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To Afghanistan and Back Again

by Aamir Iqbal
File Photo. Aref Karimi—AFP

File Photo. Aref Karimi—AFP

A former member of the Afghan Taliban opens up about his life as a militant in Kunar.

Qari Mohammed was only 16 years old when his father’s cousin approached him outside their home in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and convinced him to join the Taliban in Afghanistan. “He told me, ‘It is time to stop playing with marbles and join your [Muslim] brothers in holy war,” he tells Newsweek. For the next five years, he fought U.S. and British forces in Afghanistan, learnt the extremists’ battle tactics, recruitment and training regimes—and prepared to die a martyr.

Now 21 years old, Mohammed says he tried to resist his uncle’s demand as a teenager, but was silenced with promises of a better afterlife. “When I told him I would miss my friends, he said, ‘If you achieve martyrdom, you’ll meet all your friends and family in Heaven’.”

Mohammed, whose name has been changed to protect his identity from possible retaliation, says his uncle began fighting in Afghanistan in 2007—a mark of pride for the family. He also claims that as a “true Muslim”, he wanted to help the Afghan Taliban fight off “foreign invaders.” Still, his final night at home was a restless one and caused him much heartache. “The day before I was due to leave for training, my mother refused to meet my gaze and appeared despondent. Perhaps she thought this was the last time we would meet,” he says of that day in 2009.

The next morning, according to Mohammed, four men showed up at his house in a pick-up truck. “Is he ready?” they asked his uncle. After he replied in the affirmative, one of the men blindfolded Mohammed and sat him in the back of the truck. “After a few hours, they picked up two more men. All three of us were blindfolded,” he says. “We drove for over 10 hours before the truck stopped and a man told us wu rasid du [‘We have arrived’ in Pashto]. Our blindfolds were then removed and we found ourselves surrounded by mountains and dozens of Taliban fighters.”

Mohammed says the first night passed without any concerns, and senior militants welcomed them as guests. “They fed us and told us to rest [before our training began],” he said.

That training, which lasted over six months, included physical exercise, the operation of weapons, and the construction and detonation of improvised explosive devices. “Our trainers changed often. Some of them wore military fatigues. Other were dressed in the traditional shalwar kameez,” he says, adding that they appeared to come from all over Pakistan. “One of the trainers could only understand Urdu because he was from Punjab,” he says.

The final step in the training, per Mohammed, was their induction into the frontlines. “There were 15 of us in our batch,” he says, noting that while he was among the youngest fighters, there were boys even younger than him. “A Taliban commander named Abdul Subhan told us we would first go to Kunar before joining fighters in other parts of Afghanistan.”

Mohammed says the time spent in Kunar—the closest Afghan province to the Pak-Afghan border—was a favorite part of his life as a militant. “I made many friends in Kunar. We used to play football in the evenings sometimes—but only after our station commander gave us explicit permission to do so. We were not allowed to do anything without his input.” He also says that none of the fresh recruits were sent on major attacks in the beginning—perhaps because their loyalties were still being tested. “The leadership sent experienced fighters against NATO. They would often return from sorties against NATO bases and regale us with the number of ‘foreign infidels’ they had killed or wounded,” he says, adding that while the inexperienced militants weren’t expected to fight, they still had to pull their weight. “I was initially part of a team that planted IEDs near roads frequented by foreign convoys,” he says. “After several months, I was allowed to participate in fighting against U.S. and British forces in Kabul and across Helmand province,” he said, adding that he must have participated in attacks on British Army bases in Helmand at least 10 times.

According to Mohammed, the militants were taught to wage a guerrilla war and never stayed in the same place for longer than two days. “We were told to never attack from one side. We always tried to encircle the enemy forces before targeting them,” he said. “We were also trained to remain calm even when we were convinced we would be killed by foreign troops. Our commanders told us, ‘For the Taliban, losing lives is never a defeat, as this is jihad’.”

Mohammed says he had few encounters with the Pakistani Taliban during his stay in Afghanistan. “I once saw commander Faqir of Bajaur Agency [arrested in Afghanistan in 2013] and saw commander Wali-ur-Rehman [killed in a 2013 U.S. drone strike in Miranshah] in Kunar another time,” he says. “They [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan fighters] always carried such advanced weapons, such as rocket launchers, Kalashnikovs and high-grade explosives. I wish I knew who provided these to them. They had powerful friends,” he says, noting the Afghan Taliban’s weapons were more outdated.

Mohammed says he was finally allowed to return home after his mother became sick. His uncle, who had recruited him, had long since gone into hiding—Mohammed says he still sends messages occasionally, but has not been seen since U.S. Special Forces killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during a midnight raid in Abbottabad. He says it was a difficult transition from fighter to civilian, but he has no plans to return to the ‘holy war.’

“I had nearly forgotten that I had ever even had a family, much less a home, in Pakistan, but I slowly returned to normal,” he says, noting he has just gotten married and hopes to start his own family soon. However, he says, there are dozens of Taliban currently living openly in Pakistan who would not hesitate to return to the frontlines. “Some of the Taliban I worked with died in the war. Some of the survivors visit me at my shop from time to time. Others have lavish houses in posh areas across the province,” he said. “All of them have left the war and are living as civilians right now. But I know that if they are ever summoned back for jihad, they’ll be eager to return to the battlefield.”

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