Silently and strategically, the Taliban are gaining ground in eastern Afghanistan – and without even firing shots. As they advance, they are forming grotesque alliances against forces even more radical than themselves.
By Christoph Reuter und Christian Werner (Photos)
No one has conquered it in over a century. Not the United States Army, not the Islamic State, not the Taliban, not the the mujahedeen, not the Soviet army. The inhabitants of the rugged Darah-i-Noor valley, whose villages are built into mountain slopes like fortresses, have always wanted one thing above all: to be left alone. But, as they will tell you here, one thing has always been clear if there has to be fighting: Anyone here capable of holding a gun will do so. At least among the men.
The fact that enemies might appear to be stronger than they are has never been a reason for the people here to give up. Their cousins a few mountain ranges away in the Korangal Valley didn’t give up in recent years, either, when they defied the helicopters, missiles, drones and precision munitions of the Americans who had set up base there. “That’s jihad,” they tersely say. “That’s how it has to be.”
However, what is deeply unsettling to everyone in the valley these days is the news about five men who were seen walking in the area in the middle of the day.
At first, it was just a rumor that quickly spread from village to village and was met with doubt and the shaking of heads – at least until the person who spread it was able to provide the scant details. Mohammed Zafar, a farmer, was on his way back from his field at 11 a.m. in early June when he ran right into the five men. They gruffly ordered him to stop and asked what he was doing here. He answered that he was from here, that this is his village. He says his thoughts were muddled out of fear and confusion. And he simply didn’t dare to ask the men what they were doing here. They told him they were from the “emirate.” Then they continued on their way and out of his sight.
The Taliban had arrived.
Enemies have reportedly always lurked everywhere here, in the plains outside the entrance to the valley or high up in the primeval forests on the ridges of the mountains that stretch all the way to the Pakistani border. The roughly 50,000 people living in Darah-i Noor don’t really expect much good from the outside world.
But the brazenness with which the five Taliban would just saunter through their valley in broad daylight has been disturbing to a population that is usually quite self-confident. Granted, the five were carrying AK-47s. But viewed in the light of local customs, that would be about as disturbing as finding a Swiss Army knife in the backpack of someone hiking in the Alps.
“How dare they?” asks one of the maliks, or “kings”, as the rulers of the villages are called. They are sitting in the shade of a tree, a dozen men, all of then with suntanned faces and most of them with long beards. “Who’s protecting them,” asks another man sitting in a group of less-senior chieftains, who are used to sovereignly commanding their few square kilometers of territory.
Haji Mahboob, the most powerful malik in the upper section of the valley, speaks of how 300 Taliban marched along the ridges above his village, Sutan. The Taliban’s emissaries were reportedly then told: “Leave! Or there will be war!” Then they left again. But what about this time? He frowns, saying their villages must have been infiltrated. But by whom?
Many of the locals moved to the big cities for work or education, only to come back a few years later. Is it possible that some have defected to the Taliban and are now undermining the rule of the maliks from within? Mahboob suspects it is the “teachers at the madrassa.” Maybe some of the shopkeepers, too? Or some of the car mechanics in the villages in the lower part of the valley that the road stretches to?
In any case, everyone is certain that the Taliban must already be in their midst. Otherwise the five men wouldn’t have walked through the fields so fearlessly. Now they say it is important to proceed with caution. They don’t know how powerful the opponents within their own ranks may be.
Almost everywhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban have been conquering district after district since May and closing in on provincial capitals. In June, they seized control of almost the entire northern province of Takhar in just a few days’ time. And in early July, they captured the neighboring province of Badakhshan. On July 7, the Taliban attacked the capital of Badghis, a province in the northwest. And on July 12, they attacked Ghazni, a city south of Kabul.
The Taliban are advancing like an unstoppable storm. Their strength lies less in their weapons than in how the government’s security forces perceive them. With each bit of bad news, the army is inceasingly panic-stricken and announces that it will soon recapture the lost terrorities, even as the next defeat is already being reported.
A joke is making its way around the country that only slightly exaggerates the actual situation. A lone member of the Taliban got lost and couldn’t read a map, the joke goes. By mistake, he had ended up in front of a heavily secured army checkpoint. Thirteen soldiers surrendered to him at once.
But this storm that the Taliban is so effectively orchestrating is only the visible part of a much larger endeavor. The unrelenting efforts to seize power are beginning long before the first shot has been fired. The Taliban win over sympathizers one by one, and then they are sent back from the cities to their villages, where they sound out the situation and gather more supporters.
