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US-Taliban peace talks: Afghans fear a US troop withdrawal would come at their expense – Vox.com

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KABUL, Afghanistan — At a time when America is vehemently divided politically, there is one policy that seems to have almost unanimous support: ending the US war in Afghanistan. Poll after poll shows that Americans across the political and social spectrum want the war to end, and it’s one of the few things that President Donald Trump and nearly every 2020 Democratic candidate agree on.

But those who’ve fought against and lived under the Taliban believe a US troop withdrawal today would come at the expense of Afghan peace tomorrow. I recently spent three weeks in Afghanistan speaking with government officials and citizens alike about their perspective on the current US negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to end US involvement in the war.

And what I heard from nearly everyone I spoke to — from academics in Kabul to mujahideen in the Panjshir Valley who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s — was a deep distrust of America’s goal in the peace talks.


Afghan army soldiers, National Directorate of Security intelligence officers, and a Panjshiri mujahideen commander greet each other at the frontline between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Panjshir on August 13, 2019.
Christopher Jones

“They are talking about their own peace, their own interests. It has nothing to do with Afghanistan,” a 63-year-old man in Kabul told me. Sitting in his wheelbarrow (he works as a porter for nearby shops), he told me he stays abreast of the Doha talks through the radio and Afghan TV news reports.

Last October, exactly 17 years after the first US troops entered Afghanistan, negotiations between the US and the Taliban began in earnest. The American delegation is led by the Afghan-born former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. The Taliban delegation consists of a group of Taliban leaders led by Mullah Baradar, a co-founder of the group who was released from a Pakistani prison last year at the request of the US government.

Progress reports from both sides of the negotiations have been increasingly opaque. Throughout the talks, the Taliban maintained the same position they’ve held since 2001: All foreign troops must leave Afghanistan, the Afghan government in Kabul (which the Taliban consider an American “puppet” regime) must be destroyed or dismantled, and a new Islamic Emirate must be installed.


US Special Representative for Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (center) after a forum talk with the director of the TOLO news network in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 28, 2019.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images


Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center) along with other Taliban leaders.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center), along with other Taliban leaders, leave after a meeting chaired by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Moscow, Russia, on May 30, 2019.
Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s demands seem to be much more fluid. When negotiations began, the American delegation called for a unilateral ceasefire, a framework peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and a conditions-based timeline for a US troop withdrawal. By late this summer, the American position had been reduced to little more than determining when American troops would leave the country for good.

The US government has refused to allow the Afghan government to directly participate in the talks in Doha, a move that the Taliban have said would immediately derail any progress made with the American team. The closest contact between the Afghan government and the Taliban came in July, when a delegation of Afghans sat down with the Taliban for an “intra-Afghan dialogue” in Doha.

Some of those who attended were current or former Afghan government officials, but it was heavily stressed that their attendance was in a “personal capacity.” Since negotiations began, President Ashraf Ghani and other members of the Afghan government have expressed skepticism that a deal between the US government and the Taliban — a deal that excluded non-Taliban Afghans almost entirely — would actually help Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, fighting continues across the country — despite the US military’s inability or unwillingness to help beyond limited support and airstrikes that are becoming more deadly to Afghan civilians than Taliban attacks. I heard reports from within the Afghan military that US Special Forces soldiers have spent days and weeks on lockdown inside their bases, unable to conduct operations or even train with their Afghan counterparts. Resolute Support did not respond to an email request for comment on these allegations.

After the negotiations were abruptly canceled by Trump’s tweet last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that more than 1,000 Taliban members were killed in the previous 10 days, though he did not clarify whether it was US or Afghan troops that killed them.

For many Afghans, the Taliban are not to be trusted. Some people I spoke with said the US government is fundamentally misunderstanding the situation facing their country. International observers have argued that continued violence and efforts to control more territory across the country simply represent the Taliban’s attempts to acquire as much leverage for negotiations as possible, so that the peace agreement reached will not end with their extinction.

