Endless War A Visit with the Taliban in Afghanistan

More than 17 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the country is still at war. The Afghan army is weak, a resurgent Taliban is mounting fresh attacks and new peace negotiations do not include Kabul. Peace remains a distant goal.

Herat area, members of the Taliban belonging to the Mullah Niazi group in the territory they control, inside the Mullahs stronghold
Sergio Ramazzotti/ Parallelozero

Herat area, members of the Taliban belonging to the Mullah Niazi group in the territory they control, inside the Mullahs stronghold

By Fritz Schaap and Sergio Ramazzotti (Photos)

Mullah Niazi sits on top of his mountain and waits -- waits for news from his commanders, waits for his fighters and waits for victory. He's been living up here in his mountaintop fortress -- where the shacks are as brown as the mountain and where no motorcycle, car or tank can travel -- for two-and-a-half years. He is waiting for God's rule to once again take hold on the streets of Afghanistan's, just like when he was a spokesman for Taliban founder, Mullah Omar. His patience seems to be paying off.

Slowly, Niazi's fighters, who are taking us to him, ascend the final slope. The air is still damp and cold from the night before, and it smells like the scree that is dislodged by our every step. The only sound is the fighters' heavy breathing and the metallic clink of ammunition belts against their machine guns.

Apart from our group, silence envelops these mountains southeast of Herat, a range known locally as Haft-Darband. It is where Mullah Niazi is lying in wait to reclaim what the Americans took from the Taliban: control over Afghanistan. Things haven't looked this good for the Islamic fundamentalist movement for 17 years.

Surrounded by his heavily armed men, a smiling Niazi is standing at the entrance to his fortress. He is wearing a black vest over his shalwar kameez along with a black turban. His long, gray beard is forked. "The Americans," he says, "are no longer an enemy. They are pulling out. They have lost."

War has been a constant in Afghanistan for the last 41 years, but recently it has become bloodier than it has been in a long time. The Taliban are on the advance, with just 55 percent of the districts in the country currently under the control of the government, according to a U.S. report. The U.S. military dropped more bombs in 2018 than in the 10 previous years and the big cities have seen repeated attacks.

More than 45,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen have died since 2014, according to President Ashraf Ghani and the United Nations announced in October that the first nine months of 2018 saw 8,050 dead or injured civilians. Just last week, a suicide attack by the Taliban at a base belonging to Afghanistan's intelligence agency in the province of Wardak may have left more than 100 people dead.

Framework Peace Deal

The Taliban or other warlords are in charge of many of Afghanistan's 34 provinces while in Kabul, warlords or their sons sit in parliament. The political landscape cleaves along ethnic lines. Poppy cultivation is booming. The Afghan army is vulnerable. And now, even a former warlord has set his sights on the presidency: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose militia besieged Kabul and killed thousands during the Afghan civil war, announced his candidacy for the July election a few days ago.

The U.S. has been pushing the Afghan government towards a peace process for months, including December plans to withdraw up to 7,000 troops. Then, on Monday, American and Taliban officials seem to have agreed in principle to the framework of a peace deal, according to which the Taliban would guarantee that Afghan territory would not be used as a base for terrorists. This could lead to a complete pullout of American troops, if the Taliban also agree to a ceasefire and to talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban have not yet formally agreed to these steps, though.

Still, prospects for real peace are limited. President Ghani presented an updated peace plan in November in which he outlined several conditions. First, the Taliban must agree to be part of a democratic society. Second, it must respect the country's constitution. Third, it must observe women's rights.

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One of the problems is that although the Taliban is engaged in talks -- with the U.S., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Russians -- it refuses to negotiate with the Afghan government, which it views as puppets. But cracks have emerged within the Taliban's ranks. And in Kabul, politicians are arguing over who should take part in negotiations and what form a peace deal should ultimately take.

One UN expert believes the Taliban are working toward a military victory and that they will eventually exact revenge. But he also thinks it unlikely that the Taliban will be able to capture the country's largest cities.

Mullah Niazi looks out at the jagged peaks to the point where Herat must by lying in the shadow of the mountains. The trade hub, the gateway to Iran, is Niazi's home. "If NATO forces don't cause any trouble, we'll be fully in control within a year. Then there could be real peace negotiations," he says.

The True Enemies

His unit's camp extends behind him, around 40 huts, low dwellings made from unhewn stone and clay, roofs supported by wooden posts as thick as a man's arm. Some are adorned with solar panels. On top of one hut, tucked into the side of a cliff, lies a machine gun protected by sandbags and several commanders are sitting inside dressed in threadbare parkas and wool jackets over their traditional garments. Winter is cold up here at an altitude of well over 1,000 meters. In the middle of the room, a small gas heater emits an orange glow.

