Second in an eight-part series.
DASHTI QALA, Afghanistan - The children danced on the sunbaked clay that day, pointed to the sky, and sang: “The plane, the plane!’’
The men shielded their eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of an American jet as it knifed through the sky and dropped its bombs. They cheered as dark plumes emerged from the dun-colored ridge across the shallow, silvery valley of the Kokcha River, where the army of the Taliban was dug in.
It was October 2001, and the Americans had joined the fight. To the jubilant crowd in this farming town, at the edge of the only corner of northern Afghanistan that the Islamists had not conquered, the warplane provided hope that they might never suffer the Taliban’s austere tyranny.
From his makeshift mud-brick embattlements on the front lines, Abdul Hanan, a veteran of Afghanistan’s civil wars and commander of a ragged band of Northern Alliance rebels, cheered, too. The Taliban, he thought, was doomed.
But the Taliban has returned to those arid hills where the first bombs fell, and Hanan is heartbroken.
“I am confused,’’ said Hanan, who turned in his weapons after the Taliban surrendered 10 years ago and now works in construction. “I fought 17 years. I didn’t die. But now I fear the Taliban will kill me.’’
When the Taliban began to reemerge in the north three years ago, they met with little resistance from the United States and its allies, who believed the north had been secured; the allied focus, instead, was and still is on the larger insurgency in the south. But the lawlessness that followed its defeat in the north gave the Taliban the opening it needed to creep back.
Uniformed Afghan security forces command little popular trust, and armed militias loyal to no one rob and terrorize the population. The insurgents have levied taxes on farmers, executed violators of their strict interpretation of Islamic law, and ambushed Afghan police and their US allies with roadside bombs and gunfire.
Hanan’s growing fear is as good a barometer as any of the progress toward the most elusive quarry in Afghanistan - belief in a secure future. The ramp-up of the US presence under the surge strategy has yielded successes in eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest.
But this sliver of parched mountains and fertile lowlands along the country’s northern border offers a glimpse of how hard it can be to keep the peace when the fighting stops - and the perils that may lie ahead as President Obama prepares the withdrawal of most troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
Ten years of war have been hard on hope, and harder still on some assumptions behind the US-led intervention.
Americans back home may wonder why there still is an insurgency at all after US Special Forces killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But the civil conflict in Afghanistan has deep roots that go well beyond Al Qaeda, and reflects centuries-old territorial disputes, ethnic enmities, and unstable allegiances.
Americans also tend to think of war as a conflict between two sides that only one can win. But in Afghanistan, the lines are never that clear. Battles are won when the forces on the losing end size up the stakes and change sides - later, perhaps, to change again.
We like to think of war as a battle between good and evil. But here, too, in Afghanistan, the moralities are muddled. The United States joined a war waged by religious fundamentalists dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks who financed their operations with drug money. Their foes were religious fundamentalists dominated by ethnic Pashtuns who financed their operations with drug money.
This is a land where generations know nothing but war - a reality that US troops on the ground now fully grasp.
“Ten years is a long time for us. For most of these guys it’s all they know,’’ said Staff Sergeant Paul Emory of Bravo Company, Second Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the American unit that patrols two districts in this region. “The Taliban is patient.’’
Other Afghans are not. The more the Taliban strikes with deadly suicide attacks in the north, the more protesters direct their anger at the Americans.
Najibullah Najib, director of security for Takhar Province, where Dashti Qala is located, said ordinary Afghans are at a loss to explain why their powerful ally cannot make the insurgents go away.
“One of the happiest days for [us] was when the Americans joined us to fight the Taliban,’’ said Najib, who fought for the Northern Alliance. “Now the fight is different. Now the Taliban are nowhere, and every place.’’
On a recent summer day, Captain Camden Jordan, Bravo Company’s commander, fumed in the 100-degree heat next to a mammoth truck leaning precariously to one side, its massive front right wheel lodged deep in a ditch.
The driver had swerved to avoid a puddle that might have concealed a bomb. It was the second time in two days that the ungainly Mine Resistant Ambush Protected truck, known by the unlikely nickname Cougar, had gone off the road. Jordan, born in Middlebury, Vt., and a diehard fan of the New England Patriots , was putting on his best Bill Belichick.
“Get your head in the game!’’ Jordan shouted at the driver as farmers and children stared at the small convoy of American vehicles gathered around the stricken Cougar. Soldiers in full combat gear formed a perimeter in the dust-covered crops that lined the unpaved road.