But a growing number of Afghan and international voices are arguing the opposite: that the Taliban are using the negotiations to get Washington out of the picture, cut off the Afghan government from its international supporters, and retake the country by force.

“The Taliban is negotiating the terms of America’s surrender,” one high-level Afghan official told me.


Residents pass by the aftermath of an attack carried out two days prior on Amrullah Saleh’s presidential campaign headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 29, 2019. The attack happened on the first day of election campaign season.
Christopher Jones

Afghan government officials are tight-lipped about their perspectives, at least on the record.

Some of the most illuminating conversations I had in Kabul were on deep background — no names, no official titles, nothing on the record. It’s a needed prerequisite when speaking honestly to journalists — a decision that can come with grave consequences for government officials and political elites close to the peace talks.

Many of Kabul’s political movers and shakers are acutely aware of the fate suffered by Hamdullah Mohib, the former Afghan ambassador to the United States and current national security adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In March, Mohib was temporarily shadowbanned from Washington, DC — that is, unable to meet with US officials or coordinate with the US military — after he voiced his frustrations with the US-Taliban negotiations and Zalmay Khalilzad specifically for “delegitimizing the Afghan government” at a press conference.


Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan stands with Afghanistan’s acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid and Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib.

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan (center) stands with Afghanistan’s acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid (left) and Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib (right) in Kabul, Afghanistan, on February 11, 2019.
Missy Ryan/AFP/Getty Images

His argument was an accurate assessment of the situation the United States has created in Afghanistan since the negotiations with the Taliban began: The US government has simultaneously given the Taliban an aura of international legitimacy the group had never enjoyed while sidelining the internationally recognized democratic government of Afghanistan.

Since negotiations officially began last year, Taliban leaders have been released from prisons in Pakistan. International travel bans have been lifted to allow them to fly around the world for talks in Russia, Uzbekistan, and Qatar. Meanwhile, the Afghan government has been forced to watch the spectacle from Kabul, where American military leaders bring extra guards when they visit their Afghan military counterparts — guards that watch their alleged allies as closely as they watch for the Taliban.

Mohib’s public chastisement and banishment from Washington sent a clear signal to the Afghan government and those close to the negotiations: If you’re unwilling to toe the line, you’ll be blacklisted by the White House.

But while government officials may be hesitant to speak publicly, it often seems like every conversation in Afghanistan today is about the peace talks and the political situation in the country. A producer at one of Afghanistan’s leading TV stations lamented to me, “In America, not enough people are talking about politics, but in Afghanistan, too many people talk about politics.”

In a country where as many as 35 million people are acutely focused on negotiations that will decide their fate, they’re faced with an incredible lack of information about how the talks are proceeding. Journalists are forced to find meaning in vaguely worded tweets from Doha, trying to parse the difference between excellent progress” and “substantive progress.”

Over the past few years, the American and Afghan governments have released less and less information about the status of the war against the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Taliban are perfecting their propaganda war online. In the aftermath of an attack, the Taliban often release their version of events within hours, sometimes minutes. The Afghan government struggles to release information coherently, if at all.

A photograph from the talks in Doha offered a particularly surreal moment: Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban representative, stood in the middle of a group of reporters — which included women with their heads uncovered.

The official spokesman for a terror organization that continues to murder women for walking in public without a male relative — and that killed 14 people and wounded 145, many of them women and children, by detonating a car bomb a few feet from a women’s clinic at a police base in Kabul in August — smiled as he answered questions, including from women.


Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen at the Intra-Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha, Qatar.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen (right) speaks to attendees of the Intra-Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha, Qatar, on July 8, 2019.
Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

Some observers, including an Afghan American woman who met with the Taliban in Doha, suggest this showed a new leaf being turned: that the Taliban of today is not the Taliban that proudly executed a woman in a soccer field in front of foreign journalists in 1999.

