabad that weekend were now pursuing lives as civilians.
If the ceasefire revealed a profound desire for peace among Afghans, the ensuing year has shown how grievously difficult that will be to achieve. An effort at diplomacy collapsed spectacularly: the US spent months in historic negotiations with the Taliban, but, in September, President Donald Trump abruptly scuttled a nearly completed accord that would have provided for a phased withdrawal of American troops from the country and direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. An underlying premise of the accord was the recognition that neither side could decisively vanquish the other—that there is no military solution. Now it appears that they will go on fighting anyway.
Last month, Taliban suicide attackers killed twenty-eight people in Zabul Province, thirty in Parwan Province, and twenty-two in downtown Kabul; US warplanes dropped more bombs than at any point since 2010, when a multiyear “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama was approaching its peak.
Between July and October, the United Nations documented more civilian casualties than it had during any other three-month period since it started keeping count, in 2009. So far this year, more than eight thousand civilians have been killed or wounded. In much of Afghanistan, life has never felt more precarious, and the violence has never made less sense.
President George W. Bush announced the invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, from the White House Treaty Room. Explaining the choice of venue, he said, “The only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it.” The Taliban, who had sheltered Al Qaeda while it plotted the 9/11 attacks, were deposed within months. In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared, “We clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability.” Since then, more than a hundred and fifty thousand people have been killed in Afghanistan, and about seven hundred and fifty thousand Americans have served there.
The US has spent about eight hundred billion dollars on military operations and on a multitude of economic, governance, education, health, gender-equality, and counter-narcotics initiatives. Today, most Afghans live in poverty, corruption is endemic, literacy and life-expectancy rates rank among the lowest in the world, approximately a third of girls become child brides, and no country exports more illicit opium. The Taliban control or contest more than half the country.
During the 2016 US Presidential campaign, the candidates barely mentioned the war. Trump, however, had long criticized America’s presence in Afghanistan. In 2012, on “Fox & Friends,” he asked, “What are we doing there? These people hate us.”
Back then, nearly a hundred thousand American troops were deployed in the country. I spent most of that summer in Helmand Province, in the south, where US marines were embattled on multiple fronts. At Camp Leatherneck—part of a massive complex with fast-food restaurants, an airfield, and state-of-the-art medical facilities—General John Toolan, the top American commander in the south, foresaw a sustained presence.
Gesturing toward a construction site near his office, he told me, “Look at this place—it’s just being built. We’re not going anywhere.” The US military withdrew from Helmand Province two years later, and by the end of Obama’s Presidency the number of troops in Afghanistan had dwindled to ten thousand. Camp Leatherneck now resembles a ghost town, vast swaths of it engulfed, Ozymandias-like, by the surrounding desert.
Mohammad Azam, who lost five members of his family in a night raid conducted by Zero-Two, a CIA-sponsored unit.
After Trump became President, he chose General H. R. McMaster as his national-security adviser. McMaster had served in Afghanistan during the surge, and is said to have resented Obama’s unwillingness to give it more time.
A former official who was involved in developing Trump’s Afghanistan policy told me that McMaster was resistant to undertaking a peace process and pushed for stepped-up military action: “His view was, we should not be negotiating with the Taliban while they are ascendant. We need to put them on their heels first.” The official added, “The idea that any plausible amount of additional military effort and resources would change the trajectory of the conflict at that stage was absurd.” For McMaster, however, “it seemed emotional—as if he couldn’t accept the failure of American counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.”
In 2017, Trump unveiled his “new strategy” for the war. “My original instinct was to pull out,” he admitted. But, after studying Afghanistan “from every conceivable angle,” Trump instead deployed several thousand more troops (including a contingent of marines, to Helmand Province). He also relaxed Obama-era rules intended to reduce civilian casualties, such as constraints on air power. These changes, Trump argued, would finally enable the military to apply “overwhelming force.” No timeline was imposed. “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible” to negotiate with the Taliban, Trump said. “But nobody knows if, or when, that will ever happen.”
A year later, little had changed militarily, McMaster had been fired, and Trump had apparently lost patience. (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later acknowledged that Trump wanted a troop reduction before the 2020 Presidential election.)
Throughout the Obama Administration, negotiations had been frustrated by the Taliban’s refusal to engage with the Afghan government, which they considered illegitimate, and by the US’s equally obstinate refusal to sideline the government. In July, 2018, a few weeks after the Eid ceasefire, Trump agreed to exclude the Ghani administration and negotiate directly with the Taliban.
The US named Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, as a special envoy. Khalilzad contacted Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, where the group had been permitted to open an office in 2013, in part to facilitate the exchange of five Guantánamo Bay detainees for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who’d been captured by the Taliban after going awol. (As a Presidential candidate, Trump had excoriated the Obama Administration for the exchange, calling Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” and the detainees “killers who want to destroy us.”)
Over the next ten months, Qatar hosted nine rounds of intensive discussions. The US negotiating team included senior officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House. The Taliban negotiating team included the five former Guantánamo detainees.
Negotiations to end wars can have the perverse effect of escalating them: sometimes, combatants strive to gain leverage at the table by showing strength on the ground. As the Doha talks proceeded, the conflict in Afghanistan became the deadliest in the world. Raids and air strikes killed and wounded a record number of civilians—more than a hundred a month—while the Taliban attacked Afghan Army bases and mounted large offensives on provincial capitals. ISIS, which wasn’t a party to the talks, introduced a new dimension of unpredictability and cruelty to the violence, terrorizing Kabul and Jalalabad with suicide bombings. The result, for many Afghans, was a painful dissonance: unprecedented hope that peace might finally arrive, and unprecedented anguish over the nightmare consuming them until it did.
On September 2, 2019, Khalilzad announced that an agreement had been reached. Some details had already leaked out. The US would remove fifty-four hundred troops from Afghanistan within a hundred and thirty-five days, and the remaining eighty-six hundred would leave within the next year and a half.
The Taliban, for their part, would break with Al Qaeda, which still has a limited presence in some parts of the country, and help prevent other terror groups from gaining a foothold there. They would also begin negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders in Oslo, Norway, for a durable political settlement.
In the US, the arrangement came under immediate criticism. In an open letter, John Negroponte and other high-ranking diplomats warned that pulling troops out before a reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban risked “total civil war.” The retired general David Petraeus—McMaster’s former boss in Afghanistan—predicted that the Taliban would attempt to “overthrow the Afghan government and reimpose medieval rule,” thereby energizing “Islamist extremism worldwide.” Senator Lindsey Graham cautioned that a withdrawal could “pave the way for another 9/11.”
Supporters of the deal viewed it as the best one that the US was likely to get—and immensely preferable to no deal at all. A Western consultant who had been helping to prepare the Oslo talks told me, “The Taliban have always said, ‘We will never negotiate the future of Afghanistan while foreign troops have their boots on our soil.’ They compromised on that, and that’s huge.”
