Letter from Afghanistan — From the January 2014 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Letter from Afghanistan — From the January 2014 issue
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.
I first heard of Qari Ahmadullah at the age of ten, two years after the Taliban took Kabul, in 1996. An uncle of mine knew Ahmadullah’s bodyguards, who were also his relatives, and sometimes entertained them at his house. Perhaps I brought them water to rinse their hands before dinner, as is customary for the youngest family member to do, and became aware of Ahmadullah that way. Or perhaps one morning I prayed beside him. When one of our neighbors, a northerner who owned one of Kabul’s most popular wedding halls, fled town, as many businessmen and ousted functionaries were then doing, a Taliban commander took up residence in his house. (I remember this because the new occupant’s many small children were in the habit of defecating outdoors.) Ahmadullah, I have heard, was related to this family and attended our mosque when he came to visit.
It’s also possible I caught sight of him at one of the annual Independence Day parades. The top students at my school, a couple hundred of us, would cram into buses each year and go to the national stadium, where, black turbans on our heads and worn-out sandals on our feet, we would march in the mid-August sun, chanting praises to the Islamic Emirate as Taliban dignitaries looked on.
As the U.S. bombings began, in October 2001, school was still in session for us in Kabul. Fearful that American bomber pilots might mistake a group of children in black headgear for fighters, we tucked our turbans — required as part of our uniform — under our arms as we walked to school. We made sure to have them on again for morning assembly, when our principal, a pale mullah from the north long rumored to be a pedophile, led us in shouts of “Death to America!” and “Death to the king!” — the latter a reference to Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last monarch of Afghanistan, who had been living in exile for nearly thirty years and seemed likely to return any day now on the Americans’ heels.
As it became ever more apparent that the Taliban was finished, Mullah Omar, the regime’s reclusive leader, sent a letter to government agencies and schools promising victory. Our principal read the letter aloud to us, then posted it on his office door. I remember glancing at the signature on my way to class one day. This was the most intimate token of our ruler I’d ever seen. I soon forgot what the signature looked like, and Mullah Omar never again sent signed letters to remind me.
After another hour on Highway 1, as bright sunlight replaces the drizzle, the Corolla deposits me at the madrassa, a square structure with plastered walls that sits amid untamed trees. Its dark hallways have a hollow feel to them. Ahmadullah built this place and the mosque across from it while serving, at the age of twenty-eight, as the Taliban’s first minister of interior. He named both buildings for Abu Ubaydah Ibn al-Jarah, a seventh-century Islamic commander known for having used his teeth to extract fragments of chain mail from the Prophet Mohammed’s face during a battle. (Abu Ubaydah apparently lost a pair of incisors in the process.) Nearly a hundred young boys, wearing black or white turbans, study in the madrassa’s eleven functioning classrooms. Most of them come from Ghazni, Wardak, and Zabul. The madrassa has been raided often by Afghan security forces. “There’s no doubt the place trains extremists,” a former intelligence official in Ghazni told me.1
1 Several of the sources quoted in this article asked not to be named for reasons of personal safety.
I meet Qari Ahmadullah’s brother, Mawlawi Naeem, a slight man with a narrow gray beard, in the yard outside the madrassa. (Mawlawi, like qari and mullah, is an honorific bestowed on scholars of Islam.) We make our way to a small office appointed with a dozen or so floor cushions and await the arrival of Mawlawi Haji Mohammad, the seminary’s senior instructor, who was Ahmadullah’s childhood teacher and later one of his advisers. A half dozen other men file in as we pass around a platter of raisins, almonds, and dried peas. Someone offers me a cup of warm milk. After a few minutes, Mohammad walks into the room, and everyone stands in respect; several of the teachers kiss his hands. A tall man in his seventies with a cream-colored beard, he sits on the highest cushion, wrapping himself in his cloak. As I introduce myself — I’m interrupted by a phone call from my mother, who saw me off at dawn and is anxious to make sure I have arrived safely — Naeem and Mohammad listen politely. Then they begin telling me of Ahmadullah.