Afghans laughed at the suggestion, and Afghan women spoke out on Twitter about the hypocrisy exhibited by both the Taliban and the world. A growing hashtag movement on Afghan Twitter, #MyRedLine, has gone viral as thousands of Afghan women declared their dedication to pursuing education and employment even if the Taliban return to power. In Kabul, an Afghan university student privately voiced a concern that if the Taliban return, they may use the hashtag as a kill list for reprisals.

There’s a growing body of evidence that the Taliban is, in fact, engaging in peace talks with the Americans to get them out of the way so they can go about taking back over the country. For one, it’s what Taliban commanders in Afghanistan are explicitly stating to reporters and each other.

Earlier this year, a Taliban leader told Borhan Osman from the International Crisis Group, “We have not been told to adjust our operations due to the talks. … We are going to fight as if there were no talks at all.” When the Taliban announced its spring offensive earlier this year, they named it “Victory.”

The relationship between the Taliban negotiating team in Doha and the groups fighting on the ground under the Taliban banner has been questioned as well. Rather than a strictly linear chain of command, some elements of what is commonly known as the Taliban are argued to be little more than extensive drug smuggling groups who prefer the leniency they enjoy under Taliban control and have committed money, men, and equipment to its cause.

The idea that the Taliban are a fragmented, loosely organized group became popular in Washington during the Obama administration, as it suggested a vulnerability to be exploited with the right mix of military and political pressure. But others who study the Taliban closely suggest it’s a fatal miscalculation, arguing the Taliban are more consolidated and organized than ever.

I asked the newly appointed head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Shaharzad Akbar, if she trusted the Taliban at their word or if the peace talks are merely a tactic to pave the way for a Taliban offensive to retake the country. As a child, Shaharzad and her family were forced to flee to Pakistan as the Taliban rose to power.


Head of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission Shaharzad Akbar at a press conference in Kabul on September 29, 2019.
Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

After a pause, she began to speak: “I think the Taliban may be divided internally,” she answered carefully, “but in action, as an Afghan, I haven’t seen any solid action from the Taliban to make sure they have changed their views on women’s participation, on being part of a pluralistic and diverse Afghanistan, on their acceptance of democratic values.”

After another beat, her voice sharpened, “I am not convinced, and I would say this to their face.”

In August, the Kakar Foundation hosted the first in a series of talks by academic experts in Kabul. The foundation is the living legacy of Dr. M. Hassan Kakar, an Afghan historian whose books are considered required reading for understanding Afghanistan’s political history.

The talk featured a Columbia University professor and author, Dipali Mukhopadhyay. “The word for me that most captures the challenges of building a state in the modern context of Afghanistan is the word ‘in-between,’” she said to open her presentation, “and I think that because it’s not possible to understand Afghan state formation without explicitly contextualizing within the international system.”

She pointed out that Afghanistan has long been a “buffer state”: not just between empires, but between political and cultural forces as well. In the 1800s, it separated the British Empire and Imperial Russia; in the 1980s it stood between the Soviet Union to the north and America’s sphere of influence in the south. It’s a country where a longstanding monarchy was toppled by communism, which in turn found itself toppled by Islamic jihadists, who were then replaced by a democracy — all in the span of 40 years.


Afghans stand in front of a Russian Red Army tank in the Hindu Kush mountains during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in January 1980.
Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images


An Afghan man walks by three US Army soldiers as they guard a checkpoint at the Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, on December 1, 2001, soon after US began its military campaign in the country.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Today, the Afghan government finds much of its ability to operate controlled by another “big hand” from another country: the United States. US military and financial support for the Afghan government has always come with a stipulation: America’s interests come first, even if pursuing those interests is at odds with the Afghan government.

This “limbo sovereignty” of the Afghan state has weakened its ability to govern and has played directly into the hands of the Taliban, who have long argued that the Afghan government is nothing more than an American puppet regime.

As Mukhopadhyay said, “the government is expected to watch from the sidelines as the Americans negotiate with the government’s enemy and hope that the government’s survival does not get bargained away in the process. This is a difficult position for a government to find itself.”

