Swimming with Warlords
After 12 Years of War, a Road Trip Through Afghanistan
Oct 14 2013
Warlord Nabi Gechi takes the author and his companions for a swim in the muddy Kunduz River.
Under the cover of a moonless night in mid-October 2001, I found myself loading thousands of pounds of camera equipment and supplies onto a giant pontoon boat on the northern bank of the Amu Darya River. The pontoons were normally used to carry weapons to the northern Alliance troops fighting the Taliban on the other side of the water. With all the gear and colleagues, there didn’t seem to be any room left on that raft for allegory, but I remembered feeling like one of the damned souls of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, about to be ferried across the River Acheron to hell. The American air strikes had begun, and I was headed into Afghanistan.
I was dispatched by NBC News only one week after Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network attacked the US, crashing planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I arrived in Afghanistan in October to bear witness to America’s righteous anger and retribution. It was swift and unrelenting.
In my first month on the ground, I watched as the US obliterated al Qaeda’s bases and, with the help of its Northern Alliance allies—a mix of mostly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Afghans—toppled the Taliban government that had hosted them. But the war, as we well know, did not end there.
I returned to Afghanistan in June for my fifth visit, on the eve of the planned 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops (a joint security agreement will likely keep some US military personnel there past the deadline) in attempt to understand what had happened to the country in the 12 years since I first set foot there and what might happen this time, after I left.
I reentered in exactly the same place I had crossed on my first visit: the Amu Darya River from southern Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan. The once busy Kokol-Ai Khanoum border crossing that allowed weapons, spooks, US Special Forces, and journalists like me was now a dusty shadow of its former self—a remote, dilapidated outpost that has been overshadowed by real bridges constructed or refurbished by the Americans and located near larger and busier population centers to help with the flow of commercial goods and war materials moving into and out of Afghanistan.
At the crossing, I found the same pontoons moored to the banks, left unused because so little cargo travels back and forth here these days. I stepped into an ancient, rusted motorboat, one weld away from sinking, and made the three-minute crossing a second time, uncertain, just as I had been in 2001, what or whom I would find on the other side.
Hiding in plain sight, the blue Toyota Corolla “bahmani-mobile” the author used to travel around Afghanistan.
On that first trip to Afghanistan, I felt like the very personification of the intrepid foreign correspondent: riding on horseback with my colleagues to a series of World War I-type trenches where we watched Northern Alliance fighters talk to their Taliban counterparts on handheld radios, teasing and cracking jokes in between killing each other.
In late June 2013, a dozen years later, my hair and beard were graying, some of those colleagues had been killed, the horses were gone, the trenches were empty, and I rode shotgun in a blue Toyota Corolla with the word BAHMANI—Persian for “avalanche”— emblazoned in red and white on the hood and both sides. I had asked my Afghan colleague and interpreter, Matin Sarfraz, to find us a car that might fly under the radar and not draw the attention of the locals or anyone else who might be curious as to why we were zooming around Afghanistan. The result was the bahmani-mobile, owned and driven by Matin’s cousin Dost Mohammad.
I had heard from my contacts that warlords, independent of the government, were exerting their influence. So I asked Matin to take me to meet one named Nabi Gechi who resides in a district outside Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan.
Nabi Gechi’s men looked like pirates to me. Not skinny Somali pirates, but the kind you’d find illustrated in a Howard Pyle book or on a ship in the middle of the 17th century, wrapped in dark turbans, cold steel, and hard looks.
Their faces were a microcosm of Afghan society—Turkman, Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik. They were men who’ve fought with Nabi for years, even some who had previously fought against him at one time or another. But they were all men who earned their living in blood. To lead killers like this you must be the best killer of them all, and they must believe that you are difficult, if not impossible, to kill. If they didn’t, at least one among them would have tried to claim the price on his head.
“There’s a $500,000 reward to kill Nabi,” said Mullah Jilani, a former Taliban soldier turned militia lieutenant. “The Taliban are very afraid of him.”
Two years ago, when Jilani was with the Taliban, he also wanted to kill Nabi. In fact, shortly after Nabi was hired by the village elders to provide security for his home district of Qali Zal in the Kunduz province, Jilani says he set out alongside more than 200 of his Taliban comrades to assassinate him on his own turf.
Instead, Nabi routed them. According to Jilani, Nabi executed a flanking maneuver straight out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Eventually he corralled most of his Taliban pursuers into the local market area. Then, using his weapon of choice—a Russian-made 40mm rifle-mounted grenade launcher—he killed the platoon’s commander.
“After that,” said Jilani, “we called off the attack and left the village.”
When Nabi later skirted a second assassination attempt by the Taliban, Jilani arranged a meeting with the feared warlord.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to fight you anymore—there’s no benefit for either of us,’” Jilani said. Shortly after, he switched sides and began fighting under Nabi’s command against the Taliban.