Laurel Miller, the Asia program director for the nonprofit International CrISIS Group, said that securing the Taliban’s commitment to sitting down with the Afghan government in Oslo was “a major achievement.” Miller also noted that few people had seen the precise terms of the accord, and that its most vociferous detractors were likely not among them. “Those are people who only believe in a peace process that is tantamount to the Taliban negotiating its surrender,” she said. “And that’s not going to happen.”
Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban in Doha, told me that Khalilzad and the lead Taliban negotiator had initialled a draft of the agreement and deposited it with the Qataris; an official signing ceremony was scheduled to take place in Doha, in mid-September. The Oslo talks would begin shortly afterward. Khalilzad had arranged to brief America’s coalition allies at nato headquarters, in Brussels. President Ghani had selected delegates to represent his country in Oslo, and the Norwegians had rented a wing of a hotel on a hillside overlooking the fjords.
On September 7th, Trump tweeted, “Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great, great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations.”
Americans and Afghans alike were stunned. On the one hand, the prospect of such a summit, on the eve of September 11th, seemed quixotic and unseemly. On the other hand, Trump’s contention that he had scrapped a year’s worth of painstaking diplomacy because of one American fatality was suspect. It was also hard to ignore the hypocrisy: after Trump’s tweet, Mike Pompeo told CBS that the US had “killed over a thousand Taliban in just the last ten days”—which, he said, had been “necessary to get the negotiated outcome that we’re looking for.”
A more plausible explanation for why Trump rescinded his Camp David invitation is that the Taliban had declined it. Shaheen told me that, when Khalilzad said Trump wanted them to fly to Washington, they replied that they would do so only after the agreement had been signed. “We said that we will close this chapter—the chapter of hostilities—and then we can start a new chapter, which will be one of coöperation,” Shaheen said.
If Trump had been hoping to strong-arm the Taliban into accepting last-minute changes, or to stage a public rapprochement between them and Ghani, he grossly underestimated the situation’s delicacy. A former diplomat told me, “The idea that purportedly Trump had for Camp David—that he was going to be shuttling back and forth between Ghani and the Taliban, even though no preparation had been done for discussions at that level—it’s insane.”
But why did Trump shut down the entire peace process? It’s possible that he’d always been ambivalent about the deal, and his misgivings ultimately prevailed. Or he might have wanted to punish the Taliban for snubbing him.
In recent weeks, Khalilzad has attempted to salvage the peace process, travelling to Pakistan to meet with the Taliban, who remain willing to sign the accord. “The sooner, the better,” Shaheen said. “We stand by what we have agreed to.” The same impulsiveness that led Trump to cancel the talks might cause him to resume them. To date, however, his stated position is: “They’re dead.”
When Trump laid out his Afghanistan strategy, in 2017, he barely mentioned the Taliban, whose ranks have grown to more than sixty thousand full-time fighters. He instead framed the war as a campaign against international terrorist organizations, particularly ISIS, that threaten the American homeland.
Although ISIS has never had more than a few thousand militants in Afghanistan, counterterrorism tactics—identifying targets and eliminating them—have eclipsed traditional US priorities such as expanding the reach of the Afghan government and helping it win popular support. This year, the US stopped calculating how many Afghan civilians live under government versus Taliban rule. According to the Defense Department, the statistic now has “limited decision-making value.” Trump has been more straightforward. “We are not nation-building again,” he has said. “We are killing terrorists.”
In this iteration of the war, collateral damage is incidental: according to the U.N., during the first half of 2019, US and Afghan forces killed more civilians than the Taliban and ISIS did. The shift has been accompanied by curtailed transparency. US air strikes pummel isolated areas where casualties are impossible to confirm, and night raids are conducted by CIA-sponsored groups that operate independently of both the US and the Afghan militaries. Journalists are often denied access to combat units.
America’s longest war has never gone well, and American leaders have always lied about it. Obama’s surge was a failure, which he misrepresented as a success. Under Trump, however, the conflict has entered perhaps its most troubling phase, one that is being prosecuted largely in secret.
ISIS established its first stronghold in Afghanistan in Nangarhar’s Achin District, on the country’s eastern frontier. Achin abuts the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, or fata, a mostly ungoverned region that is home to various Islamist groups. The border is demarcated by the Spin Ghar range, sheer, jagged peaks that mellow into foothills with lush river valleys.
As early as 2010, militants from the fata fleeing Pakistan Army offensives started entering one of the valleys in Achin, called the Mamand. “They came with their wives and children, on foot,” Asil Maizullah, a tribal elder there, told me. “They said that they were enemies of Pakistan. We said, ‘Then, you are welcome.’ ”
Maizullah estimated that, over several years, two thousand militants from Pakistan settled in the Mamand. His older brother, Mohammad Younis, hosted eight families in his house. Eventually, the militants took over, imposing a conservative form of Islam on local villagers—closing schools, opening fundamentalist madrassas, and forbidding poppy cultivation.
“They started creating problems, calling us spies for the infidels,” Maizullah said. In 2014, several militant leaders in the fata aligned themselves with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi founder of ISIS, and the next year ISIS formally announced its expansion into Afghanistan, where the militants in Achin declared their allegiance to the group.
The ISIS fighters in the Mamand Valley began clashing with the Taliban and demanding that locals side with them. People suspected of disloyalty were executed. Maizullah, who had a son in the Afghan National Army, decided to flee. He urged Younis, his brother, to join him, but Younis refused. That summer, ISIS ordered nearly a hundred local elders to assemble at a mosque.
One of them, Fateh Gul, told me, “They accused us of supporting the Taliban and put us in an abandoned house. They beat us on every part of our body.” After twenty days, Gul was released. Ten elders, including Younis and eight of Maizullah’s cousins, were less fortunate. ISIS later published a highly produced video, complete with sound effects and slow motion, showing the men kneeling on a row of explosives, surrounded by their former guests. Younis is the first in line, and dies with the others when the explosives are ignited.
“They tricked us,” Maizullah told me.
We were sitting behind a wall of sandbags in a fortified checkpoint on the southern slope of the valley. Below us stretched terraced cornfields, rocky creeks, and rampant wild marijuana. To the east, the bald faces of the Spin Ghar peaks were patched with oblong white shapes, which, Maizullah said, were talc mines. Most Afghan talc is exported to Pakistan, where much of it then continues to Europe and America, ending up in household products ranging from makeup to baby powder.
According to a report by Global Witness, an N.G.O. that monitors natural resources in conflict zones, the Taliban have long taxed Afghan talc producers in Nangarhar, generating millions of dollars a year in revenue. Ironically, the marines in Helmand Province used to carry baby powder on patrol, to mark routes free of Taliban explosives.