After the talk, attendees were invited to speak. One Afghan man pointed out that in the post-2001 situation, America and the international coalition seemingly ignored Afghanistan’s history when helping Afghans develop a new government.

He argued that for most of Afghanistan’s international donors, especially the United States, building the new Afghan state was largely understood by foreigners through one metric: spending. This drive to spend led to a “supply side” democracy in Afghanistan, where projects were sometimes funded with little regard to their necessity, and millions of US dollars disappeared.

“Because there were numerous donors with numerous different processes in decision making and a lack of coordination,” the man explained, “different state institutions were formed by different donors, with a lot of disconnect in between.”

The internal dissonance in the Afghan government is often held up as evidence of corruption by the United States, as it was earlier this month when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US would cut $160 million worth of aid to Afghanistan and stopped funding for the Afghan government’s anti-corruption committee. Pompeo claimed the committee was “incapable of being a partner in the international effort to build a better future for the Afghan people.”


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, on June 25, 2019.
Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan politicians are counting on US and international support of the Afghan government to continue if and when an American troop withdrawal occurs. But if — as one of the attendees of the Kakar Foundation talk noted — one of the crucial failures of America’s involvement in the country after 9/11 is a lack of understanding of Afghanistan’s history, it’s worth looking at the last time America withdrew military support from Afghanistan.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, America began quietly pouring billions of dollars through Pakistan to the Afghans fighting against the USSR. These “mujahideen,” an Arabic term for those who wage jihad, would ultimately kill 13,000-15,000 Russian troops by the time the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan a decade later. Hundreds of helicopters and almost 2,000 tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed. Mujahideen leaders were brought to Washington, DC, and some mujahideen fighters were even trained in Texas by the CIA and FBI.

US support of the mujahideen ended after Soviet withdrawal in 1989, leaving behind a vacuum of external funding and infrastructure support. While the US government was willing to send weapons and provide training for anti-Soviet fighters, American lawmakers basking in the glow of the collapse of the Soviet Union were less enthusiastic to fund the reconstruction of a war-ravaged country on the other side of the world.

Attempts by the more powerful mujahideen leaders to form a new government in the early 1990s faltered as warlords, committed allies against the Soviets only a year before, jockeyed for power and slaughtered civilians caught in the crossfire. Alliances were formed and broken in a matter of hours, and in 1994 Kabul was shelled for months by various factions trying to gain control over the country’s capital. In Kandahar, a southern province, religious students began fighting against a corrupt local warlord.

They quickly took all of Kandahar, forcing their strict interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence on those under their control. The fighters took the Arabic word for student, talib, and added the Persian plural suffix, -an. The Taliban would take a majority of the country by force within two years, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Kabul in 1996.

Zalmay Khalilzad wrote of this time in his autobiography. “I, like many, was optimistic about the Taliban,” he wrote in 2016, “I saw the anarchy and pervasive violence that was ravaging the Afghan people.”

For many like Khalilzad, the burqa and beard were a small price to pay for an end to fighting, corruption, and war. “The Taliban at the time was a mysterious movement, largely in flux,” he wrote. “But even so, I should have been more skeptical … I should have been more attuned to the possibility that the Taliban would take advantage of the situation to impose a harsh religious regime.”

While experts argue over how much of an impact America actually had in post-Soviet Afghanistan, many agree that arming dozens of mujahideen factions for a decade and then leaving those heavily armed groups to figure out peace directly contributed to the civil war and the rise of the Taliban.

While how much responsibility America bears for the Taliban’s ascension is debatable, the cost America has paid since 2001 is not. The $3 billion that the United States government sent over 10 years to help the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union would fund less than a month of the current US involvement in Afghanistan.

At its peak in 2012, the US government spent $97 billion in Afghanistan in one year. The dramatic increase in expenses after 2001 paid for more than just US military operations: It funded the invention and sustainment of one of the world’s most corruption-riddled and vulnerable democracies: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the US government Afghanistan watchdog, has been one of the loudest and most consistent critics of the US mission in Afghanistan. SIGAR’s first quarterly report this year revealed that the US investment in Afghanistan is far from assured, despite the public pledges by US military leaders and politicians.