Since then, Nabi’s reputation as the fiercest Taliban killer in the north has grown to almost legendary proportions. In early July, he directed an attack against a house filled with Taliban. After his men surrounded it, Nabi, again using his beloved grenade launcher, personally unleashed a hell storm that was extreme, even for war-torn Afghanistan.
Nabi’s militiamen awaiting orders.
Nabi fired not just a dozen, 50, or even 75 of his high-powered explosive grenades at the structure. (They’re meant to be lobbed in a long arc at targets hundreds of meters away.) Haji Mohammed, Nabi’s son-in-law and bodyguard, said he watched as the commander fired 123 grenades as if they were rifle bullets—straight at his target.
I came to the Qali Zal district to meet its most feared and revered warlord—who until recently had been on the payroll of the US military. Nabi made his name not with talk, but by becoming one of the top players in Afghanistan’s number-one national commodity: warcraft.
So it was surprising when, in 2009, Nabi gave up the fight to start a successful fish and kebab restaurant in Mazar-e-Sharif. But two years later, the local elders asked him to return to Qali Zal, which had once again become overrun with Taliban, and provide security. The city was also steeped in a massive drug problem. Half of the province’s 30,000 drug addicts come from Qali Zal, an afflicted group of hashish and opium users that includes many children.
Nabi recruited and reconstituted his loyal followers into a standing militia of 300 men, set up 18 command checkpoints, and shut down Taliban operations in the district.
Malika Gharebyr, the head of women’s affairs for the district, told me that the Taliban harassed her every time she left her house. “Nabi brought security here,” she said when I visited her at her home, the day after I’d left Nabi’s compound. “It’s much better now.”
Also asked to help clear up Qali Zal’s drug problems, Nabi helped provide protection that allowed the government to move in and destroy poppy fields in the area.
“Without Nabi, we wouldn’t have been able to eradicate the fields,” said Abdul Bashir Morshid, the head of the Department of Counternarcotics in Kunduz. According to NATO’s Regional Command North, the American military was initially so supportive of Nabi’s efforts that they sent in Special Forces soldiers to train, arm, and pay his men as part of a controversial program known as the Critical Infrastructure Police (CIP). His men composed one of the dozens of irregular units mostly set up in northern Afghanistan. It was the perpetuation of an American counterinsurgency tactic used in Iraq: find a way to badge certain types of militiamen (preferably the nonideological kind), arm them, pay them, train them, and hope that the next time, they’ll be shooting in the opposite direction. This plan seemed to work with cases like the Sons of Iraq program in Anbar province, as long as the money continued to flow.
In Afghanistan, the CIP were given yellow armbands, but no uniforms, and were co-opted, at least part-time, to fight the Taliban. But many of these CIP units, taking advantage of their new positions’ guns and badges, began to moonlight in ways that undermined their mission: shaking down the local communities, extorting them for food, fuel, and whatever else they wanted. Before long these sort of allegations were directed at Nabi’s militia—who were accused of “taxing” the locals for security by taking payments in bags of wheat and chicken to eat or sell on the market, even though each militia member was being paid about $200 a month from a NATO discretionary fund.
The CIP program was created by the Americans with the help of NATO—reportedly without the knowledge or consent of President Hamid Karzai, who ordered it dismantled over a year ago, citing fears that irregular forces with no official or financial connection to the national government might one day pose a threat to it.
Eventually, the American money dried up, along with the CIP program—but Nabi’s militia did not. Largely operating off a security tax made up of foodstuffs regularly delivered to his compound and checkpoints in the district, the militia has been able to stay in business.
While he’s been a proven asset in the fight against the Taliban, Nabi has evolved into what President Karzai had feared most: a battle-tested, off-the-books warlord with no formal allegiance to the Afghan government—a wildcard who can operate independently and without oversight. Against the government’s wishes, in an attempt to solve one problem covertly, the US military had inadvertently reinforced the most popular of Afghan franchises: warlordism, a largely hopeless prospect in which he with the most guns wins.
Qali Zal’s elders, who showed up by the dozens to meet with me at Nabi’s compound on my arrival, said that they need the protection of Nabi and his men. They told me that President Karzai should endorse the militia as a full-time, government-backed local police force, or send in another of their own. Until then, they said, the community had no other option but to accept the security Nabi’s militia provided, even if they had to pay for it; they admitted, however, that not everyone in the community was happy with the taxes.
“The people asked me to come here and provide security,” Nabi said to me. “I’m happy to serve them, and if I’ve done anything wrong, I should be in a court and let them speak out against me for my crimes.”
The author in a tricky situation with Nabi, a northern Afghanistan warlord who wanted to wrestle. Photograph by Matin Sarfraz
After my meeting with the elders, Nabi took me on a tour of a few of his strongholds—high-walled compounds with watchtowers where his men were on constant lookout for approaching Taliban. While we were meeting with the village elders, Nabi acted the silent, humble servant, letting others talk on his behalf. When he did speak, his voice was so soft you had to lean in to hear him. And while his face betrayed nothing of the sort, I still sensed—or maybe projected onto him—a quiet malevolence lurking below the surface, which he could summon at any moment.
