The highway that leads south out of Kabul, the capital of
Afghanistan, passes through a craggy range of arid, sand-colored mountains with
sharp, stony peaks. Poplar trees and green fields line the road. Nomadic Kuchi
women draped in colorful scarves tend to camels as small boys herd sheep. The
hillsides are dotted with cemeteries: rough-hewn tombstones tilting at
haphazard angles, multicolored flags flying above them. There is nothing to
indicate that the terrain we are about to enter is one of the world's deadliest
war zones. On the outskirts of the capital we are stopped at a routine
checkpoint manned by the Afghan National Army. The wary soldiers single me out,
suspicious of my foreign accent. My companions, two Afghan men named Shafiq and
Ibrahim, convince the soldiers that I am only a journalist. Ibrahim, a thin man
with a wispy beard tapered beneath his chin, comes across like an Afghan
version of Bob Marley, easygoing and quick to smile. He jokes with the soldiers
in Dari, the Farsi dialect spoken throughout Afghanistan, assuring them that
everything is OK.
As we drive away, Ibrahim laughs. The soldiers, he explains,
thought I was a suicide bomber. Ibrahim did not bother to tell them that he and
Shafiq are midlevel Taliban commanders, escorting me deep into Ghazni, a
province largely controlled by the spreading insurgency that now dominates much
of the country.
Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan,
was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, located 100 miles south
of the capital, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture to Ghazni
often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the
Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the
Taliban regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Farmers increasingly turn
to the Taliban, not the American-backed authorities, for adjudication of land
By the time we reach the town of Salar,
only 50 miles south of Kabul,
we have already passed five tractor-trailers from military convoys that have
been destroyed by the Taliban. The highway, newly rebuilt courtesy of $250
million, most of it from U.S.
taxpayers, is pocked by immense craters, most of them caused by roadside bombs
planted by Taliban fighters. As in Iraq, these improvised explosive
devices are a key to the battle against the American invaders and their allies
in the Afghan security forces, part of a haphazard but lethal campaign against
coalition troops and the long, snaking convoys that provide logistical support.
We drive by a tractor-trailer still smoldering from an
attack the day before, and the charred, skeletal remains of a truck from an
attack a month earlier. At a gas station, a crowd of Afghans has gathered.
Smoke rises from the road several hundred yards ahead.
"Jang," says Ibrahim, who is sitting in the front
passenger seat next to Shafiq. "War. The Americans are fighting the
Shafiq and Ibrahim use their cellphones to call their friends in the Taliban,
hoping to find out what is going on. Suddenly, the chatter of machine-gun fire
erupts, followed by the thud of mortar fire and several loud explosions that
shake the car. I flinch and duck in the back seat, cursing as Shafiq and
Ibrahim laugh at me.
"Tawakkal al Allah," Shafiq lectures me.
"Depend on God."
This highway -- the only one in all Afghanistan -- was
touted as a showpiece by the Bush administration after it was rebuilt. It
provides the only viable route between the two main American bases, Bagram to
the north and Kandahar to the south. Now coalition forces travel along it at
their own risk. In June, the Taliban attacked a supply convoy of 54 trucks
passing through Salar, destroying 51 of them and seizing three escort vehicles.
In early September, not far from here, another convoy was attacked and 29
trucks were destroyed. On August 13th, a few days before I pass through Salar,
the Taliban staged an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the U.S.-backed
governor of Ghazni, wounding two of his guards.
As we wait at the gas station, Shafiq and Ibrahim display
none of the noisy indignation that Americans would exhibit over a comparable
traffic jam. To them, a military battle is a routine inconvenience, part of
life on the road. Taking advantage of the break, they buy a syrupy, Taiwanese
version of Red Bull called Energy at a small shop next door. At one point, two
green armored personnel carriers from NATO zip by, racing toward Kabul. Shafiq
and Ibrahim laugh: It looks like the coalition forces are fleeing the battle.
"Bulgarians," Shafiq says, shaking his head in
After an hour, the fighting ends, and we get back in the
car. A few minutes later, we pass the broken remains of a British supply
convoy. Dozens of trucks -- some smoldering, others still ablaze -- line the
side of the road, which is strewn with huge chunks of blasted asphalt. The
trucks carried drinks for the Americans, Ibrahim tells me as we drive past.
Hundreds of plastic water bottles with white labels spill out of the trucks,
littering the highway.
Farther down the road, American armored vehicles block our
path. Smoke pours from the road behind them. Warned by other drivers that the
Americans are shooting at approaching cars, Shafiq slowly maneuvers to the
front of the line and stops. When the Americans finally move, we all follow
cautiously, like a nervous herd. We drive by yet more burning trucks. Ibrahim
points to three destroyed vehicles, the remains of an attack four days earlier.
A few miles later, at a lonely desert checkpoint manned by
the Afghan army, several soldiers with AK-47s make small talk with Shafiq and
Ibrahim, asking them about the battle before waving us through. As night falls,
we pass a police station. We have reached Ghazni province.
Shafiq laughs. "The Russians were stronger than the
Americans," he says. "More fierce. We will put the Americans in their
It has been seven years since the United States invaded
Afghanistan in the wake of September 11th. The military victory over the
Taliban was swift, and the Bush administration soon turned its attention to
rebuilding schools and roads and setting up a new government under President
Hamid Karzai. By May 2003, only 18 months after the beginning of the war, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all but declared victory in Afghanistan.