Most of the funding provided by the US government for Afghanistan, both military and civil infrastructure, is set to expire in 2020. According to the report, almost every program to provide funding to Afghanistan will expire that year. The report further notes that “according to the World Bank, the planned 2020 expiration of major donor pledges means that the future trajectory of foreign grant assistance is highly uncertain.”


An Afghan police officer looks out toward Afghanistan’s Parliament building from Darul Aman Palace on August 14, 2019.
Christopher Jones

If America ceases to support the Afghan government, it’s unlikely that other NATO partners will move to fill the void. The war in Afghanistan has cost America $3,714 per taxpayer since 2001, at a total cost of $737 billion — a price tag that no government wants to take on for a war that many coalition partners have been quietly leaving for years.

Another question looming over the heads of those hopeful for a political solution to the war between the Afghan government and the Taliban is publicly unasked and notedly unanswered: If the Taliban take a significant amount of control over the Afghan government through negotiations or force, will the United States continue to fund it?

In Panjshir, a province just east of Kabul, Afghans are not waiting for their fate to be decided by “big hands” in a foreign country.

The Panjshir Valley holds a blood-drenched distinction among the Afghan provinces: It has never fallen to the Taliban. During the civil war and Taliban reign in the 1990s, a Panjshiri military leader — now celebrated by many as a national hero, albeit a complicated one — Ahmad Shah Massoud, led an army of fighters who held off the Taliban for years.

Last winter the Taliban took control over key areas of Badakhshan province, Panjshir’s northeastern neighbor. According to Taliban documents released by the Long War Journal, this offensive was merely the beginning of a larger military strategy.

In the document, the Taliban noted the importance of Panjshir, both symbolically and strategically: “During the reign of the Islamic Emirate,” the Taliban’s term for their government which ruled from Kabul in the 1990s, “this route remained opened as a main supply line from the north for the then warlords of the area.”


A village in Shotal District in Panshir, Afghanistan.
Christopher Jones

The document goes on to detail the Taliban’s operations in Badakhshan and the easternmost district of Panjshir, Paryan. While the claims are disputable, the statement’s conclusion it not: “We can say that ‘Panjsher’ province is besieged by the heroic Mujahidin of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. … In hope of fresh and significant progress in the near future in this strategic province!”

Controlling Panjshir would show Afghanistan — and the world — that the Taliban is now more powerful than ever before, even when they were the de facto rulers of the country. More importantly, it would cut off Kabul from vital eastern provinces, tightening a noose around the capital city.


A chart showing government and Taliban control of various areas in Afghanistan.

Government control mainly is held near the capital, Kabul, with much contested territory in the Panjshir Valley closely surrounding it.
Christina Animashaun/Vox

The document makes no mention of the negotiations in Doha, nor does it mention any governance projects or the state of civilians living in the areas now under Taliban control. It is not the statement of a group attempting to bring peace to Afghanistan and its many internal ethnic and political divisions. It’s a document of war.

On a street in Kabul, a shop has been shuttered since late July. A neighboring shopkeeper told me the owner had gone to Panjshir, his home province, and would be there for some time. “Mujahideen ast,” the neighbor offered in explanation; “He is mujahideen.” His friend had been a freedom fighter under Massoud, and Panjshir’s defenders were returning home to prepare to fight the Taliban again—alone if need be.

A week after Afghan special forces killed the Taliban’s shadow deputy governor for Panjshir, I traveled to Paryan to see the frontline between the Afghan government forces and the Taliban. It was the week of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Hundreds of families from Kabul and Panjshir’s western neighbors flocked to the picturesque valley of Panjshir to picnic and camp in the clean mountain air.