Bravo Company, based in Kunduz Province on Afghanistan’s northern border, is part of the renewed US commitment to the region. The mission is not just to fight the insurgents when they appear, but also to create the conditions necessary for the Afghans to govern and protect themselves when the Americans leave. This means helping to equip and train Afghan security forces, but also making sure the system provides services to the people who need them.
“We help them have their voices heard,’’ Jordan said. “We are not handing out money. The key is forcing them to make use of their own resources.’’
Bravo Company was patrolling its biggest trouble spot: Archi district, a swath of parched hills and fertile lowlands along the border with Tajikistan. Some things have changed in Archi since 2001. Back then, the only way to make a phone call was via satellite. Nowadays, wireless networks work beautifully and rare is the conversation that is not interrupted by a melodious ringtone or the tapping of text; in this, the Afghans have become just like us.
But the women who have cellphones still do not venture outside without the full-length burqa body covering. The current that charges those phones often comes not from a reliable power grid but from the small, gas-powered generators owned by wealthier merchants who sell their electricity to their neighbors. Horse-drawn carriages and donkeys still carry produce to market along rutted dirt roads. The road that links Archi with Imam Sahib, the main city in the other district Bravo patrols, is just as bad as it was in 2002.
In January, the Taliban’s return to Archi was proclaimed to the world when a video went out over the Internet showing militants overseeing the public stoning of a young couple accused of having an illicit love affair.
Night raids against Taliban leaders by US forces have helped the military make inroads. Between March and August, Jordan said, Bravo Company was not fired on. But the militants have recently stepped up roadside bomb attacks. They still hand out “night letters’’ encouraging people to resist the government and its American backers.
On the day the Cougar got stuck, Jordan had brought along two civil affairs sergeants to assess the road. Better roads, Jordan explained, would make it less expensive to get goods to market, stimulating the economy and making farming more worthwhile than aiding or abetting insurgents.
This mission might have been carried out without heavy weaponry in 2002, when no one in the north was attacking Americans. But these days, the Taliban are known to offer locals up to $500 a month to hide munitions or plant roadside bombs. The new, heavily armored trucks save lives, but they add a degree of difficulty to Bravo Company’s diplomatic missions.
As Jordan shouted orders and another vehicle pulled the Cougar out of the ditch, Sergeant First Class Michael Kirkland of the civil affairs team determined that paving the road would be too expensive. A graded, gravel-covered road would be less costly, but easier for insurgents to hide bombs in. Kirkland’s assessment: Road repairs will not happen here soon.
Bravo Company’s road trip led next to a stuffy guest room in a fortress-like Afghan police outpost with a sweeping view of Archi’s sere expanse. There, over a lunch of lamb pilaf and liver kebab, Sardan Mohammad Andish, a local official, rattled off a list of vital reconstruction projects. A bridge needed repairs, a new well needed to be dug, a health clinic needed refurbishing. Jordan and his men took a quick tour of the sites but made no promises.
“There are layers of red tape even for the smallest thing,’’ Jordan commented.
The last stop was Wazir Khan, a village where farmers depend on rain and snowmelt for irrigation. Drought had hit them hard, and the local government had asked Jordan to help. The village head, Khan Ghulam Dastagir, led him to a murky pool the color of urban camouflage. “We have no choice, so we have to drink this water,’’ the man said.
Jordan figured food aid might be flown in and dropped over the village. It was a practical way to help and to earn the villagers’ trust, though not necessarily to keep it. There is nothing sustainable about a food aid drop, and people here know it.
The success of Bravo Company’s strategy is more evident in Imam Sahib. As the soldiers file along the city’s bustling marketplace, the drivers of brightly colored trucks and Chinese motorcycles pay them little mind. The soldiers engage, through translators, in light banter with vendors. They buy watermelons and shop for Afghan music CDs. They have a close working relationship with the local government and police.
But even here serious questions remain, including how equipped the government is to keep the peace once the Americans leave.
On an afternoon patrol through Imam Sahib district last month, a Bravo Company platoon checked in on a couple of Afghan police posts.
The first looked like a pool hall on a slow afternoon. Most of the men lounged out of uniform. Only one was armed.
At the second post, police had to wake up the sergeant in charge from an afternoon nap on a disheveled mattress, the only furniture in the otherwise bare concrete building.