"We are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to
a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction," Rumsfeld
announced during a visit to Kabul. The security situation in Afghanistan, in
his view, was better than it had been for 25 years.
But even as Rumsfeld spoke, the Taliban beginning their
reconquest of Afghanistan. The Pentagon, already focused on invading Iraq,
assumed that the Afghan militias it had bought with American money would be
enough to secure the country. Instead, the militias proved far more interested
in extorting bribes and seizing land than pursuing the hardened Taliban
veterans who had taken refuge across the border in Pakistan. The parliamentary
elections in 2005 returned power to the warlords who had terrorized the before the Taliban imposed order. "The American intervention
issued a blank check to these guys," says a senior aid official in Kabul.
"They threw money, weapons, vehicles at them. But the warlords never
abandoned their bad habits -- they're abusing people and filling their pockets.
By contrast, aid for rebuilding schools and clinics has been
paltry. In the critical first two years after the invasion, international
assistance amounted to only $57 per citizen -- compared with $679 in Bosnia. As
U.S. contractors botched reconstruction jobs and fed corruption, little of the
money intended to rebuild Afghanistan reached those in need. Even , the
sudden infusion of international aid drove up real estate and food prices,
increasing poverty and fueling widespread resentment.
The government of Pakistan, seeking to retain influence over
what it views as its back yard, began helping the Taliban regroup. With the
Bush administration focused on the war in Iraq, money poured into Afghanistan
from Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists, who were eager to maintain a second
front against the American invaders. The Taliban -- once an isolated and
impoverished group of religious students who knew little about the rest of the
world and cared only about liberating their country from oppressive warlords --
are now among the best-armed and most experienced insurgents in the world,
linked to a global movement of jihadists that stretches from Pakistan and Iraq
to Chechnya and the Philippines.
The numbers tell the story. Attacks on coalition and Afghan
forces are up 44 percent since last year, the highest level since the war
began. By October, 135 American troops had been killed in Afghanistan this year
-- already surpassing the total of 117 fatalities for all of 2007. The Taliban
are also intensifying their attacks on aid workers: In a particularly brazen
assault in August, a group of Taliban fighters opened fire on the car of a U.S.
aid group, the International Rescue Committee, killing three Western women and
their Afghan driver on the main road to Kabul.
The Bush administration, belatedly aware that it was losing
Afghanistan, responded to the violence as it did in Iraq: by calling for more
troops. Speaking at the National Defense University on September 9th, the
president announced a "quiet surge" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, saying
additional forces are necessary to stabilize "Afghanistan's young
democracy." But the very next day, testifying before the House Armed
Services Committee, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
offered a sharply different assessment. His prepared testimony, approved by the
secretary of defense and the White House, read, "I am convinced we can win
the war in Afghanistan." But when Mullen sat down before Congress, he
deviated from his prepared statement. "I am not convinced we are winning
it in Afghanistan," he testified bluntly.
In early October, the president's plan for a surge was once
again contradicted by his top advisers. American intelligence agencies drafting
a classified report on the war warned that Afghanistan is in a "downward
spiral" fueled by worsening violence and rampant corruption. Defense
Secretary Robert Gates also admitted to Congress that the Pentagon is stretched
so thin in Iraq, it will be unable to meet even a modest request for 10,000
more troops in Afghanistan until next spring at the earliest.
But those closest to the chaos in Afghanistan say that
throwing more soldiers into combat won't help. "More troops are not the
answer," a senior United Nations official in Kabul tells me. "You
will not make more babies by having many guys screw the same woman."
It is a point echoed in dozens of off-the-record interviews
I conducted in Kabul with leading Western diplomats, security experts, former
mujahedeen and Taliban commanders, and senior officials with the U.N. and
prominent aid organizations. All agree that the situation is, in the words of
one official, "incredibly bleak." Using suicide bombers and other
tactics imported from Iraq, the Taliban have cut Kabul off from the rest of the
country and established themselves as the only law in many rural villages.
"People don't want the Taliban back, but they're afraid to back the
government," says one top diplomat. "They know the Taliban will ride
into the village and behead anybody who has made a deal with the
According to the diplomat, military solutions are simply no
longer viable. "The analysis of our intelligence people is that things are
getting worse," he says. "CIA analysts are extremely gloomy and
worried. You have an extremely weak president in Afghanistan, a corrupt and
ineffective ministry of the interior, an army with no command or control, and a
dysfunctional international alliance."
As one top official with a Western aid organization put it,
"We're simply not up to the task of success in Afghanistan. I'm
increasingly unsure about a way forward -- except that we should start
preparing our exit strategy."
To travel with the Taliban and see firsthand how they
operate, I contacted a well-connected Afghan friend in Kabul and asked him to
make the introductions. He knew many groups of fighters in Afghanistan, but
said he would only trust my security if those I accompanied knew that they and
their families would be killed if anything happened to me. Through a respected
dignitary, I was connected with Mullah Ibrahim, who commands 500 men in the Dih
Yak district of Ghazni. We met at my friend's office in Kabul on a hot, sunny
afternoon. Midlevel Taliban leaders like Ibrahim move freely about the capital,
like any other Afghan: U.S. forces lack the intelligence and manpower to
identify enemy commanders, let alone apprehend them. (To protect Ibrahim's
identity, I agreed to change his name.)