This is in part because I had heard so many stories of his ferociousness in combat, but later I felt this tension again at the broad, muddy Kunduz River, where he took us for a swim at dusk. There, like kids on summer break, Nabi and I plunged into the coffee-brown water. The current was so strong that we had to swim with the full force of our bodies to avoid being swept miles downstream.
As we climbed out onto the riverbank, Nabi slapped down hard on my shoulder and threw his leg in front of mine, as if he was about to toss me onto the ground. I was taken aback by his aggressiveness and wondered if I had done something to piss him off, or if he was just having some fun.
I looked over at Nabi’s men. They were laughing uproariously. I’m not a bad wrestler, but I couldn’t see any clear way out of his grasp. If I had made any real effort that resulted in his even accidentally losing face in front of his men, there would be a problem, especially since I was planning to stay at Nabi’s compound that evening. On the other hand, if he legitimately took me down, or I let him, he’d likely lose some respect for me, and I still had a lot of questions I wanted to ask him that might be harder to ask depending on the outcome of our impromptu match. My gut quickly led me to choose an Afghan standoff.
For a while I held him at a distance, smiled, and tried to maintain equilibrium, doing my best to avoid provoking him any further. After a few minutes of this, he grew bored with me and broke away from the grapple. I took a deep breath, relieved.
Back at his compound that evening, Nabi was a gracious host, serving us appetizers of fresh watermelon, nuts, raisins, and tea, and then feting us with a big dinner of pilau (an Afghan meat-and-rice dish), heavy flat bread, yogurt, and Mountain Dew. Matin, Dost, and I were his only guests besides his two lieutenants, and Nabi chatted candidly with us in between taking phone calls, which came one after another for hours.
A little later, Nabi’s tea boy connected a camcorder to a television in the room. He hit play and we watched footage of the aftermath of his crew’s most recent victory over the Taliban. Their bodies were blackened, peppered with shrapnel and stiff with rigor mortis. There were close-ups of the entry and exit points of their wounds, as well as body parts detached from their former owners by one of Nabi’s grenades.
Toward the end of the video, they were piled into the back of a pickup like cordwood and presented as a gift to the Afghan National Police at their headquarters in Kabul. Nabi’s men also recorded the resulting press conference, at which the police chief declared Nabi a hero. I looked over to see Nabi’s reaction to his celebrated accomplishments, but he was already asleep and snoring, sprawled out on the floor like a bearskin rug.
The next morning, we woke at dawn, but Nabil said he wanted to show us something before we left the compound. He guided us down a stairway that led to a dark enclosure under his house.
The cramped space was filled with the sound of rushing water, whirring motors, and spinning gears. Attached to a wall outside the compound, revolving in the current of a man-made waterway diverted from the Kunduz River, was a large paddlewheel. Nabi said he had constructed this small hydroelectric plant to generate a continuous power supply for himself and many of the nearby shops and businesses. This infamous and unflappable killer with a grenade launcher had made something mechanically beautiful, endlessly practical, and potentially very profitable. He said that if he were able to do this at a bigger scale and get permission from the government to divert more water from the river, he could potentially generate enough power for the entire district.
Nabi was indeed a spectacular instrument of war, but also, I realized, effective at creating instruments of peace if the opportunity arose. It made me wonder what he might be capable of creating if he could hang up his grenade launcher and devote all of his energy to projects like the one in his basement. But the truth is, I think that Nabi will be dead within a year or so. While hard to kill, he is also a very tempting target. Warlords have a short shelf life in Afghanistan.
Once allies against the Taliban, ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks fight each other on the streets of Taloqan in June.
Matin told me that he had heard from friends that trouble was building in Taloqan, a region not far from Nabi’s compound. So we piled into the bahmani-mobile and headed west, driving along the Amu Darya River until we reached the entrance to the city.
We soon arrived in downtown Taloqan, which at the moment looked like an Afghan version of Occupy Wall Street. Cops were everywhere. Four hundred of them, at least. Some were decked out in riot gear, and there was even a cherry-red fire truck with a water cannon for crowd control. The truck was a gift from the German contingent of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which had helped train the local police forces. Streets were blocked off with Humvees, parked at strategic corners and carting machine-gun mounts. Even more cops were guarding the perimeter of the city in the official vehicles of the Afghan National Police—green, super cab Ford pickup trucks, also “gifts” from ISAF.
The situation was that ethnic Uzbeks had been staging a peaceful protest here for over a week, angry at what they believe is a lack of Uzbeks in both the provincial and national governments. Things came to a head when the Takhar province police chief, an Uzbek, was fired by Afghanistan’s minister of interior and replaced with one of the minister’s cronies, a Tajik from Logar province, Colonel Abdul Hanan Qataghani.
We were seated in Colonel Qataghani’s office when one of his officers brought in four men handcuffed to one another. The officer said that the Uzbeks were trying to smuggle AK-47 rifles into the protest site. The colonel nodded and the men were taken away. I asked how his men had discovered the guns.