He was an anomaly in the nascent Taliban’s close-knit circle of leaders. Most of the men had strong ties to the Kandahar area and years of combat experience with the mujahideen. Ahmadullah appeared to have only his piety to recommend him. He and his siblings — three elder brothers and an elder sister — grew up in Khogyani, a highly religious town in Ghazni that was home to many mullahs and Sufis. (This was in the late 1960s, well before the Taliban’s crackdown on Sufism, whose practices it deemed heretical.) When the children weren’t in school, they were farming and herding sheep. “The one game I remember was sliding down the hills in the winter when it snowed,” says Naeem in Pashto. “Skiing,” says another man — Mawlawi Sediqullah Kawsar, a friend and former deputy of Ahmadullah’s — in English.
One of Ahmadullah’s brothers disappeared following the communist revolution of 1978; his father and sister were killed by the Soviets in the early 1980s. Naeem soon joined the mujahideen, and Ahmadullah eventually decamped to a madrassa in Pakistan. He spent the better part of a decade leading the life of a talib, or student of Islam — waking before dawn to pray, sharing a small room with three or four others, bringing his dinner bowl to nearby houses for alms in the evening. Though he memorized the Koran in its entirety and could recite it with the proper elocution, earning him the title of qari, he failed to complete his study of sharia, which would have made him a mawlawi or a mullah as well. (“In your terms,” says Mohammad, “the qari did not do his thesis.”)
2 Ahmadullah may also have had close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Pakistani agents played a major role in the Taliban’s first conquest, in Takht-e-Pul, outside Kandahar, where Ahmadullah, young and unknown, was soon put in charge.
Ahmadullah became connected to the Taliban through a fellow student and rose quickly through its ranks.2 Mohammad recalls being at a garment store in Ghazni on September 27, 1996, when Ahmadullah brought him news that the Taliban had taken the capital. “He said, ‘Kabul has been captured. We are going to Kabul.’ ”
We had become used to seeing unruly men — their trousers rolled up and their hair disheveled, RPG launchers slung nonchalantly over their shoulders — roam the streets of Kabul in the chaotic years after the communist government of President Najibullah fell. But as the Taliban moved into the capital, we began to see self-proclaimed mullahs in austere-looking turbans. Immediately the new regime executed Najibullah, who had been living at U.N. headquarters in Kabul for more than four years. His corpse was strung up from a traffic-control tower in a busy roundabout, cash shoved in one nostril and a cigarette in one hand, a harbinger of how the Taliban planned to govern.
A mailbox appeared in the bazaar near my family’s home. It was marked letters for voice of sharia radio, and though I never saw anyone deposit notes there or come retrieve them, a mullah would read listeners’ questions on air each day, dispensing fatwas. Soon a familiar-looking man riding in a shiny new Toyota pickup with several armed guards came to my uncle’s door, demanding weapons. Two years earlier he had gone by his Sanskrit birth name, given to him in honor of an emperor of the pre-Islamic Kushan dynasty, and danced and played cards with my uncle at a family wedding. He had been the most impressive dancer on the floor. Now, announcing himself as Mullah Amir Mohammed Akhund (whose Christian equivalent would be something like “the Reverend Prince Jesus Priest”), he appeared to have put such frivolities behind him.
In private, some members of the Taliban enjoyed the entertainments they attempted to deny the rest of us. One of the reasons Ahmadullah’s bodyguards came over to my uncle’s house so often was that he owned a VCR. They would enjoy a meal prepared by my aunts, then retire to watch whatever smuggled film was available. Sourcing these films required stealth and shrewdness, because cinema, music, and many other forms of art were banned. My uncle and his neighborhood friends shared their collections of old movies and Hindi-language gulcheen, compilations of Bollywood sound tracks. But if they wanted the latest release, they had to get it from a red shipping container down the street. My uncle once asked me to pick up a movie for him there, saying I should be sure to tell the shopkeeper who sent me. The container was partitioned. In front was a kiosk with a small array of snacks and drinks. At the back of this kiosk was a little door, behind which, I assumed, lay the illicit film stash. I waited as the owner attended to another customer, like me a boy of about eleven.