Now in his 40s, Ibrahim has been fighting with the Taliban
since the 1990s. He walks with a pronounced limp: He lost his right leg below
the knee in the country's civil war, and he had undergone surgery only the week
before to repair nerve damage he suffered in a recent firefight. At first he
told me his wounds were from an American bullet, but I later learned he had
been injured in a clash with a rival Taliban commander.
After our meeting, Ibrahim promised to contact the Taliban
minister of defense and request approval for my trip. As I waited for word, I
went to a market in Kabul and bought several sets of salwar kameez, the
traditional tunic and baggy pants worn by Afghan men. I had grown my beard longer
to pass as an Afghan, and before leaving New York I had supplemented my Arabic
and basic Farsi with a week of Berlitz classes in Pashtu, the language spoken
by the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban. Pashtu is not exactly in high
demand, and the book Berlitz gave me was clearly designed for military
purposes. It contained a list of military ranks, including "General of the
Air Force," and offered a helpful list of weapons, including "land
mines" and "bullets." It also provided the Pashtu translation
for a host of important phrases: Show me your ID card. Let the vehicle pass.
You are a prisoner. Hands up. Surrender. If I wanted to arrest an Afghan, I was
now prepared. The book did not include the phrase I needed most: Ze talibano
milmayam. "I am a guest of the Taliban."
On a Saturday afternoon, Ibrahim picks me up in a white
Toyota Corolla, its dashboard covered in fake gray fur. His friend Shafiq is
behind the wheel, wearing a cap embroidered with rhinestones. Afghan culture
places a premium on courtesy, and Shafiq comes across as unfailingly polite. At
one point, almost casually, he mentions that he has personally executed some
200 spies, usually by beheading them. "First I warn people to stop,"
he says, emphasizing his fair-mindedness. "If they continue, I kill
Shafiq, who fought the Soviets with the mujahedeen, now
commands Taliban fighters in the Andar district of Ghazni. "Andar is a
very bad place," an intelligence officer in Kabul tells me. "The
Taliban show a lot of confidence and freedom of movement there." While
coalition forces have focused on driving the insurgents from the south, they
failed to maintain a buffer in central regions like Ghazni, where the Taliban
now routinely pull people off buses and execute them. "They have that
level of control right on Kabul's front door," the officer adds.
"Environments regarded as extreme two years ago are much worse now. There
has been a staggering intensification."
As we head south, Shafiq tells me that fighters from Saudi
Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have come through the Andar district. Most are
suicide bombers, but some fight alongside the Taliban. He is impressed with
their skill, but like many Taliban, he doesn't care for their politics.
"Pakistan and Iran are not friends of Afghanistan," Shafiq says
dismissively. "They don't want peace in Afghanistan -- they want to take
Afghanistan." Despite their extremely conservative views on religion, most
Taliban are fundamentally nationalist and Afghan-centric. They accept the
support of Al Qaeda, but that doesn't mean they approve of its tactics.
"Suicide attacks are not good because they kill Muslims," Shafiq
In the darkness, we roll into the village of Nughi. We no
longer have cellphone reception; the Taliban shut down the phone towers after
sunset, when they stop for the night, to prevent U.S. surveillance from
pinpointing their position. It is the holiday of Shaab eh Barat, when Muslims
believe God determines a person's destiny for the coming year. Young boys from
the village gather to swing balls of fire attached to wires. Like orange stars,
hundreds of fiery circles glow far into the distance. The practice is haram --
one of many traditions banned by the Taliban, who consider it forbidden under
Islam. The fact that it is being tolerated is the first indication I have that
the Taliban are not as doctrinaire as they were during their seven years of
Shafiq maneuvers the car on the bumpy dirt road between mud
houses. After a few stops in the village we are led to a house where a group of
young Taliban fighters emerges. Several of them are carrying weapons. We greet
the traditional way, each man placing his right hand on the other's heart,
leaning in but not fully embracing, inquiring about the other's health and
family. Ibrahim, who had promised to protect me on the trip, decides to go
home, leaving Shafiq to guide me the rest of the way.
With the moon lighting our path, Shafiq and I follow the
Taliban on foot to another house, entering through a low door into a guest room
with a red carpet on the floor and wooden beams on the ceiling.
A dim bulb barely illuminates the room. A PKM belt-fed
machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher lean against a wall, next
to several rockets. We are joined by Mullah Yusuf, Ibrahim's nephew, who serves
as a senior commander in Andar.
Yusuf has dark reddish skin and a handsome face. He wears a
black turban with thin gold stripes and carries an AK-47. A boy brings a
pitcher and basin and we rinse our hands. We drink green tea and eat a soup of
mushy bread called shurwa with our hands, followed by meat and grapes.