“We use spies inside the protest to keep us aware of what’s going on,” he told me. “It’s their right to protest, but we’ve mobilized our forces, and we’ll be waiting for orders from the interior ministry for any further action.”
A good sign, I thought, that the government was tolerating the concept of peaceful protests, while simultaneously policing its edges for sparks of violence. It was a blatantly Western tactic and made me think that maybe the $7 billion the US had spent in training the ANP was finally beginning to pay off.
It was clear that the ANP in the northern provinces were about to face the first real-life test of their training with a challenge that was far more mundane than a showdown with the Taliban. The stakes, however, were just as high: if they were unable to secure a contained area filled with lawful protesters, the population would continue to lose confidence in the ANP, something the Taliban could capitalize on even more, following the withdrawal of international forces.
Considering its history and reputation, however, the ANP’s success was far from certain. Many experts see them as one of the most crooked institutions in Afghanistan. And since they are also the de facto “face” of the national government for most Afghans, it’s an unfortunate reality that 53 percent of them regard the police as corrupt, according to a survey from 2011.
Out of the ANP’s roughly 157,000 personnel, most are illiterate—less than 10 percent can read or write—and an estimated four out of ten police recruits test positive for drugs. With only six weeks allotted for the training of new recruits, some critics claim that their position of authority simply makes them more efficient at extorting those who they are supposed to be protecting. But it’s easier to understand their participation in these sort of extracurricular activities when you consider that theirs is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. In late July, Afghanistan’s interior minister announced that a whopping 2,700 Afghan policemen had been killed in the preceding four months. Not to mention that, according to a report by the United States Institute of Peace, Afghan police officers are killed at three times the rate of ANA soldiers.
Still, Colonel Qataghani was steadfast in his claims that things were under control. “This is a completely Afghan operation,” he told me. “We can take security into our own hands.”
After we left the colonel’s office, we walked down the street to meet with Haji Jamshed, one of the leaders of the Uzbek protest who also serves as a member on Takhar’s provincial council.
“We will try our best not to be violent,” he said. “But if the government is violent against us we will respond… With stones and sticks, not with bullets.”
Uzbeks in Taloqan protest for more representation in the provincial and national governments.
I spoke to him inside a small, glass building located on the central downtown traffic circle that police use to monitor motorists. At this point, the Uzbeks had been occupying the building for a week, utilizing it as a headquarters for organizing the protests.
I asked Haji Jamshed whether, as a member of the provincial council, he was concerned about the police’s ability to maintain order. If they failed, would this confirm the international community’s worst fears about Afghanistan’s ability to handle its own security or, even worse, embolden the Taliban to exploit the situation?
“That’s not up to us to decide,” he said. “We simply want our rights.” Our conversation was interrupted by his cell phone’s ringtone. He answered, listening intently to the caller before hanging up and relaying the information to me: “It seems the government is organizing a counterprotest.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“We have our informers inside,” he said, smiling.
While Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks have historically been distrustful of each other, there have been times when they have been forced to put aside their differences and align to fight greater enemies. The first instance was during the Soviet invasion in the 80s, and in more recent times they have banded together against the Taliban. But while they share the common goal of ousting extremists from their country, 12-plus years of constant battle have also deepened longstanding rifts between the two factions. To provide a balanced ethnic representation in the government, the country even has two vice presidents, one of each ethnicity.
A few hours later, I saw this rift turn violent in downtown Taloqan. Five hundred men lined the street, taunting each other. The Tajiks stood on one side, with the majority of the police forces standing behind them in what appeared to be a display of support. Standing about 100 feet away on the other side were the Uzbeks. A member of each group carried a large Afghan flag, but the Tajiks also hoisted a photograph of Marshal Fahim, the most prominent Tajik in the national government and Afghanistan’s more powerful “first” vice president.
At first only insults were hurled, but the atmosphere soon bristled with menace as young men gathered stones. One side was shouting things like “Kill all the Uzbeks,” and the other responded with declarations such as “This area is for Uzbeks, not Tajiks.” Soon the first rock was thrown—I didn’t see by whom—and both sides unleashed volleys of stones and debris.
As I waded in to shoot video and photographs, Matin told me to be careful. He had heard some men behind me say, “Look, there’s a foreigner, hit him with some stones, and they’ll think it’s coming from the other side.” Fortunately, no one acted on the suggestion.
It wasn’t long before members of the crowd removed their head scarves and fashioned them into homemade slingshots. A violent rhythm ensued, with the Tajiks advancing with their flag as if they were storming the Bastille. They were momentarily repelled as the Uzbeks charged ahead in the same fashion, stopping just short of crossing the invisible but innately understood dividing line. The battle finally got started when the Uzbeks grabbed hold of a Tajik man and beat him. The Tajiks responded by pelting the second story of a nearby house where a small group of Uzbeks watched the fight.
