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.

By Fritz Schaap and Sergio Ramazzotti (Photos)


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

January 29, 2019 12:20 PM

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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