The man stretched, yawned, and told the platoon leader, Sergeant First Class Brian Hunt of Colorado Springs, that he lacked weapons and ammunition. Also, the well on the post was broken.
“I am sure if I tell my commander, he is going to laugh at us,’’ the sergeant said.
“If you don’t tell him, no one will fix the well,’’ Hunt said. He asked if the post had enough ammunition.
“We need another 2,000 rounds but they’re not going to give us more ammunition,’’ the sergeant said.
Hunt explained again that the whole point of his visit was to make sure the post got its share of supplies from police headquarters. He indicated the solitary light bulb dangling from the grimy ceiling and asked about electricity.
The sergeant frowned. They had been getting electricity from a local businessman until his generator broke.
“So we have no electricity,’’ the sergeant shrugged.
Hunt asked whether they needed anything else. “I want night vision goggles,’’ the sergeant said. “If not, then a flashlight.’’
Then he begged Hunt not to mention his name to the commander (and to keep it out of this story).
“I think you guys are awesome and I’m not going to get you in trouble,’’ Hunt said with a straight face. He asked for the name of the post.
The sergeant and another policeman answered in unison: “Ring of Steel.’’
As he walked out, Hunt noticed that no one was manning the guard tower overlooking the street outside the Ring of Steel.
“Oh, we don’t use that in the summer,’’ said the sergeant. “It’s for winter.’’
“Because nothing could ever happen in the summer,’’ Hunt muttered.
Not all Afghan police posts are as underwhelming as the Ring of Steel. But training Afghan police, and prodding them into activity, is only half the problem. With civil institutions such as policing still weak, locals have created their own armed militias, known as arbakai. These militias often reflect the ethnic makeup of the town or neighborhood they protect. Gumbaz, a town in Imam Sahib district, has two militias, one Uzbek, the other Pashtun. They wear no uniforms, and often are distinguishable only by their scarves, turbans, or flat pakul hats - and the fact that they are armed.
Sometimes, the militias are run by local warlords who use them to extort payments from farmers and travelers. The government, with US backing, is trying to incorporate the arbakai into officially recognized police forces, offering training and pay in return for allegiance.
Americans are well aware that their loyalty is tenuous.
“All of these guys were militants of some form,’’ Jordan said. “At a moment’s notice they can jump back in and do what they were doing.’’
No one person better reflects the promise and the peril of this undertaking than Amir Shah, known to aid agencies as a reputed gangster who has trafficked opium across the border. He also, according to several American officers, fought on the side of the Taliban in 2010. More important to Jordan, he is the commander of 80 armed men who has switched sides and is now calling his force “local police’’ in return for the promise of pay.
While disavowing any Taliban connections - past, present, or future - Amir Shah said he could imagine someone else’s arbakai falling in with the insurgents “if the government does not support them.’’
“If no one will support the [arbakai] there will be trouble,’’ he said, his intent stare betraying no emotion.
When asked why he thought the Taliban had reemerged, he alluded to an increasingly popular, if preposterous, theory in northern Afghanistan - that Americans are not trying to stop them, and may even be helping them survive - in some sort of plot to prolong the US presence.
“I ask myself all the time,’’ he said. “Why were the Americans able to defeat the Taliban in the whole country in two months in 2001, but now they cannot remove them from one district?’’
Amir Shah held out no hope that there will be peace in Afghanistan when the US military withdraws.
“Afghanistan is a battlefield,’’ he said. “If the Americans leave, someone else is going to come and fight. The fight will never end in this land.’’
A catchy tune with a light samba beat sounded from the smartphone of Ruqia Balkhi, and for the 10th time in a 20-minute conversation, the president of Balkhi Construction Co. excused herself to take the call. Her services are in heavy demand in and around Mazar-i-Sharif, a city of about 375,000 located roughly 100 miles west of the area Bravo Company patrols, and the economic hub of northern Afghanistan.
Balkhi has 50 full-time employees (including her husband, the vice president) and a fleet of rugged road graders, trucks, and tractors. Her business has prospered by taking on jobs at US Army bases and outposts, and by building roads in projects financed by international aid agencies. She has helped build schools and a police station.
Like all women under Taliban rule, she was not allowed to run a business, work, attend school, or have any other public function. When she did go outside, it was under a burqa. For Balkhi, who had been brought up in a family that encouraged her to get an education and run her own business, it was torture.