“How much are the orange Anata biscuits?” the boy asked, pointing to a neat stack of boxes.
“We’re out of Anatas,” the shopkeeper responded.
Apparently this customer wasn’t worth the trouble of keeping up appearances.
A year into Ahmadullah’s interior-ministry stint, while he was deployed on the front lines in central Bamiyan province, rumors began circulating in Kabul that he had been appointed director general of intelligence. Mohammad was not pleased. “I radioed him not to accept the new post,” he says. The intelligence agency had a stained reputation; it needed to be run by a man comfortable doling out jail time and beatings. Under the Soviet-backed government, the agency’s operatives had penetrated every part of society. Thousands of people were disappeared, some of them buried alive in Kabul’s central prison. There were reports of communist authorities torturing their prisoners in a cave beneath a hill at the Intelligence Training Academy, in the west of the capital. Ahmadullah, say Mohammad and Naeem, was not cut out for such work. Mohammad drove to Lulenj, in Bamiyan, to persuade his former student not to take the new job. But Ahmadullah had already made up his mind. Orders were orders, and Mullah Omar wanted him to reform the intelligence ministry, to do away with the stains.
Ahmadullah fulfilled his purification directive by mandating prayer and little else. He appointed a one-legged, one-eyed mullah from Ghazni named Daro Khan to lead the Intelligence Training Academy. Khan often left his relatives, who had no affiliation with the academy, in charge when he traveled. On Thursdays, the staff gathered in an auditorium to participate in a joint recitation of the Koran, a two- or three-hour undertaking. (During one of these recitations, the academy’s elderly tailor stumbled over a line. “I bet you made some nice neckties in the old days,” Khan said to him. “But you don’t seem to be able to read the Koran.”) The Taliban eventually did away with the academy completely. “There was no system, no interest in training a force of agents,” one veteran instructor, with thirty years’ experience under three regimes, told me.3
3 The academy was reopened late in 2001 and has since undergone another sort of purification. Officers are provided with laptops and schooled in PowerPoint. The notorious cave has been blocked up, the hill above it crowned with a blue-domed mosque — though this hasn’t stopped guards on night duty from radioing nervously to one another about jinn.
Ahmadullah seemed equally indifferent toward what more professional spy agencies refer to as signals intelligence. Afghanistan’s information-technology infrastructure under the Taliban was more or less nonexistent, so there were few signals to intercept. In the August 26, 2001, edition of Shariat, the regime’s twice-weekly newspaper, Mullah Omar declared that only one “set of Internet” would be allowed in the country, that it would be located at the emirate’s office in Kandahar, and that requests to use it had to be faxed or phoned in. A handful of cities maintained antiquated telephone networks. To dial a relative outside Afghanistan often meant traveling to Pakistan, though a few public phones eventually appeared around Kabul, always accompanied by long queues. For its own communications and routine business, the Taliban mostly used radios and notes written in longhand. Sayed Akbar Agha, who as the emirate’s frontline commander in Wardak was responsible for about 4,000 troops, relied on such a system to keep his forces’ 150 or so pickup trucks running. “I would give the vehicles little notes to take to the pump station,” he told me recently. “Once a week, the pump-wala would come to me with a thousand or two thousand notes and ask if this was my handwriting. And then we would pay him the money.”
With his fellow commanders relying on IOUs and international sanctions choking his country’s meager economy, Ahmadullah lacked the resources to field a force of traditional agents. And so the mosque, always central to his life, became central to the workings of the state spying apparatus, giving Ahmadullah a pool of willing informants. Clergymen, though always revered, had before the Taliban’s rule been at the mercy of their congregations for food, clothing, and shelter. Now they saw a government that represented them, a government of mullahs.