Yusuf became a commander last year, when the Americans
killed his superior officer. He sleeps in a different house every night to
avoid detection. Only 30 years old, he has big ears and an almost elfin air;
the ringtone on his cellphone is a bells-and-cymbals version of The Sorcerer's
Apprentice theme. A year and a half ago, Yusuf was injured in his thigh by a
U.S. helicopter strike, and now walks with a limp. He joined the Taliban in
2003 after studying at a religious school in North Waziristan, the border
region of Pakistan where many Afghan refugees live. He seems less motivated by
religious ideals than by defending his homeland: He took up jihad, he tells me,
because foreigners have come to Afghanistan and are fighting Afghans and poor people.
"The Americans are not good," he says. "They
go into houses and put people in jail. Fifteen days ago the Americans bombed
here and killed a civilian."
The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has not been helped by its
rash of misguided bombings. This year, according to the United Nations, 1,445
Afghan civilians were killed by coalition forces through August -- two-thirds
of them in airstrikes. On July 6th, a bombing raid killed 47 members of a
wedding party -- including 39 women and children -- near the village of Kacu.
On August 22nd, more than 90 civilians -- again mostly women and children --
were killed in an airstrike in Azizabad.
Yusuf makes it clear that it is only the Americans he has a
problem with. Once the foreigners leave, he insists, the Taliban will negotiate
peace with the Afghan army and police: "They are brothers, Muslims."
What's more, he says, girls will be allowed to go to school, and women will be
allowed to work. It is a stance I will hear echoed by many Taliban leaders. In
recent years, recognizing that their harsher strictures had alienated the
population, the Taliban have grown more tolerant. To improve their operations,
they have even been forced to adopt technologies they once banned: computers,
television, films, the Internet.
After we finish eating, we walk to a mud shed. Shafiq opens
its wooden doors to reveal another white Toyota Corolla. The men load the RPG
launcher and four rockets into the car, along with the PKM machine gun. We
drive through the moonlit desert on dirt paths to the village of Kharkhasha,
where Shafiq lives. On the way, Shafiq pops in a cassette of Taliban chants.
They are in Pashtu and without instrumentation, which is forbidden by the
Arriving at Shafiq's house, we enter the guest room in
darkness and sit on thin mattresses. A small gas lamp is brought out, as well
as grapes and green tea. Shafiq says he fought the Soviets in the 1980s and
spent five years in jail. But following the Soviet withdrawal, as the
mujahedeen turned on one another, Shafiq felt they had become robbers. He
joined the Taliban in 1994, he says, because they wanted peace and Islam.
Shafiq has met Osama bin Laden twice -- once before the
Taliban took over, and once during the Taliban reign. He was impressed by bin
Laden's knowledge of Pashtu. He has also met Mullah Muhammed Omar, the one-eyed
cleric who calls himself the "commander of the faithful." Omar, who
served as leader of the Taliban government, is now in hiding across the border
in Pakistan, where he rebuilt the Taliban with the help and protection of Pakistani
intelligence. Shafiq hopes that Omar will return to lead the country, but other
Taliban leaders no longer view him as the only option. The shift is significant
-- a sign that the Taliban are not fighting merely to restore the hard-line
government they had before but are prepared to move forward with a greater
degree of flexibility and pragmatism than they have shown in the past.
The next morning, we get back into the Corolla, loading the
PKM, the RPG launcher and four rockets into the trunk. Shafiq and the machine
gun are in the front passenger seat. Yusuf drives, his AK-47 beside him.
Another Taliban fighter rides a Honda motorcycle alongside us, an AK-47
strapped to his shoulder. They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in
action: going out on patrols, conducting attacks, adjudicating disputes and
providing security against bandits and police. As we head deeper into the
province, the land becomes increasingly flat and arid. Everything is the color
of sand. Even the dilapidated mud homes, bleached almost white by the sun, look
like sand castles after the first wave has hit them.
Yusuf points to a police checkpoint. The police know him, he
says, but do nothing to stop him. "Every night I go on patrol, and they
don't fight me," he says. "They don't have guns, and they are
The police, in fact, often defect to the Taliban. Shafiq
recently bought two jeeps from the police, who later told the Interior Ministry
that the vehicles were destroyed in an attack. "The police are highly
corrupt," a senior U.N. official in Kabul tells me. "They are at the
center of the collapse of the Karzai government -- their corruption makes
people support the Taliban." The cops have even taken to robbing U.S.
contractors. "The police will raid foreign companies and just steal
everything -- iPods, money, weapons, radios," says an intelligence
officer. "People might hate the Taliban, but they hate the government just
as much. At least the Taliban have rules. This government, they're just
parasites fucking with you."
In the village of Khodzai, we visit a commander at a mosque
where eight men and two boys sit on the floor, drinking tea. When they aren't
attacking checkpoints or ambushing convoys, the Taliban spend most of their
time praying or listening to religious lectures. The men ambushed the Afghan
army two days earlier in a nearby village, killing 20 Afghan soldiers.
"The Americans do not come here," their commander says proudly.
"We control this area. The Taliban is the government here."
Outside, in a sunny courtyard, the men get ready to go on
patrol, checking their ammunition and slinging their AK-47s over their
shoulders. Suddenly, a coalition military helicopter swoops low overhead,
nearly coming to a hover above us. Throughout the war, the U.S. has compensated
for its lack of troops by relying on aerial shows of force: It's possible to go
for days in Ghazni without seeing a single coalition soldier. I clench my fists
in terror, waiting for the helicopter to fire at us, but the men ignore it and
laugh at me. One tells me he fired an RPG at a helicopter yesterday, and will
fire a rocket at this one if it attacks us. My fear may be comic, but it's not
misplaced: A month after I leave, an airstrike in Andar will kill seven
suspected Taliban fighters.