“I was like a prisoner behind bars,’’ she said recently as she sat in her air-conditioned office, wearing the head scarf that many women in Mazar-i-Sharif wear. “But it was the only way to survive.’’
These days, Balkhi is thriving and so is her city, its revival fueled by the modest boom in manufacturing, construction, and commerce that the presence of a large NATO base has encouraged.
Mazar-i-Sharif has glittering electronics shops, Internet cafes where young people pore over Facebook pages, bodybuilding gyms, and a family-friendly amusement park. Sleek European sedans glide along busy boulevards and through manicured traffic circles. Vendors sell fragrant stuffed flatbreads to residents strolling the lush park surrounding the turquoise and cobalt walls of the Blue Mosque, which, according to legend, turn the wings of doves white.
But the deadly assault on a United Nations compound in April by a mob protesting the burning of the Koran by the American minister of a church in Florida shattered the illusion that prosperity is the same thing as peace, and served as a reminder of the long legacy of violence that percolates under the city’s bustling surface - and is encroaching from all sides as the Taliban moves into surrounding villages.
Mazar witnessed the vicious cycle of conquests and reprisals of the late 1990s, when the Taliban fought for control of the city. With the Islamists’ defeat in 2001 came allegations of mass rapes of ethnic Pashtuns - and the alleged massacre of hundreds of Taliban fighters.
Tajik and Uzbek militias, which had joined together to defeat the Taliban, then turned on each other in a battle for control of the city and the surrounding Balkh Province.
The winner of that fight was Atta Mohammad Noor, a Tajik and a former Northern Alliance commander. As governor of Balkh Province, he has replaced his long beard and pakul hat with a business suit. He has overseen the expansion of business - and, many in Mazar say, has a hand in every one. He also has presided over the development of one of Afghanistan’s most progressive societies, not least on the issue of women’s rights.
Now, said Shekiba Shekib, one of five women on the 19-member provincial council, women are coming out of their burqas and setting up businesses that market and sell their wares.
But when Shekib looks outside the city into the villages of Balkh, she sees sure signs of the gradual advance of the Taliban. Recently, she said, militants had begun threatening aid workers. They make it difficult for the government to work in villages.
“We advise people not to let the Taliban into the village,’’ she said. “But they are illiterate, they are jobless. They don’t make enough money so they turn to the Taliban. The Taliban pays them.’’
The provincial government’s inability to prevent the insurgents’ spread has forced people to deal with them. Syeed Shafe, who works as a security guard for a cellphone network in Balkh Province, said Taliban commanders once threatened to destroy the company’s towers. He said the Taliban withdrew the threat after the company bought them 45 motorcycles.
Leading entrepreneurs in Mazar-i-Sharif are trying to portray the region as a ripe for investment.
“If stability and security come, there will be business,’’ Syeed M. Taher Roshanzad, head of the provincial chamber of commerce, was telling a reporter when an aide interrupted.
An explosion at a small roadside bazaar in Mazar-i-Sharif had killed four people. The explosives were being carried by man riding a bicycle who collided with a car. Authorities suggested that he had detonated his payload by accident.
The blast had little visible effect on the merchants and shoppers, who returned to their business minutes after police and rescue workers had cleaned up the scene and left.
About 20 miles southwest of Mazar-i-Sharif, Lal Mohammad squinted from his vantage point atop a hill of ochre clay across the verdant strip of cropland that gives life to the otherwise barren Sholgara district. Beyond the narrow trickle of the Balkh River, he pointed out a town nearly identical to his: a cluster of low, rectangular mud-brick huts shimmering in the heat under parched mountains. There reside cousins, longtime acquaintances, most of them impoverished ethnic Pashtun farmers, just like the people in his village. Except now a group of gunmen has moved in, a group no one on this side of the valley knew. He believes they are Taliban, as do others in his village.
Since they arrived, the police stopped patrolling his town, he said. Foreign soldiers came by once - Lal Mohammad thinks they were Americans - to ask how his village was doing, but they have not returned.
There was no one to protect them from the Islamic militants across the river, and so the village did what people here have always done when they perceive a threat: They formed a militia. “We are afraid,’’ Lal Mohammad said. “You can hear the violence.’’
