It's a clear, warm autumn morning, and hundreds have gathered to pay their last respects to Najmullah, the revered commander of the militia in the village of Warduj, who fell in the battle against the Taliban. It is said that Najmullah never showed fear, that he always encouraged his men and that he loved trees more than anything else.
The imam recites the funeral prayer under an ancient walnut tree, the huge canopy breaking up the sunlight into shimmering dots. Najmullah's relatives then carry his body, wrapped in a green shroud, through the small town's Bazaar Street to the cemetery, a silent stream of people trailing behind.
With nine new graves having been added in the past two weeks alone, there aren't many plots left. The land here along the river is valuable, and there isn't much of it up here.
As the funeral procession turns into the cemetery, two groups of men come into view, hacking their way through the hardpacked soil, one pit on the left and another on the right. One is the grave for Commander Najmullah, while the other is reserved for the 16-year-old Taliban fighter Bahreddin, who died in the same battle the previous night. Only a handful of relatives have come to Bahreddin's funeral, and they are eyed with suspicion by the militiamen. Nevertheless, the imam recites the funeral prayer for him as well.
The nearly 50-year-old commander and the young Taliban fighter, whose beard hadn't even started growing yet, were both from the village of Chakaran. It is home to some 200 families, all of which are in some way related to each other -- but that didn't stop the two from killing each other. Only to be buried together -- one on the left with the pro-government fighters who have fallen, the other on the right with the Taliban dead. With only one graveyard in the valley, those are the rules. The men dig with determined haste, as the gravedigger of Warduj wanders back and forth, constantly reminding them: "Dig them narrow!" Space is precious, he kept reminding them, and more graves will be necessary.
Several men then hold impassioned speeches extoling Warduj's liberation after four years of Taliban rule. When asked how secure they consider the new order here to be, however, everyone just shakes their heads with concern. If it hadn't been for the American air raids at the beginning of the offensive, which eliminated four Taliban machine gun positions at the entrance to the valley within just a few minutes, the Islamists would not have been expelled. Nor would victory have been possible without the assistance of the Afghan special forces from Kabul, with their armored Humvees and radio equipment.
The liberation of Warduj is meant to be one of the rare success stories in a war in Afghanistan that has long felt endless, a testament to the fact that Afghanistan's multi-billion-dollar army is actually capable of victory. Proof that the government in Kabul and the entire state apparatus built up by the West after the swift invasion in 2001 isn't constantly retreating from the Taliban. And reassurance that the German soldiers who lost their lives not too far from here did not die in vain.
The day before, the head of the local police had set up two camping chairs on the front line so that his German visitors could sit more comfortably. He assured us that it wasn't dangerous, saying "the Taliban are much too busy running away from us." He tossed his curly mane as if to reinforce each and every word. But he, too, felt it safer to return to the provincial capital Faizabad before sunset and not stay in the narrow mountain valley, despite the fact that Afghan government forces have been fighting for weeks to recapture the area.
That night, the Taliban ambushed a nearby position and none of the five men stationed there survived. Commander Najmullah counted among the dead.
A Leaky Ship
Warduj is typical of the battle between the government and the Taliban, but not because it is going particularly well. The Taliban is capturing district after district, one swath of land after the next. They may be driven out for a time, but they return later. Indeed, Afghanistan is reminiscent of a leaky ship that will sink just as soon as the pumps are turned off.
Since the beginning of his presidency, United States President Donald Trump has repeatedly announced his intention to withdraw the American troops that have been stationed in Afghanistan for 18 years. For the past year, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar, though the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani has been excluded from those talks, a condition demanded by the Taliban. It is difficult to imagine a clearer message regarding expectations for the country's future leadership.
But in early September, Trump abruptly canceled a meeting scheduled with senior Taliban officials and members of the Afghan president's cabinet at Camp David near Washington. The concern was likely that holding such talks at the U.S. president's country retreat so close to the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks perpetrated by al-Qaida would not have looked good. "We were informed at short notice that we should prepare to travel," recalls Matin Bek, head of Afghanistan's Independent Directorate of Local Governance. "And the invitation was rescinded just as suddenly." Trump also took the further step of putting the entire negotiations on ice -- only to reverse himself last Thursday during a Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan.