Access to talc and other minerals appears to have been a factor in early skirmishes between the Taliban and ISIS. In 2015, an ISIS commander told Global Witness, “At any price, we will take the mines.” But the rift between the groups was also more fundamental. The Taliban publicly repudiated al-Baghdadi’s authority, calling his apocalyptic ideology a “scourge,” while ISISdenounced the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan, which supports the insurgency and harbors its leaders.
The theatrical killing of Younis and the other elders, though unremarkable compared with countless ISIS executions in Iraq and Syria, appalled many Afghans, including members of the Taliban. The fact that the perpetrators were foreigners rendered the offense even more egregious. The Taliban, who have killed thousands of Afghan civilians, sometimes savagely, released a statement condemning the “horrific video.”
Most Afghan talc is exported to Pakistan and much goes on to the West where it reportedly generates millions of dollars a year for the Taliban.
As long as ISIS and the Taliban were fighting each other, the US and Afghan militaries were slow to intervene. But, in 2017, the year that President Trump defined one of his main priorities in Afghanistan as “obliterating ISIS,” the coalition launched a concerted offensive to reclaim the Mamand Valley.
At the time, Maizullah was living in a settlement of internally displaced people, outside Jalalabad. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate for Security, or N.D.S., proposed organizing his tribe into a militia that would join the assault on the valley. Maizullah and five hundred others volunteered. Forty of them were killed. “ISIS didn’t retreat,” Maizullah recalled. “They didn’t care about dying.”
That April, the US deployed the largest non-nuclear weapon in its arsenal, a twenty-thousand-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or moab—colloquially known as the Mother of All Bombs—against an ISIS redoubt in the Mamand. Afghan officials say that the moab killed ninety-six militants, and credit it with precipitating ISIS’s decline in Achin.
To reach Maizullah’s checkpoint, I’d accompanied the district governor in a convoy up a rutted dirt road that paralleled a river flowing swiftly with snowmelt. Trucks loaded with talc bounced by, carrying local workers, who looked as if they’d been coated in flour. We passed the ravine where the moab had been dropped and a collection of clay houses that had been badly damaged by the blast. Nearby, two Black Hawk helicopters were lifting off from a US Special Forces base. As Maizullah and I spoke, the Americans lobbed mortars into distant hills.
The 2017 offensive had pushed ISIS out of the villages, but militants persisted in the mountains, and they had spread to other areas of Nangarhar Province, including Shirzad District, adding local and foreign fighters to their ranks along the way. Ahmed Ali, the chief of the provincial council, told me, “In Nangarhar, ISIS is now more dangerous and more numerous than the Taliban.”
Although ISIS has been confined to the regions along the eastern border, it continues to carry out catastrophic attacks in population centers. In August, an ISIS suicide bomber killed sixty-three wedding guests in Kabul. This past Friday, in Nangarhar Province, near Achin, explosives brought down the roof of a mosque full of worshippers. No one immediately claimed responsibility. More than a hundred people were killed or injured.
If the US were to return to the Doha accord, and the Taliban and the Afghan government began negotiations in Oslo, ISIS could attract hard-line insurgents averse to a brokered peace. According to Ahmed Ali, many criminal networks currently affiliated with the Taliban in Nangarhar might also “change their white flag to the black flag—ISIS could replace the Taliban.”
Before I left Maizullah’s outpost, I asked about his son, the soldier, whose name was Shamsuddin. Maizullah said that Shamsuddin had been stationed in Helmand Province, not far from Camp Leatherneck. When Maizullah fled Achin, Shamsuddin’s five-year commitment to the Army was almost over. “I asked him to please come home,” Maizullah said. “He told me, ‘It would be shameful.’ ” Ten days before Shamsuddin’s contract expired, a Taliban sniper shot him in the head.
The Americans formally turned over control of the war to Afghan security forces at the end of 2014, having lost twenty-one hundred service members. Since then, fewer than a hundred have been killed. Shamsuddin, however, is one of at least forty-five thousand Afghan soldiers and police officers who have been killed in the past five years—a fatality rate comparable to America’s at the height of the Vietnam War.
The alarming losses for Afghan troops, and the steep reduction in American troops, have caused both countries to rely increasingly on their élite branches. A significant portion of the fourteen thousand US personnel currently deployed in Afghanistan are Special Forces. Many of them partner with the Afghan Army’s Commando Corps, which conducts a disproportionate share of the combat against ISIS and the Taliban.
This summer, I met Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national-security adviser, at his office in the Arg—a sprawling citadel in the heart of Kabul containing expansive gardens and the castle-like Presidential palace. “We are using our Special Forces to the maximum effect we can,” Mohib said. This also applies to what he called “hybrid units,” which are jointly supervised by the N.D.S. and the CIA
Despite the significant role that such units play in Afghanistan, little is known about them. We don’t know how many Afghans and Americans belong to them, how members are recruited, what their budget is, how their hierarchy functions, or if they are subject to oversight. We do know that they are organized regionally: Zero-One in central Afghanistan, Zero-Two in the east, Zero-Three in the south, and Zero-Four in the north.
When I asked an American defense official about the Zero units, he suggested that I contact the N.D.S. for more information. I told him that I had recently met with General Nazar Ali Wahedi, the N.D.S. chief for Nangarhar Province, who had said of Zero-Two, “They coördinate closely with the Americans. They do operations together.” The American official responded, “Whether or not there are Americans outside of the US military that are potentially with them, I just can’t tell you.”
It appears that the Zero units are composed primarily of Afghans but answer to the CIA Ahmed Ali, the chief of the Nangarhar provincial council, told me, “They’re N.D.S. in name only.” My interview with General Wahedi took place in his office, at the N.D.S. headquarters in Jalalabad. I asked if it was possible for me to meet a member of Zero-Two. Wahedi made a phone call and told the man who answered that a journalist wished to talk to him. “O.K.,” Wahedi said, and hung up. “They’re not allowed to see you,” he told me.
Every Afghan official I spoke with, including the governor of Nangarhar, said that Zero-Two had been instrumental in fighting ISIS and the Taliban. Wahedi claimed that two thousand insurgents had been killed in the province in the past year, the majority by Zero-Two. “They’re good at their jobs,” Ahmed Ali said. “They’re very well trained. They have the best weapons and equipment. The problem is, sometimes they go into people’s homes and just shoot everybody.”
Many Nangarharis have accused Zero-Two of atrocities, especially in areas where ISIS has made inroads. Last winter, a seventeen-year-old Afghan named Rabbani was inside his house, in Shirzad District, when he and his father, Khan Wali, heard helicopters in the sky. According to Rabbani, Khan Wali was a mason who raised goats and cows to feed his family. An explosion blew open the front gate of their compound. An Afghan using a megaphone ordered everyone to come outside. As Khan Wali and Rabbani emerged, Khan Wali was shot in the face.
Uniformed men, wearing helmets with night-vision devices, stormed the compound. Rabbani’s hands were bound behind his back. He was thrown to the ground and kicked repeatedly. His mother, who was inside at the time, told me, “I had my baby in my arms. I didn’t understand why they were killing us. I didn’t understand who they were.”