Then come the delegations at night, taxes are collected from the wealthy, disputes are sometimes settled, and threatening letters signed and stamped by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – that’s what the Taliban call themselves – are left on the doorsteps of government workers. This is how it is described not only by local residents and Afghan intelligence officers, but also by Taliban officials from various provinces as well as from areas right around Kabul.
The vacuum left by the state – which, for the most part, takes care of very little – is quietly being filled, and the officials aren’t even noticing it. During the day, a village, district or connecting road may still belong to the government’s sphere of power. But that’s no longer the case at night. Village after village is taken over in this manner, with the main town in a district left alone like an island. The headquarters of the army, police and intelligence agency – secured with walls, clay embankments and waste containers – then remain in place for years as the last bastion of the state.
But, this summer, those scattered remaining islands of power have fallen by the dozens. While some have been conquered, others have been abandoned by their occupants. The Taliban’s nationwide Invitation and Orientation Committee had previously offered to let them retreat without fighting as well as giving them civilian clothing and even pocket money – offers that had been reliably honored.
Preparations for the takeover of the northern provinces, which are now falling to the Taliban, have been years in the making. The Taliban have discreetly expanded their sphere of power over the years like the delicate and far-reaching subterranean roots of mushrooms – and now it is abruptly coming to light. The web has been nourished by people’s discontent and fear, but also by their susceptibility to religious promptings.
That’s what happened in northern Afghanistan, and it’s also what is happening now in the east. This kind of infiltration is often hard to detect in cities and in the open, flat countryside. But in the remote, barely accessible mountain valleys of eastern Afghanistan, even the most subtle changes don’t escape notice. Like the fact that five Taliban would dare to walk through the fields in the middle of the day.
Just a few days earlier, Haji Mahboob had still sounded confident: “We have everything under control!” he said at our first reunion in a decade at his home in Jalalabad, the local provincial capital and a large city in eastern Afghanistan.
It wasn’t simply a throw-away remark. Mahboob has had a talent for juggling between major powers in the past. As the maliks’ spokesman, he had always managed to keep everyone at arm’s length. When the U.S. military wanted to establish a base at Darah-i Noor, there was a meeting at the headquarters of the district administration at the very bottom of the valley entrance. American officers and Afghan maliks sat together over green tea, raisins and almonds. Haji Mahboob addressed the officers, saying they were welcome as guests. But if they came as occupiers, with heavy equipment and troops, it would mean war.
The same happened just a few valleys to the northeast, where U.S. Marines had taken up positions in the Korengal Valley in April 2006. Before that, American patrols had repeatedly encountered resistance. Now, they wanted to take control of the valley. But, instead, they unleashed a merciless war of attrition that dragged on for years. They shelled wooded slopes with artillery and from helicopter gunships, and they were constantly attacked by local residents. By the time the U.S. military gave up and pulled out after four years, it had lost 42 soldiers in Korengal. Writing about Korengal in 2008, DER SPIEGEL described it as “one of the most dangerous regions in Afghanistan.” It had wrongly been suspected that Osama bin Laden was here, and award-winning books and films were made about this “haven of terror.” But in 2010, people started forgetting about the valley again.
The valley is a good example of why foreign armies have always had such trouble occupying this country.
“The war only came to Korengal because the Americans came here,” Haji Mahboob said at the time. Had they come to his valley, he explained, all hell would have broken loose there, too. “Jihad,” he simply noted. “We would have defended our freedom and our homeland at any cost.” But the Americans didn’t come, he continued, “so later we could also tell the Taliban to stay away. After all, there was no one they had to wage war against.”
Surely, no one could doubt the Islamic piety of the valley’s residents. In fact, the mosque is the only major building in every village. Many old men dye their beards with henna, and women here are shadowy creatures who work in the fields but turn and look away as soon as a stranger appears.
This religious fervor is an irony of history. The last conqueror of the eastern valleys and mountain fortresses campaigned against them in 1895 to convert the inhabitants to Islam. Before that, Haji Mahboob’s ancestors had still worshipped their ancient, mystical dieties in the form of antelopes or helmeted horsemen. Abdur Rahman Khan, Afghanistan’s “Iron Emir,” used massacres and expulsions to subjugate the frowned-upon “kafirs” and force them to convert. What remains are enigmatic gravestones and Pashayi, a language that no one outside of the mountains can understand.
During our conversation, Mahboob’s initial confidence that he has the situation under control soon gives way to skepticism – although he doesn’t want to say anything at first about the five Taliban and their stroll. The route to the mountains? Too dangerous. Visiting his village would be difficult even with him, and impossible without him.
And that was that – until he calls and says that it’s possible now, after all. Not, as it will turn out, because the situation is so good – but because it has grown so hopeless. Then he adds that an important man wants to picnic high up in the mountains, and that we are cordially invited to come along.