Instead of using their new fire truck’s water cannon or other tactically sound methods to disperse the increasingly agitated crowd, most of the police watched the brawl from behind the Tajik line and did nothing to stop its escalation. Between lulls in the fighting, a dozen officers would approach the mob and impotently attempt to separate the groups by chiding them as if they were dealing with a couple of schoolkids fighting on the playground.
I watched the debacle unfold for several hours until the sun began to set and it seemed that things were winding down, so I left. But a few hours later I learned that I was wrong: shortly after my departure, the protestors had taken their guns out and started shooting each other. By the time the mob had dispersed, three people were left dead in the street and 52 others had been wounded. What began as a peaceful protest escalated into a deadly gun battle the police had failed to contain.
Even more depressing, the incident served as yet another example of how the billions invested in staffing, tactical training, and nonlethal weaponry for the ANP all seemed like a complete waste. As I contemplated this failure, I wondered if the situation was even more convoluted than it appeared: Had the phone call that the Uzbek leader Haji Jamshed received when I arrived downtown pointed to something sinister? He mentioned that the government was organizing a counterprotest. It made me wonder if the ANP had forgotten their training on purpose, or perhaps they were even responsible for instigating the violence.
The police denied the allegations of complicity, but their inaction, especially when things turned violent, could itself be considered criminal. It raised a key question the international community has been trying to answer for years: Would Afghan security forces be capable of doing the job on their own when there weren’t any more American or other NATO troops around to provide support? If the results of this Uzbek-versus-Tajik confrontation were any indication, the answer, at least in Takhar province, is clearly no.
Drug addicts gather by the hundreds under the Pul-i-sokhta Bridge in west Kabul to shoot up, smoke, buy, and sell.
A week after crossing the border into northern Afghanistan, we headed to the country’s capital, Kabul. While the journey is less than 200 miles, it took me five days in 2001, which included time spent getting lost in a minefield and dealing with one of our trucks flipping over on the icy descent to the other end of the Salang Tunnel. Improved roads and security have today shortened the route to about five or six hours, but trouble with the bahmani-mobile doubled the time for us. We didn’t arrive until after midnight.
In Kabul, Matin and Dost handed me off to one of my oldest and best Afghan friends, a relentlessly intelligent man named Haroon Khadim, who worked with me as an interpreter in 2001 and on nearly all of my trips to the region since. After we spent some time catching up, I told him I wanted to see Kabul’s most notorious drug den, the area underneath the Pul-i-Sokhta Bridge.
On the morning of our visit, hundreds of drug addicts had gathered in the perpetual darkness and filth to shoot, smoke, buy, sell, or nod off after using heroin.
In one spot, we saw a group of men, syringes in hand, shooting each other up—the junkie version of a circle jerk. Nearby there was a young guy wrapped in a head scarf, lying on the bank, legs crossed, hands in pockets, and enveloped in a narco-doze that would appear almost peaceful if it weren’t for the river of shit, piss, and toxic sludge that flowed next to him.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, the material from which heroin is made. A lesser-known fact, however, is that Afghans have now become leading consumers of their own product, with an estimated 1 million addicts— about 8 percent of the total population, according to a United Nations survey.
I climbed down a dirt path next to the bridge and cautiously stepped around its hellish perimeter, concerned that every footfall could push the tip of a dirty syringe through my boot.
I stopped when I found a good place to take a few photographs, and while I was shooting one of the addicts made a run at me, shouting, “What is he doing here? Why is he taking pictures?”
Haroon tried to intercept him, but the man followed me as I scaled back up the bank. As I reached the top, he grabbed my arm and reached for the camera. I yanked the camera back, pushed him away, and raised my fist with the threat that I would pop him one if he persisted.
Just then another man, a 23-year-old named Hasibullah, patted the guy on the shoulder, telling him to calm down and explaining that we were “guests” here.
“If they’re guests, why does he have his hands raised like that?” the man asked, confused.
Hasibullah responded by sending him back down under the bridge and then walked us to the street. I still wanted to speak with some of the addicts, so Haroon invited Hasibullah to sit inside our car and chat. He told us about the realities of life under the bridge, while adamantly denying that he was a drug addict himself.
“It’s hell down here. We sleep in the dirt and shit,” he said. “Everyone is always fighting, but once they inject, they just fall asleep, fall down, and forget where they are. When someone dies, the government comes and gets the body and they hold it for the family to pick it up. There are doctor’s assistants down there, university graduates, soldiers. They have family issues, lost people in the war, economic problems, or [had] too much money, started having fun, and now can’t stop.”
As I talked to Hasibullah, a guy wearing a dirty red leather motorcycle jacket over a stained traditional shalwar kameez lumbered over to the driver’s-side window. He introduced himself as Shir Shaw and said he also wanted to talk about life under the bridge, but his stench was so awful that we decided against letting him into the car and spoke to him through the open window instead.
Even though he was only in his 20s, his face was already forged in the permanent weariness of an endless drug hustle, with bloodshot eyes and pupils that looked like pinpricks. He said he’d been using heroin, first mixing it with hashish during his time serving in the Afghan Army. He stole, begged, or made a few dollars a day helping to fill seats in taxis, exhausting his bounty on a few ampules of heroin. He spent his days shooting up, his nights scrounging for money.