After the men left, Rabbani discovered that his eleven-year-old brother, Layakat, and his ten-year-old brother, Shaokat, were dead. Next door, three of Rabbani’s cousins, one of whom was thirteen, had also been killed. The family’s car and tractor were ablaze, and all their animals had been shot.
An Afghan government official who is in contact with Zero-Two told me that the unit had confirmed its role in the raid, and had attributed it to bad intelligence. A forthcoming Human Rights Watch report on CIA-sponsored units in Afghanistan investigated more than a dozen raids, in nine provinces, and found that victims were sometimes targeted for having given food to insurgents, or for living in areas with insurgent activity.
Patricia Gossman, the report’s author, told me that such clandestine operations were “causing appalling civilian casualties, but, because they happen largely in rural areas, they are off the radar.” When I asked the American defense official if the US tracked any of Zero-Two’s military operations, he said, “They’re not military operations.”
I met a number of other survivors of Zero-Two raids who described similar scenes. One of them was Hela, a ten-year-old girl, also from Shirzad District, who gripped her right thumb in her left fist and spoke breathlessly while staring wide-eyed into space. Hela said that, a week earlier, she and her father had been sleeping on the veranda of their house when aircraft woke them. “It sounded like a waterfall,” she said. “Like rushing water.” Their gate exploded. “My father told me not to cry. A light came on his face, and they shot him.” Hela said that her father, Saeed Wali Khan, had gathered timber from the mountains and sold it as firewood.
An elderly man named Lal Jan, from another village in Shirzad District, said that the gate to his family’s compound was blown open and everyone was ordered to come outside. Eight of his male relatives were immediately executed, as drones circled above. Their car and some motorcycles were set on fire. According to Lal Jan, three Americans were there. “I could see them,” he told me. “They were speaking English.”
One of the intruders bound Lal Jan’s hands behind his back. “I asked them why were they doing this to us—we were only farmers. The person standing over me said, ‘The informant fucked us.’ ” Lal Jan was hooded and brought to Jalalabad Airport, where Zero-Two is based. After being locked in a shipping container for three days, he was released. People from his village had petitioned the governor to intervene—no other men in the family remained to preside over the burial of its dead.
None of the victims I spoke to had received any form of redress. Because the CIA does not acknowledge any involvement with the Zero units, it is unknown whether such incidents have led to investigations, changes in protocol, or disciplinary action. The chances seem slim. In a 2017 speech, Mike Pompeo, then the agency’s director, declared that “the CIA, to be successful, must be aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless,” and added, “President Trump gets this.”
Last year, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested an investigation of possible war crimes by US forces in Afghanistan, including abuses by the CIA; the US State Department revoked the chief prosecutor’s visa and threatened the court with sanctions. Trump has pardoned an American soldier convicted of murdering an Iraqi detainee, and lobbied for the acquittal of a Navy seal accused of fatally stabbing a teen-age P.O.W. in Mosul.
Due process from the Afghan government appears equally unlikely. Last month, a Zero-Two raid killed four brothers in Nangarhar Province, provoking protests in Jalalabad. President Ghani vowed to “bring the perpetrators to justice.” So far, this has not happened.
In July, I visited the site of another Zero-Two raid in Nangarhar, in the town of Shahidan Mina. The place had a forsaken feel, with empty, dusty streets and half-built houses. In December, Zero-Two killed fourteen people there, in two compounds. An N.D.S. officer provided a statement to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission: “Zero-Two had a report that four suicide attackers were inside Mohammad Alam’s house. Zero-Two arrived at the house and, using a megaphone, announced that they had come to conduct a search. They were fired upon and, in order to defend themselves, returned fire.”
Alam’s son, Mohammad Azam, a middle-aged laborer whose beard was dyed orange with henna, met me at the house. Inside the main gate sat the carcass of an incinerated vehicle. Azam hadn’t been home at the time of the raid. He pointed out where he’d later found the corpses of his father, his three brothers, and his brother-in-law Orfan Allah—an Afghan Army soldier home on leave.
Azam’s mother, Mahbuba, had sustained a bullet wound, deforming her right foot. I later met Mahbuba, who said, “The neighbors took me to the hospital. The doctor said I needed to stay, but I left the same day so I could bury my husband and sons.” When I described the N.D.S. account of the raid, Mahbuba said, “I swear to God, the only weapons in our house were kitchen knives.”
Azam said that he and his family had been targeted only because they were originally from a part of Nangarhar that was now controlled by ISIS. One of his brothers still managed a small grocery store there, Azam admitted. “But we bought this house because we dreamed of living in a place where we could sleep peacefully,” he said.
Azam and Mahbuba now lived in a nearby compound that had also been raided that night. There, the oldest male survivor, Haroon, was twelve. He told me that he had been sleeping outside with his fourteen-year-old brother, Salman, and a cousin, Hedayat, who was also twelve. Moments after the gate blasted open, Salman and Hedayat were shot dead. Haroon ran inside, to his mother’s room. People entered the house and started firing.
A search was conducted. When the intruders left, Haroon discovered that all three of his uncles had been killed, including Zahid, a doctor, who had raised Haroon since his father’s death, some years earlier. In a nearby room, one of Haroon’s aunts, Laima, was covered in blood. Bullets had pierced her shoulder, the left side of her neck, and her lower jaw. She was weeping while clutching her nine-month-old daughter, Hafsa, to her chest. As Haroon approached them, he realized that Hafsa, too, had been killed. Someone on the raid had patched up Laima’s wounds and left behind supplies, so that she could change the dressings.
I had been escorted to the compound by district security forces. “These people came here to live in peace, and Zero-Two killed them,” one of the officers said. “There was no need for it.”
A few minutes later, when we were alone, the officer indicated that he had something else to add. “I was only saying that stuff in order to assure them I’m on their side,” he said.
Did this mean that he approved of the raid?
The officer gave a thumbs-up. “One hundred per cent.”
What about Orfan Allah? Wasn’t he in the Afghan Army?
“If he was, it was only so he could spy for ISIS.”
No one had specified what, exactly, Mohammad Alam and his sons had been guilty of. Were they would-be suicide bombers? Had ISIS fighters shopped at the brother’s store? Or had the family’s crime been something murkier, such as “sympathizing” with the group? The security officers did not seem overly concerned with these details.
ISIS has become such a singularly abhorrent spectre that any alleged association with it—“They are ISIS”—can be seen as sufficiently damning. Once applied, the label is also uniquely dehumanizing. It opens the door to extraordinary violence, such as Zero-Two raids or the Mother of All Bombs, distorting our normal standards of restraint and tolerance for collateral damage. In Iraq and Syria, American bombers razed entire cities in order to kill the ISIS fighters living in them.