The next morning, a heavily armed expedition party assembles. Armed men stow ammunition, rifles and anti-tank missiles on pick-up trucks as if they are going to a war instead of a picnic. “Commander” Samander, a middle-aged native of the valley, has invited us to join them. He greets us in a very broad American accent, saying “Really nice to meet you!”
He says that, years ago, he had been a commander of a special unit that had been under American command. He doesn’t go into exact detail about what they did. In any case, he was important enough for the U.S. to have relocated him and his family to America years ago. He says he lives in the Midwest now, that he has missed the mountains, and that he has come back to visit his home country. The drive is his farewell trip, he adds, saying he wants to see the mountains one more time before the Taliban come.
For hours, the convoy winds its way up the trail into the western foothills of the valley. The road is halfway drivable because a small water and solar power plant was built into the mountainside at an altitude of more than 2,500 meters in recent years with South Korean development aid. The villages have had electricity for the first time since the end of 2020.
They loom in the distance on the opposite slopes: Mishgandul, Sutan and Shemul. The villages look as ancient as they sound, with house upon cliff-stone house stacked on top of each other. Some residents stand on their rooftops watching the cars. “Don’t get out!” Haji Mahboob urges them during a brief stop. “It’s better if no one sees you.”
Commander Samander has brought the lambs, the salad and Fanta soda. It’s his farewell party, and it is his men who routinely spread out around the compound at every stop, their AK-47s at the ready and all eyes scanning everything. The drive ends with breathtaking mountain scenery above the small power station. Everyone rests in the shade under the canopy of a solitary oak tree with a trunk that is two-meters thick. A sharpshoooter climbs the tree. The water in a crystal clear mountain stream rushes by alongside us.
If the wrong people walked by now, would they all shoot each other down? “Yeah, of course,” Samander says. “But they won’t come now.” He says that even if someone in one of the villages had run off to inform the armed Taliban in the heights, it would still take them hours before they could cross our path.
That’s also why we can’t stay here for longer than three hours. It has to be assumed that “the others” will soon be informed. Samander has a melancholy look as he peers up at the mountains, which are still capped with snow. Chances are he will never return. The future powers-that-be, he says, “don’t like people like me.”
As closely as the rugged mountain valleys of the east resemble each other, the paths taken by their obstinate tribes and clans are different. In a sense, the mountain range is the Afghanistan of Afghanistan – even more inaccessible and headstrong than the rest of the country. Darah-i Noor has always remained loyal to the state over the past 20 years, even though the government has rarely shown its face.
In contrast, with its U.S. base, the Korengal Valley attracted jihadists of all stripes. In other valleys of Kunar province, Islamist preachers who had mostly returned from Pakistan also asserted themselves early on. The Taliban already had control of some of them a decade ago, when most of Afghanistan was still quiet. In some of the valleys, forces even more radical than the Taliban took hold.
In 2015, during the meteoric rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, the first cells of the IS “Khorasan Province” also emerged in Afghanistan, where they found a safe haven in the valleys of the Islamists. Koran students from Pakistan, fanatics from the villages and renegade Taliban commanders allowed IS to take root and grow.
As in Syria and Libya, IS began its takeover gently. They brought money, they didn’t demand any taxes and they pretended to be respectful – until several valleys were under its control. Then, as it did elsewhere, it switched to brute force, had tribal elders and peasants beheaded or blown up, and seized homes and fields.
But what shook the people almost more than the murders of the men was the humiliation of the women: In the summer of 2018, IS fighters seized an elderly farmer’s wife who had been on her way to the clinic alone rather than with an escort, as required by the IS. She was old, over 60, a grandmother, and she implored them that she didn’t need a man to protect her. But it was all in vain. As punishment, her head was shaved in public. It wasn’t murder, but it was an affront so egregious that thousands now fled, with valley residents, Taliban and government forces suddenly finding themselves on the same side of the front.
A bizarre war against IS began, one that the West barely took note of. The official governor of Kunar and the Taliban’s shadow governor made a temporary pact. Taliban units marched in from the west over the forested ridges. From the east, the Taliban were then escorted by the army from the towns of Kunar province to the front. U.S. jets attacked IS positions from the air, avoiding – mostly, in any case – Taliban positions marked with white flags. The fierce fighting lasted for almost a year until the IS forces were wiped out and the last fighters surrendered.
The U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban fought together against IS. Indeed, these are the kinds of complicated events you get in the east of Afghanistan. And as difficult as they may be to convey to the outside world, they also underscore the fact that local politics in Afghanistan have always been too complicated for simple narratives of invasion and traditional development assistance.
