Afghans Haven’t Forgotten Taliban Atrocities

The United States’ withdrawal may be a balm domestically. It’s anything but for those that lived through the horror.

Children walk through ruins in the Qarabagh district of Afghanistan.
Children walk through ruins in the Qarabagh district in the Shomali Plain of Afghanistan on April 13. Two decades later, the Taliban’s destruction is still visible. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

QARABAGH, Afghanistan—The Taliban flooded into the Shomali Plain by the thousands, supported by tanks and air power. Reza Gul fled south toward Kabul barefoot amid the chaos, leaving behind her house, her belongings, and the bodies of her three teenage sons, slain by Taliban bullets.

Within days, the militants had deliberately killed countless people, scorched the rich farming land, destroyed tens of thousands of houses, and blown up irrigation systems. The Taliban’s 1999 invasion of the Shomali Plain, stretching north from Kabul toward Bagram, was one of their most brutal—and lingering. Today, the destruction is still visible. Behind the main highway, countless skeletons of old houses are testimony to the Taliban’s past atrocities; out of 70 villages in Gul’s district of Qarabagh, 99 percent of the houses were destroyed. Many of the ruins have never been rebuilt.

Gul, who is now 75, breaks into tears at the memory, which remains crystal clear, as deeply etched as the wrinkled crevasses in her face that she said show just how much she’s suffered.

“It haunts me,” she told Foreign Policy. “I am afraid the Taliban will come back.”

A portrait of Reza Gul, who fled her home when the Taliban attacked the Shomali Plain in 1999.

Reza Gul, 75, seen on April 13, fled her home when the Taliban attacked the Shomali Plain in 1999. She hasn’t forgotten the Taliban’s past atrocities.Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

She’s not alone. More than two decades after the invasion of the Shomali Plain, with the United States poised to abandon Afghanistan for good after 20 years, many fear the militants will once again stage large-scale devastating attacks.

“Atrocities like Shomali were a regular feature of the war in the 1990s. A vast international presence prevented some but not all such killings in the past 20 years,” said Patricia Gossman, Human Rights Watch’s associate Asia director. “If there is no settlement and the war continues, which unfortunately seems likely, I am afraid civilians will continue to bear the brunt of the war and continue to be the victims of atrocities.”

One of the senior Taliban field commanders in the Shomali Plain during the 1999 offensive and massacre as well as the Taliban’s deputy to the chief of army are today leading the militant groups’ negotiations in Doha, Qatar, according to the Afghanistan Justice Project. In other words, the men who allowed entire valleys to be razed and torched are today leading the theoretical charge for “peace.”

The Taliban said U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by Sept. 11 rather than the May 1 deadline they thought they had clinched with former U.S. President Donald Trump is a breach of the pact. The militants warned in a statement this “opens the way … to take very necessary countermeasures, hence the American side will be held accountable for all future consequences and not the Islamic Emirate.”

On April 13, just moments before Biden announced his decision to pull out, Asadullah Sarwary, 56, sat at home in Qarabagh, recalling how his own house was burned to the ground when the Taliban attacked. Sarwary, a tall man with 10 children who is a community leader, fought for the Northern Alliance in the 1990s, the military force that opposed the Taliban during its rule from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban had made incursions into the Shomali Plain before but nothing as horrible as late summer 1999.

“They captured, abducted, and killed people, destroyed houses and mosques, and set entire villages on fire,” Sarwary said. “The sky had turned black. People scattered quickly and couldn’t even bury their dead; they dried up in the sun or were eaten by dogs.” For a 25-mile stretch, from the northern outskirts of Kabul toward what is today the U.S. Air Base at Bagram, everything in the valley was razed within days.

Then, Sarwary said, the Northern Alliance launched a counteroffensive and managed to push the Taliban back, allowing an estimated 167,000 civilians to seek refuge in the narrow Panjshir Valley, the Northern Alliance stronghold, where they set up temporary camps.

“I remember the day well,” said Mir, a 64-year-old former humanitarian worker who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People were traumatized. They had been chased out of their homes. It’s unclear how many died, but those who made it to Panjshir stayed there for almost two years, enduring bitterly cold winters.”

Not until after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 could people, including Gul, return to the Shomali Plain in large numbers. Mir and his team of aid workers rebuilt more than 5,000 houses, simple dwellings just shy of 200 square feet built from mud bricks and wooden planks. That’s exactly where Gul has been ever since.

An Afghan woman surrounded by children in her house in Qarabagh.

Gul is surrounded by children in her house in Qarabagh, rebuilt by an aid agency 20 years ago, on April 13.Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

If the U.S. arrival allowed Gul and many of her neighbors to return home, the question is what happens when the U.S. troops leave. Some observers speculate the Taliban of today are not the same as the brutal group that waged vicious war and imposed a hard-line brand of Islam on the country in the 1990s. Sarwary sees no change.

“If the U.S. were to leave tomorrow, I could see the Taliban try to launch similar large-scale attacks in the future,” he said. Equally concerning, he said, is the steady infiltration of extremist ideology in the Shomali Plain. “They recruit criminals and the unemployed. It’s no longer safe here. The Taliban is everywhere now.”

The U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat assessment, published on April 13—the same day as Biden’s announcement—warned the Taliban are confident they can achieve a military victory and are likely to make gains on the battlefield. It also stated the Afghan government will struggle to hold them at bay if coalition forces withdraw support.

After a phone conversation with Biden, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tried to calm rising panic. “Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along,” he said. But Afghan forces are already demoralized. Some have abandoned their posts and taken defensive positions.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the Taliban’s capacity to inflict major damage,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy South Asia director at the Wilson Center. “When Afghan forces no longer have the advantage of calling in U.S. air power to fend off Taliban advances into cities, the insurgents will have a major opportunity that they will fully exploit.” He added the Taliban have plenty of arms and money after diversifying their funding over the years beyond drug trafficking and smuggling.

Like many Afghans, Mir believes a full U.S. withdrawal could not only clear the path for the Taliban but likewise empower warlords and regional power brokers to set up their own armies, possibly leading to civil war—as has happened before.

“Everyone—including the warlords—wants to come back to power,” Mir said. “None of them care about the ordinary people.”

Gul, now a widow living with her three remaining children and their own families, admits the memories and fear haunt her, but she said she wouldn’t flee again if the Taliban come back in force.

“I will either live in peace or die in war,” she said.

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist and photographer who reports on conflict and humanitarian crisis. Twitter: @stephglinski