Trump had referred to those blitzes when laying out his Afghanistan strategy: “As we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field, we are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS.”
rs razed entire cities in order to kill the ISIS fighters living in them. Trump had referred to those blitzes when laying out his Afghanistan strategy: “As we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field, we are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS.”
When I met with the governor of Achin District, he told me that the ninety-six people killed by the moab had included women and children. “But they belonged to ISIS,” he added. “No civilians were killed.”
Jamila Afghani, a promoter of gender equality. She recently confronted Taliban members about their killing of civilians.
In 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal assumed command of the war in Afghanistan, he said that “we run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties.” He championed a counter-insurgency doctrine that promoted winning the allegiance of the population by protecting it. This doctrine was always more aspirational than operational, but today even the pretense of protecting the population has been discarded. The increase in night raids by Afghan Special Forces and CIA-sponsored units has coincided with a spike in American air strikes, which have become less discriminate.
Last month, a US drone killed thirty pine-nut farmers in Nangarhar Province; a few days later, a US bombardment killed at least forty members of a wedding party. A series of air strikes in May caused seventy or more civilian casualties, many of whom were women and children. Currently, children make up nearly a third of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
ISIS might have provided a convenient justification for “overwhelming force” in 2017, but more recently the US military has offered another rationale: bringing the Taliban to the table and pressuring them into compromising. Yet the Taliban have always been willing to talk with the US It wasn’t the American escalation of violence that enabled the Doha talks; it was Trump’s decision to bypass the Afghan government. Similarly, some analysts questioned the assumption that increased strikes against the Taliban, which continued throughout the negotiations, would yield concessions from them.
According to Borhan Osman, a senior researcher at the International CrISIS Group, “For the Taliban, it is not a cost-benefit calculation. They have a rigorous zeal to not surrender. Their pride wouldn’t allow them even to acknowledge they are being pressured. They double down.” The strategic utility of the relentless US bombardment since the Doha talks collapsed—nearly a thousand “weapon releases” in September—is still more dubious, considering that Trump, not the Taliban, cut off discussions.
While US air strikes and paramilitary raids have made the war even more hellish and destructive for Afghans, they have also made it even more abstract for Americans. The rise in the number of Afghan dead and injured has corresponded with a decline in the number of US dead and injured.
This might explain why some people in Washington—including many of those who decried the Doha deal—argue for the status quo, envisaging a generation-long war of attrition in which ISIS and Al Qaeda are vigilantly kept in check and the Taliban, perhaps, eventually falter. It would be expensive but would cost relatively few American lives. If current trends continue, however, within a decade, hundreds of thousands more Afghans could die.
If indifference to civilian suffering underlies some arguments for perpetuating our military presence in Afghanistan, it also seems to animate some advocates of withdrawal. Trump has always expressed more interest in “extricating” the US from Afghanistan than in forestalling a cataclysm there. “As soon as we leave, it’s all going to blow up anyway,” he said, in 2012. This July, he told reporters, “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week.” He added, “Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth.”
I was in Kabul when Trump made this statement, and the next day I met with Nader Nadery, the chairman of Afghanistan’s Civil Service Commission and a former senior adviser to President Ghani. During the Taliban regime, Nadery was imprisoned and tortured for his activism as a student at Kabul University. He later studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
When I entered his office, Nadery invited me onto a balcony with a view of Darul Aman Palace, a colossal neoclassical structure that looked as if it had been teleported from the Latin Quarter of Paris. Darul Aman was erected to house the country’s parliament not long after Afghanistan became independent from Great Britain, in 1919. Coups, fires, and civil wars later reduced the building to a roofless shambles. Three years ago, the Ghani administration commissioned a renovation, and, in August, celebrations for Afghanistan’s centennial were held at the refurbished palace.
When the subject of Trump’s comments came up, Nadery seemed at a loss for words. “It hurts,” he said.
The prospect of a hasty US withdrawal is deeply worrying to Afghan officials. “We feel a strong urgency for peace,” Nadery told me. “But if we rush it the end result will be that it is very short-lived.” He cited the “decent interval” that Henry Kissinger wanted between the departure of US troops from Vietnam and the complete takeover of the country by the North Vietnamese.
A closer analogy might be Iraq. At the end of 2011, when President Obama withdrew American forces there, Iraq appeared more stable than Afghanistan does today. Within a few years, however, ISIS had taken over several major cities, and the Iraqi Army had disintegrated, prompting US troops to return.
During the Doha negotiations, Khalilzad had promised that “no agreement will be done if we don’t see a permanent ceasefire.” The Taliban agreed only to guarantee safe passage to departing American troops, insisting that any ceasefire with the Afghan government be negotiated after Doha. This meant that they would be free to continue attacking Afghan forces and civilians throughout the US withdrawal.
President Ghani’s spokesperson openly expressed satisfaction that the deal fell through. Members of the Ghani administration felt that the negotiations had galvanized Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and had elevated their leaders abroad. Hamdullah Mohib, the national-security adviser, told me, “Directly negotiating with the United States gave the Taliban a platform to also gain recognition from other countries across the region. That led to a boost of morale on the ground.”
An Afghan official who met the Taliban representatives in Doha said that they acted as if they had won the war. When it was reported that the Taliban would sign the accord as “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the news outraged many people in the government, whose official name is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. “That was hard to digest,” one official said. “It felt like all our sacrifices were for nothing.”
As legitimate as such concerns may be, Afghan opposition to the Doha framework might prove tragically myopic. Trump could choose to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan tomorrow, unilaterally and without conditions. He recently did this in northern Syria, abandoning the US’s Kurdish allies and leaving them vulnerable to slaughter by Turkey. Republicans joined Democrats in assailing that decision as an unconscionable betrayal. Standing firm, Trump tweeted, “The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”
The Taliban insist that, once the US commits to withdrawing from the country, they will work out their differences with their fellow-Afghans, in the interest of a lasting peace. Not unreasonably, some question their sincerity and the wisdom of taking their promises on faith. Yet Taliban leaders have already shown that they are willing and able to talk to their countrymen in a way that would have been unthinkable not so long ago.
This July, a German organization helped put together an unofficial two-day “dialogue” between the Taliban negotiators in Doha and forty-five Afghans from various sectors of society. Although President Ghani was not involved, three government officials, including Nader Nadery, participated in the event.
So did eleven women. One of them was Jamila Afghani, the forty-five-year-old founder of a nonprofit organization that advocates for gender equality. Afghani, who lives in Kabul, grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan and had never met a Talib. On the delegation’s first evening in Doha, a dinner for both sides was held in the hotel where the conference would take place. “I had to push myself to leave my room,” Afghani told me. “I didn’t want to go.”
By the time she arrived, everyone was seated. There were seventeen Taliban. Passing their tables, Afghani, who had polio as an infant and uses a cane, said “Salaam” and kept walking. One of the men stood up and hurried after her. “If you need any assistance, I am at your service,” he told Afghani.
“I was shocked,” she remembered. “It was not what I was expecting.”