To my relief, the helicopter flies off. The men leave on
their motorcycles to patrol the countryside. As the Taliban have attempted to
counter the Americans by adopting the tactics of Iraqi insurgents, they have
become far more brutal than they were when they ruled Afghanistan. To sow
insecurity, they routinely enter villages and bypass traditional tribal
mechanisms, waging a harsh campaign of social terror.
"They're killing more and more tribal elders," one
intelligence officer tells me. "We can't expect communities to show
solidarity with the government when we can't provide for their security -- it's
As we leave the mosque, Shafiq tells me of the trials that
the Taliban frequently hold to prosecute collaborators. The suspects are given
a hearing by a qazi, or judge, who orders those convicted to be beheaded. As he
drives, Shafiq plays more Taliban songs about brave boys going to fight.
As the Taliban insurgency spreads, it has fallen victim to
the tribal rivalries and violent infighting that are endemic to Afghanistan,
which is home to hundreds of distinct tribal groups. "The leadership is
totally fragmented," a senior U.N. official says. "There is a lot of
criminality within the Taliban." With the targeting of civilians now
sanctioned by the Taliban, top commanders compete for prize catches, stopping
cars in broad daylight and checking the cellphones of foreigners to determine
if they are worthwhile captives. As we drive deeper into Ghazni, we are
entering territory where such factionalization is now as lethal as the rocket
launcher stuffed in the Corolla's trunk.
In the middle of a sandstorm, we head to a local shop,
pulling up with the PKM in plain view and the Taliban chants blaring from the
car's speakers. The people in the shop greet Yusuf warmly. He buys shoulder
straps for AK-47s. Then, as we're passing through a nearby village, we are
stopped by a bearded man on a motorcycle. An AK-47 is slung over his shoulder,
his face partially concealed by a scarf.
He demands to know who I am. Shafiq tells him I am a guest.
The man asks me if I am Pashtun. "Pukhtu Nayam," I say, drawing on my
Berlitz lessons. "I am not Pashtun." He glares at me and rides off.
Arriving at another mosque, we find a dozen men inside. A
large shoulder-fired missile is on the floor, an anti-armor weapon. Shafiq
tells me we are waiting to meet the commander who will approve my trip.
This is news to me. I thought my trip had already been
approved by the Taliban defense minister. Suddenly, as I am talking to one of
the fighters, the angry man on the motorcycle bursts in holding a
walkie-talkie. He barks at the fighter to stop talking to me until the men's
commander shows up. A judge, he says, will decide what will happen to me. Upon
hearing the Pashtu word qazi, I start to panic. As Shafiq made clear earlier, a
meeting with a judge could end with decapitation.
I am ordered to get into a car with the angry man and the
other strangers, who will take me to the judge. To my alarm, Shafiq says he
will join Yusuf, who is praying in the mosque, and catch up with us later. He
seems to be washing his hands of me.
I have been held by militias in both Iraq and Lebanon, but
in those situations I could speak the language and talk my way out of trouble.
Now I am in one of the most desolate places I have ever seen, far from any help
and unable to speak more than a few garbled words of Pashtu. Trying to contain
my mounting sense of helplessness, I tell Shafiq that I am not leaving him -- I
am his guest. Once I am out of his control, I will be at the mercy of men who
kill almost as routinely as they pray. Brandishing their rifles, the men shout
at me to get into their car.
Yusuf comes out and tells me to get into our Corolla. He
won't leave me, he says. He puts another man with an AK-47 in the car to guard
me. As I wait, a standoff ensues. Frantic, I send text messages to my contacts
back in Kabul to tell them I'm in trouble. In the tense silence, my guard's
cellphone abruptly goes off: The ringtone is machine-gun fire, accompanied by a
song about the Taliban being born for martyrdom.
My mouth goes dry from fear; I feel as though I have lost my
voice. My friend in Kabul who helped arrange the trip manages to get through to
Shafiq. He tells him he should not leave me, that I am Shafiq's responsibility
and he will hold him personally responsible if anything happens to me.
We sit in the car for more than an hour, windows up. The
sandstorm is still raging, and it's impossible to see more than a few yards.
Outside, men with guns flicker into view, only to vanish in the blinding haze.
Finally, Shafiq tells me I can get out. The angry man and his companions
depart, taking the rocket launcher with them. Thinking it is over, I put my
hand on my heart as they leave, to indicate no ill will. Then Shafiq tells me
there has been a change of plan. He has been ordered to escort me to visit a
rival commander -- a man called Dr. Khalil -- who will determine what will
happen to me.
I later learn that I have been caught in the midst of the
bitter and often violent infighting that divides the Taliban. Ibrahim's recent
injury, it turns out, was the result of a clash between his forces and a group
of foreign fighters under the command of Dr. Khalil. The foreigners wanted to
close down a girls' school, sparking a battle. Two Arabs and 11 Pakistanis
commanded by Dr. Khalil had been killed by Ibrahim's men.