The violence he hears echoes across decades, if not centuries, of constant conflict in Sholgara district. Here, the Hazaras fought the Pashtuns who moved up from the south; mujahideen fought the Soviets who invaded from the north, the Northern Alliance fought the Taliban, and the Tajiks and Uzbeks fought each other. Lal Mohammad pointed out the trenches dug by the fighters in that last conflict; at that moment they were being contested by small armies of rats and lizards.
Asadullah, the elected leader of Lal Mohammad’s neighborhood, who like many Afghans uses only one name, explained that 10 years ago, he could sell 7 kilograms of rice and buy 4 kilograms of meat with the money. Now the same amount of rice is enough for a half kilogram of meat. The town has received subsidies for fertilizers and wheat, but the price of wheat is also very low. Young people are fleeing the town for work in Pakistan and Iran.
Without protection, the town feels surrounded. Asadullah pointed east across his village’s fields of grapes, tomatoes, watermelon, squash, and okra, where dragonflies hover in the heat like small, shiny helicopters. There, he said, people are threatening aid agencies not to come into the valley “or else they will be shot.’’
He turned and pointed at the bare, sharp-peaked mountains to the northwest. “On that side is Chimtal, where the Taliban is strong,’’ he said. “Basically we formed a militia to protect ourselves against all these people.’’
But the government does not know about it. “If it did,’’ said Asadullah, “it would take away our weapons.’’
Abdul Hanan, the Northern Alliance commander who watched the first American bombs fall on the Taliban in 2001, owned an assault rifle by the time he was a young teen. By the time many Americans graduate college, he had already fought the Soviets, Afghan communists, and rival Muslim militias. For six years he fought the Taliban. So did many of his Northern Alliance comrades on the front lines the day the American jet appeared over Dashti Qala.
And one day in November 2001, Hanan sat in the large common room of his family’s compound in Kunduz city, and welcomed home his younger brother, Ghulam Sarvar, who had fought on the side of the Taliban. Friends and family laughed and hugged and waved Polaroid pictures of one another taken by a Globe reporter.
The Taliban was about to fall.
A few weeks ago, Hanan met with the reporter in Kabul, where his construction job has taken him. He still wears a pakul - a gift from the legendary Northern Alliance leader, the late Ahmad Shah Masood. But Hanan has trimmed the beard Masood told him to grow. His face is fuller. The intense glare of the front-line fighter has softened.
Hanan in 2001 was an angry, dangerous man. He had lost five close relatives, including a brother, to the fighting. He carried a photo album full of pictures of the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters he vowed he would track down and kill.
But at some point he lost the album. He has a bullet wound in his thigh from his final battle against the Taliban. More painful than the injury is the evidence of the Taliban’s return.
“They are around the villages. They hide when the Americans come,’’ he said. “The government doesn’t want to get rid of them. If it wanted to, it would do it in no time.’’
Hanan interrupted himself to glance nervously at a passerby.
“I was so hopeful at the time,’’ he said, recalling 2001. “We had won independence.’’
But his hope for a government job did not work out. Nor did he get a position with the military or police.
Hanan’s former comrades have not fared much better.
Commander Daud, who led a group of Northern Alliance fighters on the same front as Hanan, disbanded his unit. Because he cannot read or write, Daud said, he could not find a job in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and for a time scratched out a living as a farmer in his village near Kunduz. Then he ran afoul of the local arbakai.
“They play a double game,’’ he said by telephone from Iran, where he works as a day laborer for a construction company, sending money home to support his family. “Sometimes they are Taliban and then they become government militia. It’s very hard to live while they exist.’’
Juma, one of Daud’s fighters and a fellow villager, said he has no job. He invited a reporter to his village then thought better of it. The road is dangerous because arbakai take money by day, and Taliban plant bombs at night.
“The Taliban was not removed completely,’’ Juma said. “We were disarmed. They were not.’’
Hanan’s younger brother, Ghulam Sarvar, got a call from the Taliban, to ask whether he wanted to rejoin them.
“I told them, ‘Let’s build this land together,’ and they said, ‘You serve the infidel,’ ’’ he said. He waved one of the pictures taken of his brother on that joyous day in 2001. His expression was eloquent: the joy is gone.
In Kabul, Hanan ignored the chirping ring tone of his purple cellphone, stared nowhere in particular and said: “While there is one member of the Taliban alive we cannot live.’’
The day he said this, Afghanistan’s government announced that it would begin disarming 4,500 militants it said were roaming Kunduz Province.
That same day, several armed militants stormed a guest house in Kunduz, killing four people.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.