The next day, in a large hall, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, read a statement. A veteran of the war against the Soviets, Stanikzai called for the defeat of the infidels and condemned the Ghani administration as a puppet of the West. Nader Nadery spoke next. He recounted being tortured by the Taliban, and told Stanikzai and his colleagues, “I am willing to forgive you for what you have done to me and the rest of society. But that forgiveness must have meaning. You must join us.”
Fawzia Koofi, a former parliamentarian who, in 2009, drafted legislation that criminalized violence against women.
During the speeches, Afghani checked her phone. There had been an attack in the capital of Ghazni Province, in central Afghanistan, where her family lives. The Taliban had detonated a car bomb that had damaged an elementary school attended by two of her cousin’s children. Both boys had been wounded by shrapnel. “Psychologically, I was under pressure,” Afghani said. When it was her turn to speak, she set aside the speech she had prepared and talked about the boys.
Seven-year-old Ahmad and eight-year-old Shah Agha were born in a rural part of Ghazni Province. Their father, Noor Agha, was a farmer. After night raids intensified in their village, Noor Agha decided to move his family to the city. This required abandoning his land and his livelihood, which plunged them into poverty. Noor Agha arranged for his fifteen-year-old sister to be married, to obtain a bride price. Ahmad and Shah Agha made the wedding invitations and accompanied Noor Agha when he delivered their work to the groom’s family, who lived in another neighborhood.
According to Afghani, police officers in the area, identifying a strange vehicle, opened fire without warning. Noor Agha was killed and Ahmad sustained a glancing wound on his face. When Noor Agha’s father heard the news, he had a heart attack and died. “The money from the marriage was spent on funerals and medical bills,” Afghani said. Ahmad and Shah Agha moved in with their grandmother, and Afghani paid to send them to a private school—the one just bombed by the Taliban.
Afghani was in tears when she finished telling the story. “Why are you killing us?” she demanded. To her surprise, several of the Taliban negotiators were also crying. Stanikzai, the chief negotiator, wiped his eyes with the tail of his turban. “I couldn’t stay there any longer,” Afghani said. “I went to the bathroom and I emptied my heart.”
Only two Talibs spoke that day, but the next morning the group provided detailed responses to the grievances the government delegates had shared. Several delegates told me that they were impressed by how organized the Taliban were. “They have become evolved political operators,” one delegate said.
Throughout their negotiations with the US, the Taliban have presented themselves as a different organization from the one that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when they enforced a Draconian form of Sharia law that incorporated flogging and public executions. Many observers believe that the Taliban’s evolution is more than merely cosmetic. Borhan Osman, the Crisis Group researcher and a native of Ghazni Province, said that the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan obliged the Taliban to moderate some of their positions. “They wanted to strike a clear contrast with them,” Osman said.
Some of these changes predate ISIS. In 2006, the Taliban code of conduct banned all N.G.O.s and sanctioned the burning of government schools. By 2013, an address attributed to Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban, declared that “modern education is a fundamental need of every society” and welcomed the “selfless activities” of international humanitarian organizations. Today, the Taliban coördinate with N.G.O.s to improve health care and medical facilities in areas that they control.
Many Taliban-administered districts have functioning government schools. Quality and accessibility vary, especially for girls, but a report by the Overseas Development Institute found that, from a sample of twenty districts, “the majority of interviewees felt that the Taliban had improved the running of the government education system,” and noted, “Teachers turned up to work, children attended class, books and supplies did not go missing, and there was more order in the classroom.”
Ashley Jackson, the author of the report, said, “There was a shift, around 2014, when the Taliban began to take and hold territory, and they realized that they needed to out-govern the government.” Both Jackson and Osman describe the Taliban’s overarching objective as “winning hearts and minds.” That phrase recalls the counter-insurgency doctrine once promoted by Stanley McChrystal.
An urgent question looming over any potential political settlement with the Taliban is their attitude toward women, and to what extent it has changed. When the Taliban were in power, women were largely forbidden to work, to study, or to speak in public. They could leave the house only when wearing a burqa, escorted by a male relative. In a statement in February, however, the Taliban affirmed that the rights vouchsafed to women by Islam included business ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one’s husband, security, health, and “a good life.”
One of the delegates in Doha was Fawzia Koofi, a former parliamentarian who, in 2009, drafted legislation that criminalized violence against women. Koofi is from Badakhshan Province, in the north, where her husband was arrested during the Taliban regime. When Koofi visited the jail to petition for her husband’s release, a Taliban commander spotted polish on her nails and threatened to stone her. (Her husband later died, from tuberculosis contracted in jail.)
In Doha, Koofi sat on a committee that produced a joint public statement with the Taliban negotiators. The discussions lasted fourteen hours. When Koofi proposed a sentence recognizing women’s “social, political, economic, and education rights, in accordance with Islamic values and international human rights principles and treaties,” the Taliban successfully demanded the removal of everything after “Islamic values.”
Koofi told me, “We exchanged some words that were not very nice. Honestly, my mind was about to explode. I wanted to walk out.” She recalled that she told the Taliban, “You have not changed, don’t pretend,” and that another woman said, “We remember how you were whipping women on the streets.”
A market in Jalalabad, where crime is rising
Koofi suspects the Taliban of disingenuously placating American anxieties about betraying Afghan women, and worries that the appeasement act will come to an unceremonious end if the US disengages from Afghanistan. She said that any weakening of women’s rights, no matter how minor, would be unacceptable, because the situation for Afghan women is already so dire: “Even under this government, women have no opportunity and are subject to systematic discrimination and violence. Now, in addition, they want to oppress us more?”
Nevertheless, Koofi said, it felt momentous to be able to criticize the Taliban face to face in Doha. That alone indicated that something had changed. At one point, she asked the Taliban committee members about their position on the burqa. It wasn’t necessary, they said—the hijab was suitable. When the conference ended, the Taliban gave gifts to the delegates from Kabul: cologne, prayer beads, a prayer mat, and, for the women, hijabs.
The democratic experiment in Afghanistan, which began in 2004, when Hamid Karzai was elected President, has demoralized many citizens, who have watched brutal strongmen be rewarded with cabinet postings, age-old patronage networks mobilized on behalf of party politics, and elected officials enrich themselves through cronyism and corruption. Fraud has profoundly contaminated every political race. When Ghani was elected, in 2014, the vote was so unreliable that the US had to invent a new position—chief executive—for his rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
This past September 28th, Ghani faced Abdullah and more than a dozen other opposition candidates for a second five-year term. Only a quarter of registered voters went to the polls—a record low. In a triumphant press release, the Taliban, who killed or wounded two hundred and sixty-three civilians that day, declared that the “foreign-imposed process was rejected and spurned by the masses.”
Although preliminary election results have yet to be announced, Ghani and Abdullah have—again—both claimed victory. If neither candidate receives more than fifty per cent of the vote, there will be a runoff. Because of harsh winter conditions in much of Afghanistan, a second round might have to be delayed until the spring. During the interim, any progress toward peace seems doubtful.