This kind of product demanded by users like Shir Shaw has ensured that the people who cultivate and sell the drug won’t be going anywhere any time soon. Poppies can thrive in even the poorest of soil, and Afghan farmers can make up to $10,000 a year per hectare of raw opium, which is a sharp contrast to the $120 earned per hectare of wheat. Nearly 900 tons of opium and 375 tons of heroin are exported from Afghanistan every year, according to the UNODC Opium Survey.
Despite the $541 million the US Agency for International Development (USAID) spent from 2009 to 2012 to help Afghan farmers develop financially viable alternatives to growing poppies, the windfalls of the crop might be harder to kick than the drug it produces. And the billions more that have been spent on eradication and interdiction efforts (the US spent $782 million in 2005 alone) have had little impact.
Opium cultivation also helps fund Afghanistan’s seemingly never-ending war. The UNODC estimates that the Taliban may have earned as much as $700 million from the poppy crop in 2011 alone, and despite billions spent by the international community on counternarcotics programs, widespread corruption within the Afghan government has severely undercut efforts to reduce both cultivation and trafficking.
Nowhere was this fact more evident than in my conversations with Shir Shaw and Hasibullah. When we finished talking, they asked us for money. Instead we gave them bags of juicy red plums—far from what they were jonesing for, I was sure, but far easier on my conscience. I watched as they sulked away, disappointed, heading back under the bridge.
This former Afghan soldier who calls himself Shir Shaw lives under the Pul-i-sokhta Bridge in Kabul, shooting up during the day and hustling for money at night.
Although my revisiting of Afghanistan coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the Qur’an required Haroon, like all able Muslims, to fast from dusk till dawn, he was a true sport and agreed to take me 100 miles east of Kabul to Jalalabad.
We made the two-hour trip in a blue station wagon that was owned by Haroon’s brother and blended in even more than Dost’s bahamani-mobile. The dry midday heat had reached 100 degrees by the time we arrived, soaked with sweat and dehydrated.
Jalalabad was another place where I had spent considerable time during my first stint in the country. I returned because I wanted to see if the security situation had improved in this volatile region in the years since the fall of the Taliban.
In 2001, Tora Bora, located just south of Jalalabad, served as the final stronghold for al Qaeda and the Taliban during their winding retreat to the relative safety of Pakistan. It was there, inside the White Mountains, that Western media outlets had reported Osama bin Laden had built a multilayered, underground fortress large enough for thousands of fighters, an elaborate ventilation system, an ammunition depot, a hospital, roads, and even a hydroelectric plant to power it all.
By December of that year, three months after 9/11, the US had bombed Tora Bora so mercilessly that Afghan and US forces were able to infiltrate and eventually control the area. A thorough search proved bin Laden’s rumored elaborate hideaway never existed. There were only pockets of small, naturally occurring caves that couldn’t have hidden more than a few hundred men.
At that time, I traveled from Kabul to Jalalabad, and then on to Tora Bora. There I saw American B-52s and B-1B bombers drop 15,000-pound payloads on the al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who clung to life inside mountain crevices.
On this trip, I wanted to return to Tora Bora to determine whether or not the once infamous gateway for Taliban fighters from Pakistan to Afghanistan had quietly reopened for business at some point in the last dozen years. The scuttlebutt was that the road to Tora Bora had become rife with bandits, Taliban, and roadside bombs. On our arrival at the ANP headquarters in Nangarhar province, we discovered that this assessment wasn’t far off the mark when Deputy Provincial Police Chief Mohammad Masum Khan Hashimi told us that there had been a roadside-bomb explosion there the past week.
Mohammad asked us how important our story was, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I exaggerated: I implied that what I would be reporting from Tora Bora could potentially impact the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement, the plan that details the scope and extent of US support following the planned 2014 withdrawal of American forces.
The plan has yet to be finalized, but the overwhelming majority of Afghan National Security Forces agree that some form of continued support from the US military and its allies after the withdrawal will be necessary to ensure the stability of the region. What hasn’t been agreed on is exactly what types of support the agreement will entail—air power, fuel, more weapons, supplies, spare parts, and even continuing to station a few thousand troops in the country are all on the table.
Resignedly, Hashimi told us that he’d do his best but asked us to come back the following day for more information.
The next day we returned to the ANP headquarters as Hashimi had asked, and he told us the safest passage to Tora Bora was by helicopter. The bad news was that the provincial police didn’t have one.
I asked if driving ourselves to the mountain was a reasonably safe undertaking.
“You might get there,” Hashimi said, “but I don’t know what might happen after that.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “the Taliban control Tora Bora.”
And there was my answer. The Taliban’s revolving gateway into Afghanistan was most definitely back in business, and likely had been for some time. With or without bin Laden’s mythical fortress, Tora Bora—a security hole that wouldn’t stay plugged—was still a major headache for the Afghan government. We decided to stay put.