Throughout the winter until February 2020, everyone – including Haji Mahboob – could often hear the sound of fighting from the ridge and all the way down into the village of Sutan. “IS even dragged mortars up there,” he recalls. “But Americans bombs and the Taliban were stronger.” When 400 IS survivors were escorted through the valley of Darah-i Noor on their way to captivity, there were reportedly even women among them, “from China and Tajikistan.” The Taliban had recovered their dead, but the bodies of fallen IS fighters had been left behind. “The skeletons are still up there today.”
This alliance of convenience is a thing of the past now. But the maliks of the valleys as well as government and Taliban officials all say that the mood in the region has changed. Since that alliance, there have been a lot more agreements between the groups to leave each other alone at certain times, such as during harvest season or for a construction project or even because the Taliban wants to show respect for the will of the local population.
“The Taliban are sitting up in the hills, we are sitting down below, and everyone is staying calm,” is how the governor of Dangam District sums up the situation. He had helped organize the army’s shuttle service for insurgents during the strange war. “We would go to the front and back in the pickup, and I bought soft-serve ice cream for everyone. Just realizing that they are also people on the other side was a good experience,” he says.
Mohammed Danesh, who has presided over the fragile district on the border with Pakistan for four years as a representative of the government in Kabul, concedes that he will not end the war. “But even if we manage to strengthen the moderate faction of the Taliban against attempts by the Pakistani intelligence service to keep sending new warmongers, we will have gained something,” he says.
What happened in the mountains of the east may be harbingers of the coming conflict within the Taliban, which has been spoiled by all its recent victories: A battle is looming between hard-liners and members of the Taliban who are willing to cooperate, as their greatest triumph to date – the agreement with the U.S. on the withdrawal of American troops – was purchased with the surrender of their very brand essence: They traded jihad against the foreign occupiers for talks.
Now there’s rumbling within the Taliban’s rank and file. Some already feel that the exiled leadership in faraway Qatar is overly conciliatory. In an ongoing war, the disenchanted, the hard-liners and those who would gain from continued warfare could obviously abandon the Taliban and join all the even more radical Islamist splinter groups that are already active today, particularly in the east. And those who until recently called themselves IS could soon be calling themselves something else entirely.
But there is still a long way to go on the other side of the mountains. Driving back to the dust-covered steppes and rolling hills around Jalalabad, you encounter the same agony and fear as anywhere else in the country. And government forces are still fighting the Taliban in many parts of the province.
Meeting with army units requires a green light from the Defense Ministry. But even after weeks, permission hasn’t been granted. At one point, the ministry spokesman answers the phone and says he’s call back “tomorrow … uh … the day after tomorrow.” But then he doesn’t answer any follow-up calls. At the same time, defending the front line often isn’t even the responsibility of the army itself, but rather of semi-regular units like the Popular Uprising militia, whose members are funded by the intelligence service and recruited from among the local civilians, who have to bring their own AK-47s.
You can meet some of these units in the embattled district of Achin. Commander Kamagul has just captured an area here with his men, after his predecessor and his troops vanished without a fight. A Taliban sniper fires from the crest of the hill, the buzzing sound prompting everyone to take cover. They fire back with the mortar, but they can’t fire more than two shells because they only have a half a box of rounds left. The machine gun has jammed, and the rifleman tries to fix it with a twig he has broken off. They don’t have any binoculars, so it’s hard to see the Taliban, anyway. Nor do they have any night-vision goggles. But the Taliban does.
In Khogyani District, just over half an hour from Jalalabad, the fighters with the People’s Uprising also don’t have any night-vision equipment. From their position on the hilltop, they can scout the surrounding area during the day. And, at night, they just fire in the direction from which they have been fired upon. Commander Majnun says the villages directly below the hill are actually still loyal. But a few days ago, the first white flags appeared over the nearest village at night. No shots were heard. Just two white flags were seen fluttering on spindly poplar poles.
Commander Majnun matter-of-factly explains that if the village has changed sides, then they have a problem. Because if the Taliban sneak up from there at night without shooting, “we’ll only hear the crunch of their footsteps on the gravel when they’re here at the door.”
And so the government fighters wait anxiously each night for dawn, each day for a miracle – and for this war to finally be over, one that ultimately probably won’t be decided in battles anyway, but by the elders in the valleys and their villages.
As Haji Mahboob put it after the last picnic on the mountain, “As long as the government exists, we will not yield a foot to the Taliban. If the Taliban are the government, then of course we will recognize them. It’s not like we have anything against them.” ■