Ghani is expected to win in the end. A former World Bank researcher with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, he began his career as an anticorruption crusader, but has since developed an aptitude for political survival.
To secure Afghanistan’s ethnic-Uzbek vote in 2014, he chose for his running mate Rashid Dostum, a warlord accused of murdering his wife, crushing people with tanks, and asphyxiating thousands of Taliban prisoners in metal shipping containers. (Dostum wasn’t on the ticket this time, in part because of allegations that he had abducted a political rival and ordered guards to sexually assault him with Kalashnikovs. During the recent campaign, Dostum threw his support behind Abdullah Abdullah, who has lauded his “authentic style.”)
Ghani has promised to make peace negotiations with the Taliban a priority of his second term. But some Western officials who have worked with him in the past doubt that he would agree to any deal with the Taliban that might diminish or abbreviate his authority. In Kabul, Ghani’s former chief of protocol, Hamed Akram, told me, “Ghani will sabotage the peace process to remain President.” Fawzia Koofi said of Ghani, “Will he be willing to share power with the Taliban? To step down and agree on a political arrangement? No.”
A political settlement with the Taliban would require tremendous compromise from everyone involved. Laurel Miller, of the International CrISIS Group, said, “It will have to be more of a merger than an acquisition.” Ghani appears to have in mind a framework that would permit the Taliban to participate in elections and hold political office while leaving the current constitution and state structure basically intact.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have given no indication that they would accept anything less than the return of their previous Sharia-based system, in a less extreme form. As of now, in other words, both sides want an acquisition. “And that is why it’s going to take a long time,” Miller said.
As divided as Afghanistan can seem, the line between enemies is seldom indelible. Afghan society is a complex web of relationships and bonds that often transcend ideologies, which are themselves mutable. Many Afghan bureaucrats and military officers used to be ardent communists. Members of the same family can belong to the government and to the insurgency, while remaining loyal to one another. The shrinking of a foreign presence has further blurred these lines, making them easier to cross.
The last time I saw Zubair, the Taliban fighter who defected during the Eid ceasefire, he told me that he had recently attempted to return to his home village, in the Korengal Valley, in Kunar Province, north of Nangarhar. He had not been able to do so: the valley, where Zubair and his comrades had defeated the US military, was now occupied by ISIS. Despite ISIS’s advances in Kunar, though, some militants there had been abandoning the group.
This summer, I visited a police headquarters in Kunar’s capital, Asadabad, where thirteen ISISmilitants, all locals, had surrendered to the government, in exchange for immunity. When I arrived, their weapons—Kalashnikovs, Dragunovs, mortar tubes, and rocket launchers—were displayed on a table outside. A brief ceremony was conducted. The police commander, Lieutenant Colonel Shafiqullah Sahaar, held a Quran, which each militant kissed before disavowing ISIS. The governor of the province then placed colorful garlands around their necks and traditional pakol hats on their heads.
After the ceremony, Sahaar invited the ISIS commander, Abdul Qayum, to eat lunch with him and his lieutenants. Sahaar, a muscular, clean-shaven former Special Forces officer, sat as far away as he could from Qayum, who nervously picked at his food. Later, Sahaar said, “I didn’t want to look at his face. I don’t know how many of our men he’s killed. If it were up to me, I’d hang him.”
Qayum was a slim man in his mid-thirties with shaggy black hair, a bleary gaze, and thin eyebrows permanently tented in lackadaisical amusement. When he was a boy, his father was killed by Russian soldiers, and his mother’s leg was mangled in a Russian air strike. She and Qayum moved to a refugee camp in Pakistan, where, for eleven years, Qayum studied at a madrassa, becoming a mullah. They stayed away from Afghanistan while the Taliban were in power.
After the US invasion, Qayum and his mother returned to their village, in a remote corner of Kunar, where Qayum became the imam at a mosque. When the newly formed Afghan government offered to finance a primary school in the village, Qayum was named headmaster. It took him three days to transport chalkboards, textbooks, and other supplies from Asadabad. Classes were held on carpets under trees. More than a hundred boys and girls attended. “The people were happy,” Qayum said.
In 2003, the Taliban began reëmerging in Kunar. They closed Qayum’s school, burned the books, and killed a teacher. Qayum fled. Word was conveyed to him that, if he joined the Taliban, he could return. “I was the only person taking care of my mother,” he said. “So I came back.”
Despite his initial reluctance, he quickly embraced his new identity. During the Presidential elections of 2004, he fired from a ridgeline on Afghans at a polling station in his home district. He remained with the Taliban for about a decade, sometimes fighting US and Afghan forces, other times collecting taxes and acting as a Sharia judge.
If Qayum saw a contradiction between this life and his previous one, he didn’t acknowledge it to me. Whenever I pressed him on the subject, he replied, “We were doing jihad.” In Kunar, as in many other parts of Afghanistan, the government had become synonymous with the American military, which had become synonymous with foreign occupation.
In 2014, when ISIS appeared in eastern Afghanistan and began accusing the Taliban of serving the interests of Pakistan, Qayum found himself agreeing. He knew that Pakistan gave the Taliban financial support, and in refugee camps across the border he’d seen Pakistani agents pushing young people to join the Taliban. Qayum had even accompanied his superiors to a meeting with Nasrullah Barbar, a former interior minister of Pakistan, who is widely considered an architect of Pakistan’s alliance with the Taliban. Qayum asked himself, “If we’re taking orders from another country, can we call this jihad?”
On Facebook, he began watching ISIS videos from Iraq and Syria. The leader of ISIS in Afghanistan, Hafiz Saeed Khan, had attended the same madrassa as Qayum. In 2016, Qayum, who now had a wife and four children, joined Hafiz in the Mamand Valley. He was placed in charge of thirty-five men, whom he led in combat against the Taliban. After eight months, Hafiz asked Qayum to leave the front lines, return home, and recruit more Afghans from Kunar Province. Qayum began preaching at mosques about the coming caliphate.
It was apparent why Qayum had excelled as an imam, a teacher, a commander, and a recruiter. He liked an audience, and held forth with aplomb and a disarming sense of humor. He could also read a room: he seemed to relish playing whatever role circumstances demanded of him. Hours after quitting ISIS, he was disparaging the group he had persuaded others to join. “When I saw they were finished in Syria, I knew ISIS was false,” he said. “The Prophet didn’t say there will be a caliphate that is defeated.”
An interest in self-preservation might have spurred this epiphany. US air strikes had killed Hafiz Saeed Khan, his successor, and that successor’s successor. The Taliban had looted Qayum’s house and forced his family to flee. He had nowhere to turn.
The deputy police commander for Kunar, Mohammad Yousef, came from the same district as Qayum, and, for years, the two of them had fought against each other. According to both men, the experience had created a certain bond of trust between them. Yousef, whom I met at the station, told me, “He said that he would surrender, on one condition—if I guaranteed his safety. I gave my word.”