As we leave to meet Dr. Khalil, the car jolts forward in the
sandstorm, rocking back and forth on the stony path. I feel as though I am in a
boat being tossed about by waves. Yusuf tells me not to worry -- if Dr. Khalil
tries to take me, he will fight them. It is the only reassurance I have.
Throughout all our time in Ghazni, we have seen no authority other than the
Taliban. Even if American helicopters were to appear suddenly, that would
hardly be a relief -- it would only be to target us in an airstrike.
I struggle to find a signal for my phone, cursing as the
bars appear and disappear. I reach another of my contacts. "I spoke to Dr.
Khalil," he says. "If they behave bad with you, don't worry -- they
just want to punish you." Shafiq also tells me not to worry -- that he
will die defending me if necessary. My only hope, I realize, is the Pashtun
code of hospitality known as Pashtunwali -- the same tradition that forbade the
Taliban from handing over Osama bin Laden to the Bush administration after
September 11th. Unfortunately, as young Taliban fighters have substituted their
own authority for tribal customs, more and more insurgents now ignore the code.
"All the old rules have broken down," an aid official who has spent
two decades in Afghanistan tells me. The guarantees of safety that once
protected civilians have been replaced by a new generation removed from
traditional society -- one for whom jihad is the only law.
Our car crawls through the empty desert. I can see nothing
on the horizon. I ask Shafiq if Dr. Khalil is a good guy. "He's like
you," Shafiq answers. "No Muslim is a bad man." His faith in the
brotherhood of Islam does little to reassure me. "Don't worry,"
Shafiq says. "The Doctor has a gun, and I have a gun."
Ibrahim calls to say that he has reached a Taliban leader in
Pakistan, as well as someone in the United Arab Emirates, and they have
promised to call the Doctor and tell him not to harm me. "The Doctor will
fight with me, not with you," says Shafiq, who seems to be warming to the
idea of bloodshed. My contact in Kabul calls again. "They might slap you,
but they won't kill you," he tells me. "It's just to punish you for
coming without permission. They might keep you overnight as a guest. You are
lucky you called me." Later, he tells me that the Doctor had assured him
that he would not "do anything that isn't Sharia," or Islamic law.
This was little consolation, even after the fact, since the Taliban's
interpretation of Sharia includes beheading.
"I'm a martyr, I'm a star," the Taliban on the
car's tape deck chants. "I will testify on behalf of my mother on Judgment
Day. When I was small, my mother put me on her lap and spoke sweetly to me...."
We finally arrive at a mosque somewhere between the villages
of Gabari and Sher Kala. The Doctor, I am told, is waiting for us inside. As I
enter, I inadvertently step on a pair of Prada sunglasses -- just as the Doctor
walks into the room.
A burly man with light skin and a dark brown beard, the
Doctor picks up the bent glasses and examines them somberly. His hands are
thick, enormous. He wears a white cap, with palm trees and suns embroidered in
white thread. He straightens the glasses and puts them on -- it turns out
they're his. My heart sinks. Not the best beginning, perhaps.
After everyone prays, the Doctor orders the others to leave
the room, except for Yusuf. His voice is low and gruff. We sit on the floor.
"Deir Obekhi," I say, apologizing for entering his territory without
permission. He accuses me of being a spy for the Afghan army. He asks how I got
a visa to Afghanistan. I tell him I am here to write about the mujahedeen and
tell their story. If I like them so much, he sneers, why don't I join them?
The Doctor asks about my contact. I say he fought with the
mujahedeen from Jamiat-i Islami. The Doctor scoffs, saying the man never fought
the Soviets. Then he gets to his feet and announces that he is going to make
phone calls to Pakistan to investigate me. We will have to spend the night in
the mosque, and he will come back for us in the morning. As I try to protest,
he stalks out.
I sit glumly on the floor in the guest room. A few minutes
later, Shafiq sticks his head in and says, "Yallah" -- Arabic for
"come on." I jump up, relieved to get out of there. The Talib
fighters sitting with us insist that we drink the tea they have made. I
hurriedly gulp it down and step out into the darkness, eager to get away from
the mosque. But Shafiq has more bad news: We will have to return in the morning.
My mind flashes to the videos I have seen on the Internet of victims being
decapitated by jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We get in the car and Shafiq drives slowly, winding through
nearly invisible paths, the moonlight obscured by dust. When we reach Shafiq's
house, he carries a television into the guest room and turns on the generator.
Reading the English titles on the program guide, he finds Al-Jazeera, the
Arabic news channel. We watch coverage of the attacks we drove by the day
before. Shafiq switches to an Afghan channel, and we watch an Indian soap opera
dubbed in Dari. The women are dressed in revealing Western attire. I am amazed
that Shafiq would watch something so anathema to the Taliban. It's OK, he tells
me -- "it's a drama about a family." Later he puts on a satellite
channel devoted to Iranian-American pop music. We watch as a portly singer with
stubble and hair imitates bad Eighties rock, but in Farsi. The next video
features an Iranian pop singer dressed in leather fringe and a tank top, like a
cross between Davy Crockett and Richard Simmons. The Taliban commander watches,
In the morning, I awake to the drone of military planes
overhead. Stepping outside, I see a convoy of American armored vehicles a mile
away. I fight the urge to walk to them and beg for rescue. Even if they don't
mistake me for Taliban and shoot me themselves, approaching them would doom
everybody who had helped me.