As we approached the eastern end of Paryan, dozens of cars lined the road next to canvas tents and vendors selling treats to the vacationers. Adults and children alike splashed in a small stream feeding the roaring Panjshir river from still-melting snow that capped the surrounding mountains. Goats lazily grazed on late summer grass nearby. It was easy to forget that the Taliban were only five miles to the east.


A Panjshiri mujahideen village commander and his men sit during an interview in Panjshir on August 13, 2019.
Christopher Jones

In Paryan, we stopped ahead of the frontline to meet with local mujahideen leaders, and to arrange a meeting with a frontline commander. Many of the mujahideen in Panjshir fought against the Taliban in the 1990s, but the oldest I spoke with cut his teeth fighting against the Soviet forces in the 1980s, when Panjshiris left the fertile valley and took to the mountaintops and caves hidden from the helicopters and bombers above.

For years, entire villages lived only to fight and tend to their wounded. In Shotal district, the westernmost area of Panjshir, the carcass of a home bombed in a Russian attack stands alongside rebuilt homes across from the village mosque, a looming reminder of what invaders bring to the province.

On my first day in Panjshir, I sat down with a group of older mujahideen fighters in Shotal. Some were veterans of the war against the Russians, two had fought against the Taliban as well. Two of the men we spoke with had served together under Massoud as part of a three-man anti-aircraft battery. The men were stoic during our conversation, except when they regaled me with a story from their days fighting the Russians.

A Soviet helicopter had once hovered over their anti-aircraft gun for a moment too long. They turned the barrel of their gun almost directly upward, and one of them held down the trigger. The resulting explosion left one of the fighters almost entirely deaf; his comrades have spent the decades since shouting into his ear and communicating with hand signals.


Mujahideen fighters sit during an interview in Panjshir.
Christopher Jones

The older mujahideen were, understandably, highly suspicious of journalists — especially photographers. Journalists are often thought to be spies, and not necessarily American ones. Ahmad Shah Massoud, their former commander, was assassinated two days before September 11, 2001, by a pair of Tunisians posing as Belgian journalists.

It remains unclear who sent the assassins, though many signs point to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The killers used a video camera and equipment belt full of explosives, killing Massoud and one of his aids as they sat down for the interview. One of the attackers died in the blast; the other was quickly riddled with bullets as he tried to limp away.

I began our interview with a question about what stories the older veterans tell their children and grandchildren about the time fighting the Russians and the Taliban — a naive attempt at an ice breaker. One of the mujahideen veterans lifted his chin as he answered, his eyes fixed just above the window across from him. “We tell them to look at the tanks,” he said, referring to the charred carcasses of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers that line the highway along the Panjshir river valley. “Each one tells a story.”

The story of Panjshir defending itself is, on one hand, a tale of incomprehensible determination and perseverance by the men and women who live there. But it also holds a dangerous warning for what happens when Afghans turn inward. According to one mujahid in Shotal, “Peace starts with Panjshir. If you control Panjshir, you control Afghanistan.”

While that assessment of Panjshir’s strategic importance is somewhat inflated, the sentiment is not. Panjshiris still strongly identify with their province, arguably more so than their nationality. One mujahideen leader explained that “we believe the Army, but every village has a mujahideen headquarters.”

If the American government withdraws from Afghanistan and the country plunges into another civil war, an Afghan journalist from Panjshir quipped, “You’ll go to America, we’ll go to Panjshir.” But a concern is buried between the lines of his joke: One must be from the Panjshir river valley for it to be a permanent safe haven.


The burned-out husk of a Russian anti-aircraft tank overlooks the Panjshir river valley.
Christopher Jones

A local explained to me that it’s effectively impossible for non-Panjshiris to purchase land in the province. While refugees from other Taliban controlled areas are welcomed into the safety of the valley, it’s mutually understood to be a temporary arraignment. Part of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s strategy for defending Panjshir from the Russians and the Taliban was strategic retreats from less defensible positions on the outer edges of the province.