It turned out our decision was probably a wise one. A few weeks later, I heard from my contacts in the area that the local ANP fought a two-day battle with the Taliban near Jalalabad. Twenty-two officers perished in the firefight along with 76 Taliban. Contrary to what I had witnessed during the protest in Taloqan, certain elements of the Afghan forces are still willing to fight.
US soldiers from the Sixth Squadron Eighth Cavalry Regiment use a tree line for cover while on patrol near the village of Baraki Barak in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan.
Afghan National Army soldiers rest in a patch of clover during a joint patrol with American troops in Wardak province.
With so much time and money having been invested in equipping and training the Afghan military, I wanted to be sure to see them in action before the end of my journey—especially since so much was riding on their ability to secure their own nation, once the international forces left. Afghans could fight—history had proven that—but could they now fight as a national army, rather than so many ethnic militias pledged to regional warlords?
To find out, I left Kabul and traveled to Logar province where I embedded with a joint operation of American troops from the Sixth Squadron Eighth Cavalry Regiment and ANA soldiers.
The chopper ride to Combat Outpost Baraki Barak is just 30 miles from Kabul, but it’s a world away in terms of their respective populations’ hearts and minds, and the surrounding terrain. Logar is a conservative region filled with Taliban sympathizers who are inherently suspicious of foreigners’ intentions, and its geography is just as inhospitable and complicated. From the helicopter, I peered down on the hundreds of irrigation canals and waterways that divide rich swaths of farmland filled with fields of clover, summer wheat, and watermelon. While beautiful from the air, it was almost certainly hell for the soldiers who had to patrol it on the ground, as it provided cover for the enemy in every direction.
On the ground at the combat outpost, I met an Afghan interpreter the American soldiers called 007. They didn’t know his real name, or any of the names of the other interpreters. Instead they all had nicknames like Dragon or Boss. It was safer for them that way. Still, it was strange to hear the US soldiers yell, “Where’s 007? Get 007.”
007 had worked as an interpreter for the American military for five years. He had lost plenty of friends over that time, and the fact that he was still alive spoke to his luck and caution. Some of the Americans joked about how quickly he dove for cover when they were fired upon by the enemy. He shrugged. They were going to be in Afghanistan for nine months, but his deployment never ended.
Later, out on patrol, we walked together along the river that irrigated the patchwork of wheat and clover fields near the village of Baraki Barak in Logar Province. 007 told me he wanted to get a visa and come to the United States. A special expedited visa for military and government interpreters in Afghanistan is the reason many of them choose this type of dangerous work.
“If all the educated Afghans leave for America, who will be left to run this place?” I asked. “Just the warlords?”
He didn’t have an answer.
Between our conversations, 007 monitored radio chatter from some of the ANA and local police that followed this worn and weary platoon of American soldiers from the 6-8 Cavalry.
The “retrograde,” or withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, means that when soldiers die, get injured, or complete their deployment, they aren’t replaced. This unit, like most around the country, is feeling the effects of this pullback. At the moment, its platoons, squads, and fire teams are functioning at about half of their former strength.
Carved into the plywood ceiling of one of the buildings back at their combat outpost was the sentence THERE’S NO REASON TO HIDE HOW WE FEEL. When I read it, I couldn’t help but think of the manpower shortages caused by the retrograde, and how it might make the final deployments for the remaining foreign troops even more dangerous.
But if there was widespread disillusionment, the graffiti etched into the ceiling was the only evidence I saw of it; everyone was keeping their mouths shut if they were at odds with their current situation. Every day the US troops dutifully completed their foot patrols—vehicles were useless in terrain crisscrossed with irrigation canals—and fueled themselves with energy drinks, dip, and the knowledge that, at a little over four months, their rotation here was almost halfway done. But their mission—training and assisting the local Afghan security forces—seemed far from complete.
While I had embedded with the American military many times during my reporting in Afghanistan, my last was probably the most revelatory. I needed to see what kind of legacy the US was leaving behind. There certainly was blood: more than 2,100 American service members were killed in combat here, thousands more injured. Had they helped to create a sustainable national army that could fend off the Taliban? More important, did they believe they had actually gained something in the last dozen years worth fighting for?
At the moment, it didn’t seem so. 007 told me about the ANA radio chatter.
Afghan National Army soldiers and local police with a captured suspect they said was aiding a possible suicide bomber in Logar province.
“They are saying they are tired—and hungry,” 007 said of the chatter, laughing. Even if it was a wholly unprofessional discourse to be having over the radio, who could really blame them? Of course they were tired and hungry. It was Ramadan, and most Muslims were fasting. It was also the middle of a summer afternoon, the temperature in the mid-90s. I found it hard not to suck down my own canteen in front of them.
Later, 007 and I walked along one of the nameless small rivers surrounding the base, even wading through it at times, which almost made the terrain seem tropical and brought to mind pictures and news footage of American troops in the jungles of Vietnam. The ANA troops, on the other hand, circumvented the water, taking shortcuts or going through fields, doing almost anything to avoid getting their boots wet. I couldn’t decide if they were being lazy or smart.