The true enemies, against whom Niazi and his fighters are now directing their efforts, "are the powers supported by the Pakistanis, the Russians and the Iranians: the other Taliban," he says. Even the Taliban, after all, have succumbed to the disease of division that grips the entire country. After the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, the Pakistanis managed to install their candidate, Mullah Mansour, as a successor. "We realized that Pakistan was jockeying for more influence, so we called a meeting and told them we wanted the Taliban to control its own troops. That's when the break occurred. Now we're fighting against them," Niazi says.

Mullah Niazi with other Taliban fighters
Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero

Mullah Niazi with other Taliban fighters

His group finances itself exclusively through taxes, he claims. Opium producers in the region report having to forfeit a 10th of the drugs they manufacture.

Niazi still sounds like he speaks for a government rather than a few thousand bearded fighters. For him, the Taliban represented the only path toward law and order back when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in the 1990s and the country descended into a bloody civil war. He became a spokesman for Mullah Omar. In the years the Taliban ruled the country, Niazi was a governor of Kabul province and, later, of Balkh, a province in the north, where he was partly responsible for the slaughter of thousands of people in 1998, many of whom belonged to the Hazara Shiite minority.

Today, Niazi is estimated to command around 8,000 fighters who split off in 2015. They have a kind of standstill agreement with the government. The country's intelligence agency says it actively supported the schism to weaken the Taliban.

Overall, the UN estimates there are between 80,000 and 90,000 Taliban fighters in the country. The Afghan intelligence service estimates there are slightly below 70,000.

Integration into a Democratic Society

The disunity among the Taliban is problematic for any possible peace agreement, because it's unlikely that every group would lay down their weapons. Many commanders have economic interests, and even if Pakistan, under pressure from the U.S., were to force Taliban leadership to strike a deal, it's not a given that Pakistan would exert the same pressure on field commanders.

Niazi glances at his smartphone, then at a worn-out cell phone. An old shortwave receiver lies next to him and his assault rifle is leaning behind him. Pale light falls through two holes in the wall. "The government," says Niazi, "is made up of Afghans like us. Once we take control, the Afghans should solve their problems among themselves."

But Niazi's Taliban group, like the others, isn't likely to accept President Ghani's conditions -- adherence to the constitution and integration into a democratic society. Niazi says they accept neither the constitution nor democracy. "Both are un-Islamic. We want a strict application of Sharia law."

Thieves should have their hands chopped off. Adulterers should be stoned to death. Murders beheaded. Otherwise, Niazi says, the Afghans cannot be controlled. Millions of dollars from abroad couldn't get crime and corruption in Afghanistan under control. Only Sharia can, he says. "If we bring peace with it, what's the problem?"

Afghan soldiers in training
Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero

Afghan soldiers in training

The negotiations, which have been taking place between representatives of the U.S. government and high-ranking Taliban officials in the United Arab Emirates and, since last Monday, in Qatar, are pointless, Niazi says. "When the U.S. says we'll find a solution at the negotiating table, it's a lie." Too many groups, too many interests. The commanders surrounding Niazi murmur in agreement.

Niazi has no sympathy for those afraid of losing what they fought for should the Taliban find their way into government. "Women are delicate things," he says. "They have no strength to fight or build things or carry heavy things. The Europeans started that. It's their way of oppressing women. We keep them like flowers. In the house."

Not to Be Trusted

Niazi ends the meeting after nearly two hours, saying it would be best for us to leave. His nephew, commander Mohammed Naim, says on the way through the narrow gorge down the mountain that, while they trust their own men, when it comes to foreigners who could bring in a hefty ransom, it's best to be careful. Not even other commanders in the group are to be trusted in this situation.

His men spread out in front to secure the area, initially on foot before, further down, climbing onto small Pamir motorcycles with blankets on their seats as if they were mountain horses. Finally, we climb into two battered station wagons and head down a dry riverbed, with armed men hunched in the back.

On the main road into Herat, a police officers stops the car, looks angrily at Mohammed Naim, points to his guns and shouts. Naim turns around and heads back to the next police checkpoint, where the police commander apologizes for the officer's zeal. Naim smiles and continues -- heavily armed -- into the trading hub where his commander Mullah Niazi hopes to hold power one day.

The Taliban said it was going to be a bloody winter. In December, a government delegation traveled to Abu Dhabi to negotiate with representatives of the Taliban, but they were rebuffed. The Taliban's military successes in the country, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump's plans to withdraw troops, is shifting the balance of power in the country.