A Deadly Stalemate
So, what now? What comes next in a war that the U.S. was unable to win by 2011, despite having 100,000 soldiers in the country along with troops from around the world as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)? The Taliban are also unable to emerge victorious, for as long as the Americans continue to finance Afghanistan's military and continue to conduct air strikes. It's a deadly stalemate.
The U.S. has become increasingly reliant on Afghan subcontractors and the more aggressive units they provide. The result? During the first six months of 2019, Afghan government forces killed more civilians than the Taliban and all other insurgency groups. Statistics provided by the United Nations show that they accounted for 52 percent of the close to 1,400 deaths.
To secure a more solid governing mandate and prevent the U.S. from ever again holding negotiations without him, President Ghani pushed through elections on Sept. 28. But as happened in the last presidential election in 2014, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second place, once again exchanged a litany of accusations of electoral fraud. Both declared themselves the winner, and the political disaster was consummated. On Oct. 27, the country's national electoral commission said it would soon be able to present initial results. Only 19 percent of registered voters went to the polls, less than 5 percent of the population. The Taliban, it has become apparent, no longer needs to conduct attacks to make an election seem pointless.
A Lack of Determination
Every Western government that has contributed troops and vast sums of money to the effort to secure Afghanistan is justifiably wary of admitting that it has all been in vain. The U.S. plan envisioned bringing the Taliban and the Afghan government together for negotiations once Washington reached a deal with the Taliban. But the U.S. also intended to withdraw most of its remaining 14,000 soldiers from the country, which would have completely robbed Kabul of leverage in those talks.
Still, everyone is talking about negotiations and the need to end the war: both the leaders in Kabul and the government's protectors abroad. But nobody has come up with a concrete plan of action. Nobody is willing to be as clear and concise about what the future will bring as the gravedigger in Warduj: "Dig them narrow!"
What has happened with all the billions that have been pumped into reconstruction projects in Afghanistan? What has become of the decade of German involvement in the northeastern provinces, which were the responsibility of Germany's armed forces until 2014? That area included Warduj in the Badakhshan province, where the effort is now being made to drive out the Taliban. Kunduz, which proved to be the most eventful region within Germany's area of responsibility, is no longer visited by foreigners. The Taliban dominate large parts of the province and have also infiltrated the provincial capital, which they have briefly occupied on several occasions.
A Bastian of Stability
When the 19-seater Beechcraft, part of the UN fleet, lands in Kunduz as part of its commuter flights to cities in northern Afghanistan that can no longer be reached by land, nobody gets on or off. To get to the last reasonably safe city in the area, you have to first fly to Faizabad and then drive west for three hours to Taloqan. By Afghan standards, the capital of the Takhar province is quite prosperous. The market is bustling and the police dare to patrol the plane tree-lined streets on their own. After a few phone calls, we head for the provincial government's guest house.
The next morning at 5:45 a.m., there's a knock at the door: "Let's go!" The deputy provincial governor is standing outside in sweatpants and accompanied by his bodyguards. "I'll show you what the Germans have done for us here, the most important projects! In the morning light! Because you have a photographer. Hurry up!" Farid Zaki has been the lieutenant governor of Takhar for 10 years, one of the rare management talents within Afghanistan's government apparatus.
We rush through the city, past the court, the hospital and the schools. "The Germans built or repaired all these things, as well as the power lines and the reinforcement along the riverbanks," he explains. Once the sun has risen over the city, the small convoy turns toward the university campus. Five-thousand men and 2,000 women are studying here to become teachers, civil engineers and lawyers -- and much of it has been financed with German money. There's even a daycare center. And even though it is Friday, which is usually a day off, construction workers are hard at work on the new medical faculty. Zaki, who studied political science in Bucharest, is proud of his city. He would also love to be proud of the rest of his province, which was part of Germany's area of responsibility for several years.
'No One Came to Help'
It's only a 15-minute drive to the front from here. A quarter of an hour from the relative progress of the provincial capital, five policemen, two men from the secret service and three members of Interior Ministry units are standing around two Humvees, each with mounted machine guns, on the outskirts of Baharak. It's the final eastern outpost before Kunduz. The men gaze nervously at the edge of the forest; they can see no further. In September, skirmishes against Taliban troops advancing out of Kunduz lasted for several days. Now, this small group is waiting for the next wave.