Panjshir’s past success is also a glimpse into what happens when Afghanistan falls into civil war: Massoud’s fighters demolished entire parts of Kabul during the most intense fighting there in 1993, and reports of rape and executions of civilians by Massoud’s troops have darkened their legacy. Ethnic genocide has, at times, been a tactic in Afghanistan.

The paved road through the Panjshir Valley — a post 9/11 project that cut the amount of time needed to traverse the province from days to hours — ended around a sloping turn a few hundred meters from the last of the vacationers. As our car bumped its way east on the now dirt road, the slope and frequency of military checkpoints increased dramatically.

The lush greenery of the valley gave way to violently steep mountainsides and a dusty gravel road blasted across them. After another hour of travel, a tent appeared in front of us. Soldiers dotted the mountainside. The mujahideen leader traveling with us straightened in his seat. We had reached the frontline.

A police commander walked cautiously towards our car as we pulled up to the tent. After a brief discussion, the commander gave us the bad news: We did not have the required paperwork to be there, and the mujahideen commander we’d arranged to meet was further ahead at one of the outposts. The police commander was polite, but very firm: We could stay for a moment and take photographs, but we were not to interview any soldiers.


An Afghan police commander speaks with reporters at the forward-most Afghan National Army position between the Taliban and Afghan government forces on August 13, 2019.
Christopher Jones

His concern was understandable. The Taliban are smart, and they have Twitter. Foreign journalists have accidentally revealed information in their reporting that has been used by the Taliban to plan and conduct attacks before. Like the mujahideen commanders we’d met earlier, he turned to my friend who helped translate.

In the interest of not telling the Taliban just what they’re up against, this story will not reveal specific numbers of troops and weapons. What I will report is this: The number of armed and experienced mujahideen fighters ready to defend Panjshir is more than three times the number of Afghan security forces personnel stationed there.

The Afghan military and local mujahideen are cooperating, preparing for a joint defense of the eastern entrance to Panjshir, but mujahideen commanders were clear on the limit to their patience. “If the situation does not improve,” said a leader in Paryan, “we will ask the government to let us clear the Taliban from Badakhshan ourselves.”

To date, the Taliban have not successfully seized territory in Panjshir since 2001, nor have they assaulted the defensive line between Paryan and Badakhshan. The mujahideen speak with their sources in Taliban-controlled areas of Badakhshan when cell service is functional, usually once every few days. Reports of the Taliban smuggling weapons through their newly acquired territory to and from Nangarhar, into neighboring districts and provinces fuel rumors of an impending offensive on Panjshir.


The inside of a former radio station for Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous Panjshiri mujahideen commander, in the Shotal District of Panjshir, on August 12, 2019. It is now used as a polling site for elections and as a meeting place for mujahideen fighters past and present.
Christopher Jones

In September, the Afghan military advanced into Badakhshan, claiming to have retaken three districts including Keran wa Manjan, a district that directly borders Panjshir. It remains to be seen how the recent cancellation of US-Taliban negotiations by Trump tweet will affect the fighting, but for now, Afghan government forces appear to be continuing their advance in Badakhshan.

The mujahideen I spoke with declined to discuss the specifics of they think will happen next — I was still a foreigner with a camera, after all — but the message was clear. As far as Panjshiris are concerned, it seemingly doesn’t matter what will come next. In the words of one of the older mujahideen veterans I spoke with: “We have a warning for others who attack Afghanistan. As we won the war with the Russians, as we will win the war with you.”

Like all mujahideen I spoke with, the Soviet-era veteran did not put any stock in the Doha negotiations as a mechanism to bring peace to Afghanistan and its millions of people. “When the people of Afghanistan come together, all of them, to make their own peace, that will be a very effective peace,” he intoned.

“The ‘peace’ that is coming from the deal with America will give the Taliban the advantage,” he continued, “and the Taliban will say, ‘We are the people the Americans chose to deal with,’ and they will try to rule Afghanistan.”


Three generations of a family in Kabul pose for a portrait in August 2019.
Christopher Jones

Christopher R. Jones is a freelance photojournalist who splits his time between New York City and Afghanistan.

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