Letter from Afghanistan — From the January 2014 issue

The Pious Spy

A Taliban intelligence chief’s death and resurrection

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It is sunrise on a Saturday morning in spring, and the peaks of the Hindu Kush are gleaming from a recent hailstorm. A bearded man in an Afghan National Army uniform is examining vehicles as they leave the bus station in western Kabul. I have been warned to keep a low profile during this part of my journey to Ghazni, a province ninety miles south of the capital along Highway 1, since informants here — the ANA soldier, perhaps, or the money changer, or the boy selling phone credit — often pass intelligence to Taliban down the road. As unobtrusively as I can, I find a seat in the back of a shared Toyota Corolla.

I am on my way to meet friends and family of Qari Ahmadullah, the last intelligence minister of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban regime called itself when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. Ahmadullah was among the first high-ranking government officials targeted in the American invasion, and though twelve years have passed since his reported death in a U.S. air strike in eastern Afghanistan, rumors have persisted that he is alive. Some people have seen him marshaling fighters in Iran; others say he is living a life of quiet study in Pakistan. A footnote in the interrogation files of one of his associates, who was rolled up in a carpet in 2001 and shipped off to Guantánamo Bay, suggests vaguely that Ahmadullah survived Operation Enduring Freedom and “is still active.” But his remains are supposedly buried in Ghazni, where his brother runs a madrassa, and I expect little more from this journey than to be shown a headstone.

For the first hour, the ride is uneventful. Highway 1, still mostly unpaved when Ahmadullah used it in the 1990s, connects the capital to the southern city of Kandahar. It has grown increasingly unsafe in recent years. Many of Ahmadullah’s comrades once imprisoned at Guantánamo or Bagram have been released, with some returning to the battlefield; others are being bargained for in U.S.-backed negotiations between the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai’s government. For Karzai and his American allies, the Taliban is the enemy that was, now in large measure sanitized. An attempt at reintegration has replaced the old strategy of eradication. But the Taliban have intensified their attacks of late, seemingly in anticipation of the U.S. military drawdown scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. The violence along Highway 1 and elsewhere suggests the former leaders of the emirate may be using the peace process to buy time.

Our Corolla comes to a halt somewhere in Wardak province, a favorite haunt of militants. Cars are backed up as far as I can see. ANA soldiers lie prone on the asphalt, pointing their rifles down a dusty slope at a mud-brick house where combatants are holed up. The sound of intermittent gunfire disrupts the valley’s quiet. Many drivers, as well as some passengers, get out to take a look. They light cigarettes, chitchat, crack jokes — as if this were just a stop at a rest station. Hoping to skirt the fighting and rejoin the highway farther south, our driver follows several other vehicles turning in to the parched-looking village on our left. During this detour, we hear two small explosions in the distance.

Back on the highway a few minutes later, we pass an elderly man bent over a shovel. “I can’t tell whether he’s fixing the road or planting another balaa,” the driver jokes, using the Pashto word for “evil one.” A slow rain pelts the windows. Behind us is a wedding convoy. As the bridegroom’s vehicle, adorned in flowers, reaches a newly filled crater, it slows down, hesitates, then drives on.

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is based in Kabul. This is his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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