How many are they expecting the next time around? They shrug their shoulders and hesitate before answering: "Maybe around 600." The fact that they're even still standing here and weren't overrun weeks ago, is a testament to the man who drove us here: "Commander Khalil." He doesn't need more than a first name. Commander Khalil is a holdout from the time before 2001, when the mujahedeen of the Northern Alliance defended their last refuges against the Taliban here. The fighter holds no official post and he maintains his 120-member militia with the money he earns as a breeder of show horses and as a businessman. The private unit is on standby in Taloqan, ready to be dispatched at a moment's notice.
In describing the last battle that took place in September, Kahlil says: "No one came to help us for seven days -- not the army, not the Americans. Then I finally got them to attack from the air! I marked the Taliban position using the "offline maps" app and sent it to them. Otherwise, nobody does anything!" Listening to him, it becomes clear why civilians are hit so often. The others nod. "We're here because you're here!" Commander Khalil snorts approvingly.
He's still angry about a meeting that took place an hour earlier at the Baharak district governor's office, where he sat among government officials as though it were completely normal. The district police chief joined them a short time later.
It wasn't nice asking this question in the presence of the two, but the answer given was telling. "What would have happened to Baharak without the help of Khalil's militia?" The chief of police answers: "The revered commander has spent his life in combat. Now we have a common enemy, and we are very grateful to him!"
But would the city have fallen without him? "The government stands completely behind Baharak. We are here, so the city will never fall!"
While leaving a few minutes later, Khalil loses his temper and confronts the police chief: "How dare you? You have eight people and you call me every night -- come here, come there! Who always wants a car from us? What do you mean Baharak will never fall as long the police are defending the city?!" Chastened, the police chief whispers that Khalil was right and implores him to speak more quietly.
The Last Outpost
Now, during the visit at the last outpost, the reality of the current situation is once again in focus. Kahlil, though, is still out of sorts and wants to set something straight. "If you hadn't taken our weapons away from us back then, we could have defended ourselves properly!"
"You Germans! The Bundeswehr! They disarmed us in 2004. I turned over 750 Kalashnikovs, a whole truck full! Now, they said, a state would be built up and it would protect us, and only its security forces could be armed. If need be, they said, they would be here to guarantee security. The German officers even gave me a receipt for the weapons!" A piece of paper in exchange for an entire arsenal.
Unfortunately, he is no longer able to find that receipt.
ISAF's disarmament program ended years ago, though the idea was the correct one at the time: A country can only function if it has a monopoly on the use of force and if armed militias no longer exist. But the people in Afghanistan ended up waiting for a state that never materialized to the point that it could guarantee their safety. And then the German troops withdrew from Kunduz and most of northern Afghanistan in October 2014. They do, however, still provide training to Afghan soldiers at the German base in Mazar-e-Sharif in the far west of the country.
The Taliban's Return
The Taliban came back. At times, they have been held at bay for a while. But they always return.
The final front in the north, which has been overrun several times, is held by a man who, with his finely chiseled facial features and salt and pepper hair, looks more like a literary scholar than a militia commander. His name is Mullah Omar, and because he shares a name with the revered founder of the Taliban, the Islamists have wanted him dead for the last 20 years.
Mullah Omar mumbles that he didn't choose the name and that even Ahmed Shah Massud, the legendary leader in the 1980s war against the Soviets, had even made jokes about it. "At some point, I got tired of it, so I told him: 'Then give me another name!' But Massud said no. 'You will always be our Mullah Omar to defeat the other Mullah Omar.'"
The other Mullah Omar, who founded the Taliban and granted Osama bin Laden asylum, died a few years ago. But the man who shares his name lives on. Indeed, he has served as the governor of his home district of Khwaja Ghar since 2006. Every few months, the Taliban captures a chunk of the district capital.
He suggests that we reporters take a walk through the small town. It's a place of fear. No one smiles and no one nods as Mullah Omar, surrounded by a dozen armed men, walks along the dusty main road.
People only speak when they are alone, and only at moments when they have no reason to fear they are being watched by a Taliban spy. Market vendors say they leave the city every afternoon to sleep in their villages. The last doctor in the town tells the story of a Taliban shell that struck the ground right next to a six-year-old girl. It didn't explode, but "she stopped speaking or eating or drinking anything. We even took her to the hospital in Taloqan. She just died there."