I returned to Asadabad a few weeks later. The former ISIS militants were living in a safe house guarded by an Afghan counterterrorism unit. They were free to leave, but they felt that their lives would be imperilled if they did. I was impressed by how reverentially Qayum’s men, all of whom he had recruited to ISIS, still deferred to him, despite the predicament he had led them into. No doubt they respected his stature as a mullah, but I also wondered if they recognized the value, in such uncertain times, of his ideological versatility.
Mohammad Yousef had told me that, when he and Qayum were enemies, Qayum had written songs about wanting to kill him. I asked Qayum if this was true. He said he didn’t remember, but quickly added that he’d written a song about Yousef just the other day. Reaching into his pocket, he unfolded a piece of paper with lyrics in blue ink and sang, “You are strong for the people, strong like Russian steel / May your operations succeed, may you win more territory / Your enemies fear you, they do not sleep because of you.”
Qayum’s recruits, many of whom had lost family members to Afghan and US forces, listened attentively. Abdul Salam, a slight man with large hazel eyes, told me that, in 2002, a US bombing raid had killed his father, in Jalalabad. Salam joined the Taliban when he was twelve, along with his older brother, Kashmir. “I wanted revenge,” Salam said. In 2009, a US air strike riddled his legs with shrapnel and killed Kashmir.
One of the counterterrorism police officers guarding the house, Mohammad Aziz, was from Salam’s village, in Kunar. As I spoke with Salam, Aziz came over and sat next to him on his cot. They were about the same age. Putting his hand on Salam’s knee, Aziz said, “My cousin was killed by the Taliban. I’m not going to let you live.”
“We’ve been sharing war stories,” Aziz explained.
“We’re friends,” Salam added.
At one point, I asked Qayum how he would summarize the crucial difference between ISIS and the Taliban. He said, “ISIS never compromises. The Taliban compromises.” Although Taliban leaders shun the Afghan government, their field commanders sometimes find common cause with it.
The governor of Kunar, Abdul Mirzakwal, told me that he is in regular contact with the Taliban’s shadow governor, who, among other things, helps monitor the safety of government-salaried teachers and health workers in Taliban-held areas. Mirzakwal said that a medical clinic in Kunar had recently been looted by Taliban fighters. “I called the Taliban governor at ten in the morning and asked him why they did this,” he said. “By four, the clinic manager informed me that all the equipment had been returned.”
I asked Mirzakwal if ISIS had brought the Taliban and the government closer. “The Taliban is an Afghan phenomenon,” Mirzakwal said. “We have common values. ISIS is not Afghan.” While reporting in eastern Afghanistan, I saw several cemeteries with both Afghan and Taliban flags adorning the graves of soldiers and insurgents. ISIS fighters are buried without markers, and only in land belonging to the caliphate.
Even peace will not solve many of the problems that plague Afghanistan, and it could create new ones. The economy depends on foreign aid; donor countries directly financed about half of this year’s national budget, and much of Afghanistan’s G.D.P. is generated by Western militaries, companies, and organizations. As the number of US troops in the country has gone down, poverty, unemployment, and crime have gone up. While I was in Jalalabad, doctors threatened to strike, because so many of them are being kidnapped and extorted. “It’s not only doctors,” the head of their association told me. “It’s all businessmen, anyone with money.”
At Nangarhar’s provincial hospital, I saw a patient—a dentist—who’d been shot in the head for having failed to pay a ransom. At Emergency Surgical Center, a hospital in Kabul dedicated to battlefield injuries, surgeons are increasingly treating stab wounds instead of bullet and blast wounds. According to Fabrizio Foschini, a researcher who has been studying criminality in Kabul, a “mafia culture” has taken hold, and “all major enterprise is threatened by violence, intimidation, and extortion.”
In the event of peace, a lot of professional fighters might find themselves out of work. Nearly three hundred thousand Afghans serve in the security forces, which cost the US approximately five billion dollars a year. If American troops leave Afghanistan, and if the government and the Taliban are no longer at war, how much longer will Congress and the President continue to approve these funds? Tens of thousands of Taliban militants would also need to be reintegrated into Afghan society, as would at least thirty thousand irregular-militia members armed and funded by US Special Forces. An end to the conflict might cause Pakistan and Iran to forcibly repatriate millions of refugees.
There are already two and a half million internally displaced people in Afghanistan, many of them living in destitute conditions on the fringes of provincial capitals. (Kabul’s population has more than tripled since 2001, and now exceeds five million.) Outside Jalalabad, I visited a neighborhood called Behsud, where thousands of families were squatting in abandoned compounds after fleeing violence and poverty in their home districts.
In a part of Behsud known as Burned Tank—where a destroyed Soviet tank sat on the roadside, its cannon supporting the canopy of a makeshift watermelon stand—people had recently arrived from Kunar Province, after a Zero-Two raid there. Several local officials told me that ISIS has been recruiting in Behsud. Ahmed Ali, the provincial-council chief, believes that the Afghans living in Behsud, and in similar settlements, are primed for radicalization. “They’ve lost everything,” he said. “And they have no support. The government is not helping them.”
Children were everywhere in Behsud, roaming the streets, swimming in irrigation ditches, and playing cricket in dirt lots with wickets made from cinder blocks. Rabbani, the seventeen-year-old from Shirzad District, whose father, two younger brothers, and three cousins had been killed by Zero-Two, now lives in Behsud.
The compound where he was staying was at the end of a rutted lane bordered by wheat fields and rice paddies. He shared the house, an unfurnished concrete shell without windows or doors, with more than a dozen relatives: siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews. All had been orphaned by the raid. “I’m the breadwinner now,” Rabbani told me. He had been loading stones onto trucks for construction projects, earning just under three dollars a day.
In Afghanistan, the future is as uncertain as it has ever been. Jamila Afghani, the delegate who went to Doha, told me, “We don’t know what is coming.” After she made several Taliban negotiators weep, they agreed to include, in the joint public statement, a commitment to reducing civilian casualties to zero. The gesture was understood to be symbolic—and the Taliban’s recent attacks have proved its hollowness—but when Afghani returned to Kabul she noticed that she felt different.
Normally, when she left the house, she was accompanied by an almost physical tension, an awareness that at any moment something terrible might happen: gunfire, an explosion. As she walked down the street, shopped in the market, or commuted to work, this awareness might briefly subside, but it never went away. The morning after she came back from Doha, it was gone. For the first time in a while, Afghani moved through her day as if she lived in a world where sudden, devastating violence was not a constant menace.
Then the day ended and the next one began.
Luke Mogelson has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2013. He is the author of “These Heroic, Happy Dead.” In 2017, he wrote for the magazine about Kurdish efforts against ISIS in Syria. This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center. Published in the print edition of the October 28, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Afghan Way of Death.”
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