I wait impatiently for the phone network to go back up. When
it does, one of my contacts in Kabul tells me that he had spoken to senior
Taliban officials who told the Doctor not to harm me, but the Doctor continued
to insist that I am a spy. He thinks the Doctor is just trying to assert his
independence and exchange me for a ransom. He tells me that Mullah Nasir, a
one-armed Kandahari who serves as Taliban governor for Ghazni, is also trying
to secure my release. I try to convince Shafiq to drive me to Ghazni's capital,
but he says that if he doesn't return me to Dr. Khalil, the Doctor will arrest
In the end, I am saved by the same official who authorized
my trip. According to my contact, the Taliban minister of defense called Dr.
Khalil and ordered him to release me, warning the Doctor that "he would be
fucked" if anything happens to me. My contact tells me I will be let go
this afternoon but that once we are on the road we should take the batteries
out of our phones, to prevent anyone from tracking us. "This Doctor, he is
a very nasty guy," he says. "He might send somebody to kidnap you on
the way, and then I can do nothing for you."
As we wait for the Doctor to arrive, Shafiq has other
problems to deal with. His nephew has been arrested by a Taliban patrol after
being spotted walking with a girl. After Shafiq secures his release, other
Talib fighters call to complain that they heard music coming from his house the
night before. Exasperated, Shafiq protests that it was only Al-Jazeera. He
doesn't mention the Iranian pop singer.
A few hours later, Dr. Khalil finally shows up. He examines my
passport and leafs through my notebooks, asking me to show him the photos I
took. "Zaibullah Mujahed said I should hit you," he says, referring
to the chief Taliban spokesman. "But I will not." Rifling through my
bags, he seems particularly fascinated by my toothbrush. Puzzled, he riffles
the bristles with his finger, trying to deduce their purpose.
For a man who has spent much of the past 24 hours
contemplating whether I was worth more to him dead or alive, the Doctor is now
surprisingly friendly. "What can I do for you?" he asks, a model of
courtesy. I cautiously ask him a few questions. The Doctor tells me he studied
at an Islamic school in Pakistan before entering medical school in Afghanistan.
He joined the Taliban early, eventually serving as a commander in a northern
district. He says he is fighting to restore a government of Islamic law, but that
Mullah Omar does not have to be the leader again. God willing, he adds, it will
take no more than 30 years to rid Afghanistan of foreigners. Like the other
Taliban leaders I've spoken with, he says he is prepared to allow women to
attend school and to work.
We pile into the Corolla and drive off to meet Ibrahim,
loading an RPG into the trunk just in case. Dr. Khalil gets behind the wheel,
with Shafiq beside him holding the PKM. After an hour of driving, the car gets
stuck, and we all collect rocks to put beneath the tires. As we drive through
the Doctor's village, he points to its outer limits. "This is the border
between the Taliban and the government," he says, stressing his control.
He is now jocular and relaxed.
At the edge of town, close to the main road, the Doctor gets
out of the car, followed by Shafiq, holding his PKM. The locals appear stunned.
Everyone stops and stares, immobilized, their daily routine interrupted by the
sudden appearance of two heavily armed Taliban commanders escorting a large
foreign man in ill-fitting salwar kameez. The Doctor stops a pickup truck and
orders the driver to take us to the bazaar. We part warmly.
Arriving at the bazaar in the back of the pickup truck, we
find a tense and apologetic Ibrahim waiting for us. Like my contact, he was
worried that the Doctor had set up an ambush for me on the road. "I should
not have left you," Ibrahim says. "I was lazy. That was my
On the way back to Kabul, we dodge more craters in the
highway. The military trucks I saw burning two days earlier are still
smoldering by the road. Children play on the blackened vehicles, removing
pieces for salvage. I tease Ibrahim that the Taliban have made our drive more
difficult by destroying the highway. To my surprise, he agrees.
Back in Kabul, we all have lunch together at the office of
my friend where I first met Ibrahim. My friend teases me for sending him so
many text messages -- more than a dozen -- and reads some of them aloud.
Everyone laughs, relieved that the ordeal is over. I look at Ibrahim, wondering
if he would have taken me hostage himself under different circumstances. He
again surprises me by expressing disapproval of the Taliban for harming
civilians in what he views as a war for national liberation. There used to be
rules. Now, for many Taliban, there is only killing. "They are not acting
like Afghans," he says.
To return to Kabul from a feudal province like Ghazni is to
experience a form of time travel. The city is thoroughly modern, for those who
can afford it: five-star hotels, shiny new shopping malls and well-guarded
restaurants where foreigners eat meals that cost as much as most Afghans make
in a month, cooked with ingredients imported from abroad. If you can avoid
falling into the sewage canals at every crosswalk, and evade the suicide
bombers who occasionally rock the city, you can enjoy the safety of
Afghanistan's version of the Green Zone.
But the barbarians are at the gate, and major attacks are
getting closer and closer to the city each day. Upon my return to Kabul, I
discover that the Taliban have fired rockets at the airport and at the NATO
base; the United Nations has been on a four-day curfew; and President Karzai
has canceled his public appearances. The city is being slowly but
systematically severed from the rest of the country.