Ruins of a Future Afghanistan Once Had
The attack always begins at 2 or 3 a.m. When the Taliban briefly captured the town two years ago, they burned down the only large building, which had been the offices of Mullah Omar's small administration. The two-story, partly brick structure had once been the guest house of the giant Spinzar cotton spinning mill, built in the 1930s with the help of the Soviets. At one time, it employed more than 5,000 people throughout northern Afghanistan and processed the cotton that thrives in a perfectly dry, sunny climate. Spinzar went under during the wars. In Khwaja Ghar, they are the ruins of a future that Afghanistan once had.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 49/2019 (November 30th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.
Mullah Omar's shy police chief, whose men are fighting in this war, stops in front of the charred, collapsed beams. "We have repeatedly asked the government for its support. But the army always gets here too late and never stays. It would also be a great help if we got night vision goggles. The Taliban have some, but we don't. We can only shoot by ear in the dark. But by then, some of our troops are usually already dead."
At least, he says, the provincial police chief has been fired. He says he had always skimmed part of the salaries, food and ammunition and would sell the stolen goods on the black market. "We haven't met the new guy yet." But they are hopeful.
The scratchy radio noise that has been fizzling in the background is suddenly interrupted by a watchman who has been listening to Taliban frequencies. He says that Taliban spies had just reported the arrival of infidels in Khwaja Ghar -- likely a reference to the reporters from Germany. Mullah Omar says it's time to leave.
Living on Borrowed Time
Back in the security of Taloqan, the mobile phone network is switched off punctually at sunset in accordance with an agreement with the Taliban so that they don't blow up the masts. No one is allowed to make a phone call at night.
Later, the provincial governor will confirm that there are no night vision devices for the local forces. "They're not on the budget." But it's not a big problem, he adds. "God will help us!" His deputy Farid Zaki remains silent and still. Weeks later, the Taliban will again take Khwaja Ghar, only to be driven out again. Commander Khalil's brother will be shot dead in Baharak, but Mullah Omar will once again survive.
It is nonetheless clear, though, that he and his men are fighting a losing battle. Most of the commanders say that this war needs to come to an end and that negotiations with the Taliban are the only way out. They are also well aware that this state will cease to exist without the drones, helicopters and, most importantly, the money from the U.S., which continues to prop up the Afghanistan army.
The leaders in Kabul are living on borrowed time, but they didn't borrow it themselves. They are supposed to save a country that was handed to them in 2001. It is not a state that they had a hand in establishing, nor is it one they have ever had to defend on their own. Instead, they have focused most of their effort on plundering it. Indeed, the Taliban have proven to be the most stable of Afghanistan's political elements. Their goals may be reprehensible, but they do have one thing: an iron will to return to power.
The myth that has been perpetuated in the West over the past decade and a half that the Taliban was on the verge of being defeated was always wrong. The Taliban was able to make a comeback because of the corrupt governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, because of the brutality showed by the Americans and because of the presence of foreign troops in general -- no matter how good their intentions were.
The Taliban says it is god's will to drive the foreign occupiers out of Afghan soil. It is almost impossible to counter the vehemence of that narrative. In part because the Taliban has also changed. The group has long since stopped burning down schools, instead leaving them alone, even primary schools for girls. Teachers' salaries continue to be paid by the government, along with support for the small clinics in Taliban-held areas.
Just as in the mountain valley of Warduj, where opponents in battle are buried next to each other, there are dozens of arrangements that extend beyond the front lines. Local councils of elders, for example, mediate so that government experts can repair defective flood-protection systems or tiny hydroelectric power plants in Taliban-held areas.
No one knows who will be controlling their area next year or even in a few months. Everything remains in limbo and the war rages on.
The main town in Warduj valley has now been free of Taliban for several weeks and the stores on Bazaar Street have once again opened their doors. A sense of relief, though, is not in the air, it's more of a wait-and-see approach. Yes, the government may be back in control, but locals say their lives weren't really all that different under the Taliban. The "cowboy" look with fringed jeans, particularly popular among girls (who would wear them under their burkas), was banned, as was music, at least initially. Only the barber complains that the Taliban weren't good for business: "I wasn't allowed to cut any beards," he says. "They preferred for everyone to let their hair grow."
But fighting continues in the highlands. And in the small cemetery, where the commander and the 16-year-old Taliban fighter were buried on the same morning, the graves of the enemy groups are coming closer and closer together. A new one is added every few days -- sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right. Dug narrow.