Law and order in the country is extremely fragile. The Afghan security forces, according to one high-ranking former intelligence officer, are showing signs of disintegration in various provinces and commanders are said to be planning ways to get their families to safety. Or they simply don't do anything, like in Herat. The Afghan army is losing more men than it can replace through recruitment -- as many as 400 in some weeks.

Furthermore, says a NATO military instructor, a third of Afghan soldiers are high on drugs most of the time, rendering them effectively useless. Another third doesn't understand what the instructors are asking of them. Only the remaining third has potential, but, the military instructor continues, this third has understood all too well that its superiors often bought their positions, meaning their own chance of promotion are slim. This final third, then, simply has no motivation.

An Alternative Delegation

A weakened army, a Taliban offensive, a government that is still not accepted as a negotiating partner: Such is the situation in Afghanistan a good 17 years after the U.S. invasion.

Independent parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi in Kabul
Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero

Independent parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi in Kabul

Fawzia Koofi, an independent member of Afghanistan's parliament and the head of its human rights commission, wants to at least try to find an alternative negotiating delegation. The 43-year-old politician, whose pink headscarf covers only some of her hair, slides into the back seat of her armored Land Cruiser and pulls the curtains closed. Koofi wants a negotiating delegation that represents all facets and ethnicities of society, from Pashtuns to Tajiks, Uzbeks to Hazara. Koofi is Tajik herself. She envisions a delegation of around 50 to 60 men and women, including activists as well as proponents of women's rights.

Men with assault rifles and ammo vests briefly surround the vehicle on this December day before the caravan takes off. Koofi is tired, her days are long and exhausting. It's not easy being a female politician in Afghanistan. "I'm disappointed that everyone's involved in the peace process -- Pakistan, the U.S., the Saudi Arabians -- except the Afghan people, and not even the government," she says as the low houses of Kabul's expensive Sherpur neighborhood zip past the window.

A city hidden behind blast walls and barbed wire.

"Peace should come from the Afghan people, not a few government officials. Everyone should feel like they're a part of it," Koofi says. She knows what's at stake. She's from the remote, conservative northeastern province of Badakhshan, and she understands the traditional forces that rule rural Afghanistan. Her father had 23 children with seven wives. On the day of her birth, the midwife laid Koofi in the sun. For almost an entire day. She was supposed to die. She wasn't a boy. She only barely survived.

The first time she ran for a political office, her brothers ripped down her campaign posters so that nobody could see the face of their sister.

She knows the Taliban stands for this kind of regressive Afghanistan and that it is almost impossible to craft a common future with the group. She knows how they govern. She still remembers that it was a Thursday in September 1996 when the Taliban rolled into Kabul and turned her life as a university student into that of a prisoner, beating her, locking her up in her home and later arresting her husband. She remembers the executions.

A Will and Testament

She knows the Taliban are her enemy.

Reports from Afghanistan's intelligence agency have been piling up on her desk for years. Bombs have been laid. Her convoy has come under fire. One time she was stuck in her vehicle for 30 minutes while the Taliban attacked. On another occasion, she wrote a letter to her daughters before driving to a campaign appearance. It was a will and testament.

But Koofi also knows that Afghanistan's future is only possible with the Taliban, because the group hasn't been defeated in 17 years of fighting. She is on her way to a meeting with former government ministers to discuss her plan, though it seems that President Ghani isn't in favor of it. Ghani has a reputation for being stubborn and egocentric. He has told her, she says, that he likes her initiative, but he insists that negotiations be led only by the government.

The Taliban, she says, want to change the constitution, they want control, they want Afghanistan to submit to them. "If Ghani could think logically, he would accept our proposal. Because the Taliban don't want to talk to him," Koofi says. She's worried the Americans will simply walk away from Afghanistan "without first taking steps to protect freedom of expression and women's rights."

The next day, news breaks that the U.S. is considering pulling out half of its 14,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Troop withdrawal has long been one of the Taliban's demands.

Koofi reaches the house of Jawid Ludin, the former chief of staff of Hamid Karzai in the upscale neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan. Inside, a group of men waits to receive her. On her way in, she says: "If the U.S. and the Taliban continue to ignore the Afghan people and the achievements of the last 17 years, then it will be nothing other than the start of a new war. A much more dangerous war. Because today, everyone here has weapons.

Like so many times before in its history, foreign powers are once again dictating the future of Afghanistan. Whether Pakistan means to use its influence over the Taliban for peace remains to be seen. The American government appears interested in using a peace deal as part of its own election campaign rather than for the Afghan people themselves. And the Taliban still hopes to be able to control the entire country again one day.

And Mullah Niazi, the Taliban leader from the western part of the country? When asked about a possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he simply says: "There will be a new civil war."


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