An hour later, we had pushed off the river and walked north under the cover of a narrow tree line that ran parallel to the road. We heard a single shot, followed by a three-round burst behind us. Everyone dropped to the ground.
The Afghans shouted back and forth, creating more confusion. The American platoon leader, Lieutenant Michael Hourihan, called up Dragon and 007 to translate as he spoke with the ANA by radio.
Within minutes, a group of ANA troops and local police led a short, bearded Afghan man in his late 20s up the road toward the Americans. His hands were bound behind his back with a scarf, probably his own. The ANA and police said the man was the driver of a motorcycle whose passenger ran away when they were shot at. The radio operator said they started shooting because he had overheard Taliban radio chatter that the rider had been wearing a suicide vest.
“I shot in their direction so we could capture them,” said an ANA squad leader named Zabiaullah, “but there was also a woman nearby and I didn’t want to hit her.” He said the men on the motorcycle hadn’t fired first, nor did they seem to be carrying any weapons, but also suggested the man who successfully fled could’ve been hiding some under his clothing.
The radio operator said that once they captured the motorcycle driver he heard more Taliban radio chatter that their mission had been aborted. Their prisoner denied these accusations, telling the ANA soldiers that he had simply been giving the other man a ride. He didn’t even know who he was, he said. It was almost like an episode of Cops; the ANA troops obviously didn’t buy it and escorted him back to their base.
Lieutenant Hourihan thought that the motorcycle might be rigged with explosives. He wanted to blow it up where it was parked.
“No, no,” said one of the Afghans. He waved the lieutenant off, while his fellow soldier hopped on the bike and prepared to start it up.
“Do not start that bike,” the lieutenant ordered, firmly.
They looked at him defiantly, rolled it away a few yards, kick-started the engine, and rode off. Lieutenant Hourihan shook his head.
When we returned to the base an hour later, we saw the two Afghans on the commandeered motorcycle, cleaned up, out of uniform, and heading away from the base.
007 looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Those guys,” he said.
The Americans and Afghans on the patrol didn’t seem to be working together very well, with plenty of suspicion and maybe even a little contempt evident on both sides. But maybe, I thought, that simply didn’t matter anymore. Their on-the-ground partnership was in the process of dissolving, and most military experts agree that the Afghans don’t have to necessarily fight at the level or with the tactics of Western armies to win this war—they just have to fight better than the Taliban. While American assets like airpower, high-tech weaponry, and logistical support certainly provided an edge, the time left for that edge was waning.
Shadows of soldiers from US Third Battalion, Seventh Infantry Regiment on an early-morning patrol in eastern Afghanistan.
I returned home a week after my visit to the combat outpost in Baraki Barak unable to clear my mind of this question: Had the Afghan forces there actually prevented an attack on the American troops by stopping a supposed suicide bomber riding on the back of the bike or was it simply a way to steal a motorcycle so a few of them wouldn’t have to walk all the way back to their base? I just couldn’t be certain and that unknown answer spoke volumes about the effects the US military’s decade-long presence has had on those who are now charged with ensuring Afghanistan security.
Uncertainty is a strange emotion to have after a dozen years of war, $600 billion spent, and more than 2,100 US and countless others’ lives lost. Any venture capitalist would expect a better return on the investment. But who was to blame? The Afghan government? Corruption is so bold that it even levied a departure tax on American military vehicles withdrawing from the country. Or was the American government at fault for dispersing military and humanitarian aid here as if it were wildly spraying out of a fire hose, without responsibly vetting who they gave it to or accounting for it once it was given? It was yet another question with an answer that may never be known.
America hadn’t come here in 2001 to save the Afghans, of course—it had stormed in on a mission of vengeance and national security to smash al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban. Under the narrow scope of those early goals, it was a “mission accomplished.” But in regards to the long-term goal of nation- building, of helping to create a stable, secure Afghanistan, it has obviously fallen short.
I thought back to what one Afghan man had said to me while I was traveling in the north: “The Americans have changed the lives of everyone here, even the Taliban.” Afghanistan had done the same to us, I thought. Americans have been forever changed by this once and perhaps future failed state, where so much has been wagered over the past dozen years.
I knew it had changed me, defining my existence for one-fifth of my life. Over the years, I became intertwined in its myth and magic. I lost friends and colleagues and certainly my own innocence. Afghanistan was and is a beautiful and brutal place. Infuriatingly incongruous, it’s a country where the world’s best hospitality coexists alongside honor killings, a society that shrouds its women in burkas but dresses up its young boys as dancing girls, a people strong enough to defeat outside invaders, but unable to stop fighting themselves. It was, and is, a nearly perfect reflection of the good and evil in all of us.
All text and photos by Kevin Sites.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.”
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kevinsites
Visit his personal website: KevinSitesReports.com
And read more from Kevin Sites on VICE: Killing Up Close
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