"The road from Kabul to Ghazni is gone," an
intelligence officer tells me, "and most of the rest of the roads are
going. The ambushes are routine now, which tells you that the Taliban have a
routine capability." The Parwan province, which borders Kabul to the
north, has also become dangerous. "All of a sudden we see IEDs on the main
road in Parwan and attacks on police checkpoints," the intelligence
officer says. "It's the last remaining key arterial route connecting Kabul
to the rest of the country."
The Bush administration is placing its hopes on presidential
elections in Afghanistan next year, but everyone I speak with in Kabul agrees
that the elections will be a joke. "The Americans are gung-ho about
elections," a longtime nongovernmental official tells me. "But it
will only exacerbate ethnic tensions." In Pashtun areas controlled by the
Taliban, registration would be virtually impossible, and voting would invoke a
death sentence -- effectively disenfranchising the country's dominant ethnic
group. "You can't fix the insurgency with an election," a senior U.N.
official tells me. "It's a socioeconomic phenomenon that goes well beyond
the border of Afghanistan." Real elections would require the cooperation
of the Taliban -- and that, in turn, would require negotiations with the
Taliban. The war, in effect, is already lost.
"This can't be solved other than by talking to the
Taliban," says a top diplomat in Kabul. A leading aid official adds that
it is important to understand the ideological goal of the Taliban: "They
don't have an international-terrorist agenda -- they have an Afghanistan
agenda. We might not agree with their agenda for the country, but that's not
our war." Former Taliban leaders agree that only talks will end the war.
"If the U.S. deals with Pakistan and negotiates with higher-level
Taliban," says one, "then it could reach a deal."
Negotiating with the Taliban would also enable the Americans
to take advantage of the sharp divisions within the insurgency. Mullah Omar,
the Taliban leader, has been openly criticized by a rival named Siirajudin
Haqqani, who has called for Omar to be replaced. In provinces like Ghazni, the
Taliban leadership is now divided between commanders loyal to Omar and men who
follow Haqqani. A recent meeting between supporters of the two men in the
Pakistani city of Peshawar reportedly descended into fighting when an Omar
official threw his tea glass at a Haqqani man. The internal split provides an
opening -- if U.S. intelligence is smart enough to exploit it.
"The U.S. should try to weaken the Taliban," a
former Taliban commander tells me. "They should make groups, divide and
conquer. If someone wants to use the division between Haqqani and Omar, they can."
The Bush administration believes it can stop the Taliban by
throwing money into clinics and schools. But even humanitarian officials scoff
at the idea. "If you gave jobs to the Viet Cong, would they stop
fighting?" asks one. "Two years ago you could build a road or a
bridge in a village and say, 'Please don't let the Taliban come in.' But now
you've reached the stage where the hearts-and-minds business doesn't
Officials on the ground in Afghanistan say it is foolhardy
to believe that the Americans can prevail where the Russians failed. At the
height of the occupation, the Soviets had 120,000 of their own troops in
Afghanistan, buttressed by roughly 300,000 Afghan troops. The Americans and
their allies, by contrast, have 65,000 troops on the ground, backed up by only
137,000 Afghan security forces -- and they face a Taliban who enjoy the support
of a well-funded and highly organized network of Islamic extremists. "The
end for the Americans will be just like for the Russians," says a former
commander who served in the Taliban government. "The Americans will never
succeed in containing the conflict. There will be more bleeding. It's coming to
the same situation as it did for the communist forces, who found themselves
confined to the provincial capitals."
Simply put, it is too late for Bush's "quiet
surge" -- or even for Barack Obama's plan for a more robust reinforcement --
to work in Afghanistan. More soldiers on the ground will only lead to more
contact with the enemy, and more air support for troops will only lead to more
civilian casualties that will alienate even more Afghans. Sooner or later, the
American government will be forced to the negotiating table, just as the
Soviets were before them.
"The rise of the Taliban insurgency is not likely to be
reversed," says Abdulkader Sinno, a Middle East scholar and the author of
Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond. "It will only get
stronger. Many local leaders who are sitting on the fence right now -- or are
even nominally allied with the government -- are likely to shift their support
to the Taliban in the coming years. What's more, the direct U.S. military
involvement in Afghanistan is now likely to spill over into Pakistan. It may be
tempting to attack the safe havens of the Taliban and Al Qaeda across the
border, but that will only produce a worst-case scenario for the United States.
Attacks by the U.S. would attract the support of hundreds of millions of
Muslims in South Asia. It would also break up Pakistan, leading to a civil war,
the collapse of its military and the possible unleashing of its nuclear
In the same speech in which he promised a surge, Bush vowed
that he would never allow the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan. But
they have already returned, and only negotiation with them can bring any hope
of stability. Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan "are all theaters in the same
overall struggle," the president declared, linking his administration's
three greatest foreign-policy disasters in one broad vision. In the end, Bush
said, we must have "faith in the power of freedom."
But the Taliban have their own faith, and so far, they are
winning. On my last day in Kabul, a Western aid official reminds me of the
words of a high-ranking Taliban leader, who recently explained why the United
States will never prevail in Afghanistan.
"You Westerners have your watches," the leader
observed. "But we Taliban have time."