Spring In Afghanistan
The Fight Goes On
In Afghanistan, bin Laden's dead and the Taliban don't care.
DASHT-E-LEILI, Afghanistan — Three green police pickup trucks roared up a serpentine gravel road and disappeared in cumuli of dust, careening toward Kushteppeh, where a government outpost was under attack by Taliban fighters. Moments later, seven motorcycle riders in black turbans — masked, and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and at least one rocket-propelled grenade launcher — inched out from behind a dune, pulled out onto Highway A76, and trundled in the opposite direction.
A decade ago, Jowzjan province became a grotesque symbol of Taliban defeat. In November 2001, U.S.-backed forces of Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum slaughtered up to 2,000 Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners of war here and dumped their bodies into unmarked pits, turning Dasht-e-Leili — the "Lily Desert" in Dari, where skeleton plants’ pale flowers push through the dunes toward an immense, bruised sky — into the site of the first landmark atrocity in America’s war against terrorism. The massacre’s 3,014 survivors were taken to jail in the provincial capital, Shibirghan, and some were later transferred to Guantánamo Bay.
Ten years after the massacre, the Taliban are ruling entire districts in Jowzjan. They ride motorcycles fully armed through the province in daytime, set up impromptu checkpoints to levy taxes on travelers, and terrorize the province’s meager police force. Likewise, the killing of Osama bin Laden, seen in Washington as a significant landmark that may somehow affect fighting in Afghanistan, has no more significance than any other war death in this loess vastness: just another element in the composite of violence that makes up the battered landscape of this graveyard of empires.
"Bin Laden was just one man. Why should his death bring any changes here?" said Colonel Nur Ahmad, the deputy police chief of Jowzjan province. "There are parts of the province where even the police can’t go without risking death. Tell me: What does Osama have to do with it?"
That anyone should consider bin Laden’s death auspicious to the course of the counterinsurgency is a surprising notion to many in northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been gaining rapid momentum over the past 18 months. In Balkh province, village elders, farmers, and taxi drivers have told me they saw no connection at all between the killing of al Qaeda’s founder and war — Afghanistan’s near-permanent state for millennia, uninterrupted since the Soviet invasion in 1979. In Mazar-e-Sharif, where an enraged mob lynched 12 U.N. workers last month, Balkh provincial police chief, General Ismatullah Alizai, cackled with derision when I brought up bin Laden’s name.
"They will produce 1,000 more Osamas!" he fumed behind a broad desk decorated with a jade plaque bearing his name and a red soccer ball wrapped in a garland of papier-mâché roses. "It is foolish to think that if someone kills the headmaster of a school the school will cease existing. Al Qaeda is like a breach in the hull of a ship. Killing Osama is like bailing water, and saying that we’ve closed the breach."
In Shibirghan, Colonel Nur Ahmad had no time for florid metaphors. We met in a stuffy office at the police headquarters that doubles as his bedroom. He wore plastic beige flip-flops with his uniform. His unmade cot was the berth of a man who sneaks naps between missions. He had been up until 4 a.m. the night before, monitoring by radio the latest Taliban assault on the police checkpoint in Kushteppeh, then got up shortly after dawn to wait for word about the number of casualties from the battle. When I mentioned the suggestion that bin Laden’s death might pave the way for an early withdrawal of the approximately 100,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, he looked panicked. Even Barack Obama’s plan to begin reducing the number of U.S. forces in July, he said, is categorically premature.
"Osama may be dead, but the Taliban are stepping up their offensive," the colonel told me. He fiddled with his radio, listening for updates from Kushteppeh. He apologized for being distracted — "the security is very bad, very bad" — and offered a word of advice: "Don’t travel through Jowzjan early in the morning, before eight, or after one in the afternoon. The rest of the time" — a magnanimous way to describe a five-hour window — "it is safe."
Thirty miles east on A76, in Jowzjan’s Faizabad district, insurgents have launched at least one daily attack on government forces since May 1 — the day bin Laden was killed. On Monday, Taliban fighters ambushed three Afghan army trucks, wounding several soldiers, and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a border police car, narrowly missing it. "It’s been really bad," said the district police chief, Commander Haidar. "For example, the highway you took here is not safe."
Faizabad has 33 villages. Nine of the most populous — Haidar listed their names, using his orange prayer beads as an abacus to keep count — fell into Taliban hands in the last 10 months. Haidar’s 25 police officers, virtually immured inside their chipped adobe checkpoints, are no match for the insurgents, who, he estimates, number between 110 and 120 in his district and appear to enjoy popular support. The day of our interview, two armed men in the dark turbans and mismatched camouflage commonly worn by Taliban fighters watched the highway from the back of a motorcycle parked on a curb a mile or so east of one police checkpoint.
"If we have one man, they have 10; if we have 100, they have 100," Haidar said. "If my policemen peek out of a checkpoint, they’ll immediately get shot. The only thing they can do is try to protect ordinary people on the highway — but only if the Taliban are within a checkpoint’s firing range. They can shoot at them from inside the checkpoint."
Haidar, by coincidence, shares an indirect connection with bin Laden: In 1996, he was a refugee from the Taliban in Abbottabad, the Pakistani town where the international terrorist was killed. "I was shocked when I heard about it — it’s such a quiet, elite little town," Haidar said. "I sold groceries there for five months. Then I moved to Karachi to work as a tailor."
A haboob was blowing from the west, and we stood on a barren plain outside the Faizabad police headquarters and watched. An enormous, mocha-colored roller tall as heaven sped toward us, pushing ahead buttermilk fog of steaming dust that blurred horizons, and devouring whatever was scattered along the highway: tattered motley flags on martyrs’ graves; silver-lined poplar groves; gutted tank hulls, the rusted exoskeletons of bygone wars. It was past one in the afternoon, and Commander Haidar sent me on my way.
"If you see anyone in Afghan army camouflage and turbans, don’t stop; the Taliban are using those uniforms," he warned. "And when you get back to Mazar, call me to tell me you’ve made it safely."