The state required every man of pubescent age or older to attend mosque for prayers. Many mosques had roll call, but this wasn’t really necessary: showing up for at least two prayers a day (the midday, afternoon, and evening prayers could be performed at work or on the way home) was enough to make your face familiar to the mullah. Attendance at dawn and night prayers was especially important, as if the Taliban worried that fighting-age men — particularly those with connections to the northeastern province of Panjshir — might sneak off in the dark and join the Northern Alliance. (The leader of the Northern Alliance, a charismatic veteran of the anti-Soviet campaign named Ahmad Shah Massoud, had his base of power in Panjshir.)
The mullahs worked closely with the police stations, the hawza, to provide information on their congregations; according to one senior intelligence official I spoke with, there was a substantial paper trail of communications between the mosques and the intelligence agency left behind after the Taliban’s fall. People who had been staunch communists were now the first in line for prayers, intent on ingratiating themselves with the mullah. Some invited him over for private Koran recitations, perhaps providing him a snack of milk tea and cookies or starchy halwa. Others performed mosque chores such as collecting money for new carpets or firewood for the heaters. These new routines weren’t meant to glorify God — they were meant to ensure protection from the wrath of God’s faithful.
Our mullah had a gun, a foldable AK-47 he would hang on his shoulder as he sunned himself outside the mosque walls at midday, keeping a close watch on the neighborhood. We knew little about him — that he was young, no older than twenty-seven or twenty-eight; that he lived with his wife in the house at the corner of the mosque compound, whose door he padlocked from the outside whenever he left; that he often stopped couples on the street to ask how they were related. Fond of perfume, he was always doubly well scented when he led Friday prayers, and his voice would swell as he praised the leader of the Taliban: “Reliant on Allah, the greatest, the Mujahid Mullah Mohammad Omar.” We knew he had connections to the regime’s leadership, and that they allowed him to rule his little constituency.
The success of Ahmadullah’s strategy was in making Afghans believe we were being watched at all times without knowing exactly by whom. In the uniformity of looks — everyone grew beards and most men wore turbans — it could be difficult to discern who was a member of the vice-and-virtue police and who wasn’t. Some of these police patrolled the streets in trucks blaring verses from the Koran, or on foot with their whips in hand, making sure that men’s beards were long and their hair short, that women’s bodies were covered, and that shops stayed closed during prayer times. Being watchful (or frightened) became the norm, and we sought hiding places for mundane objects that were now banned. One day early in the Taliban’s rule, my father moved the small Panasonic TV left behind by my mother’s family (they had emigrated to Pakistan) into our little attic. Then he brought up our photo albums and boxes of audiocassettes. Piling everything inside, he blocked off the attic doorway with a wall of mud bricks, then sealed it with plaster. I didn’t say anything to him at the time, but his camouflage looked silly — the stairs now led to nowhere.
Ahmadullah seems to have been aware that Afghans felt excessively watched. He soon addressed the issue in a four-part newspaper series entitled “The Importance of Intelligence in Islam,” which ran in Shariat in mid-2001 under the byline “Directorate General of Intelligence.” (Ahmadullah’s name appeared in print only a handful of times.) The articles drew on seventh-century accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s intelligence-gathering, using them as guidelines for the proper role of surveillance in present-day Afghanistan.
Under previous administrations, agents caused pain to many Muslims, harassed them unnecessarily, and made the public view them with hatred. Today’s officials must try to erase this atmosphere of hatred, regain the people’s trust, and turn the intelligence network into a truly Islamic one that serves the people.
The end of the series’ last installment not only justified the government’s strategy but also promised spiritual compensation to those who participated. “Intelligence work done on God’s behalf,” it said, “can bring many rewards.”
In Kabul, northerners bore the brunt of this rewarding new system. One forty-year veteran of the Afghan bureaucracy, whom I will call Qadim, was taken away by Ahmadullah’s agents on charges of operating a weapons depot and aiding the resistance in the north. They demanded a bounty — a handgun and several rifles — for his release. Qadim had never used a weapon in his life. He remembers his Taliban interrogator, during a break from whipping the soles of Qadim’s feet, offering to help him find a Kalashnikov on the black market.
While it seems clear that Ahmadullah manipulated religion to rationalize his scrutiny of people’s lives, his piety appears to have been genuine. (“The qari told me he dreamed of the prophet eleven times,” says Kawsar, his childhood friend and former deputy.) While serving as intelligence chief he doubled as the governor of Takhar province, but always he led prayers and raised funds for the construction of new mosques.
An Uzbek who became acquainted with him in Takhar told me Ahmadullah also had the power to heal. Over a breakfast of fresh cream one morning early in 2001, the man explained to Ahmadullah that his son was sick. He had sought help from doctors and mullahs and was losing hope. “Let me see him,” said Ahmadullah. “But we should agree on a price first.”
The man brought his son over after dawn prayers each day for three consecutive days. Ahmadullah performed dam, reciting verses from the Koran and gently blowing on the child. “The boy was cured like that,” the Uzbek told me. “Now he is about to graduate from high school.”
On September 9, 2001, the Northern Alliance’s Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by a pair of Tunisians posing as journalists, who detonated a camera packed with explosives during an interview. Two days later, American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 hit the World Trade Center towers, setting in motion the dispersal of the Taliban, whose forces were at that point comfortably in control of most of Afghanistan. (Many observers have since argued that Al Qaeda arranged the killing of Massoud as a favor to its host regime.)
At the time of Massoud’s assassination, my family was visiting relatives in Kapisa province. The corn was high and the walnuts had ripened — it was a good time to spend a week away from the dry city. Massoud’s soldiers had fought extensively with the Taliban over Pachaghan, the valley we were visiting, so when news of the attempt on his life came through on BBC Pashto’s evening bulletin (his death, though immediate, was not confirmed for days), many listened with interest. Some were pleased, hoping his demise might finally bring an end to the civil war; others mourned what they assumed would be the collapse of the resistance.
But then we began hearing reports of the attack on New York City. The American president’s name was frequently on the villagers’ lips at that time, so much so that a large-eared farmer named Maad Yenus received a new nickname. Children would run after him screaming, “Duu W. Gosh Maad Yenus!” (I don’t know how, with only radio available, they knew that Bush also had big ears.)
Coverage of both Massoud’s death and 9/11 appeared in the September 12 issue of Shariat, with the attack on New York the lead story. Ignoring their own virtual ban on photography, the editors of Shariat ran two images of the towers in flames — one of them, apparently borrowed from a television broadcast, had a breaking news chyron at the bottom. “Uncontrollable Fire Engulfs U.S. Capital and Important Parts of New York,” the headline declared. “This sudden fire has terrorized America,” said one subheading. There was no mention of planes on the front page; they were alluded to after the jump, on page four. But the Taliban could keep us in the dark for only so long. Already we had heard — from BBC Pashto and Voice of America — that the attack in New York had been a terrorist plot conceived by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy guest of the Islamic Emirate.
In early October 2001, when Ahmadullah made his final visit home, Naeem was out in the fields planting saplings. “I was a bit rough with him,” he says. “I told him, ‘You joined with the wrong people. They are the reason for your collapse.’ ” Ahmadullah assured Naeem and their mother that they need not worry for their safety because of him. He repeated the same message in a letter. Only a few sentences long, it arrived after Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance.
The Americans came for Ahmadullah through Ghulam Mohammad Hotak, a former Taliban commander, who persuaded the intelligence chief to attend talks in Ghazni. (According to Henry Crumpton, then deputy chief of operations at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Ahmadullah had expressed a willingness to negotiate even before 9/11.) Hotak had promised that Karim Khalili, who now serves as vice president of Afghanistan, would be in attendance. But there was no Khalili. Four CIA operatives and a dozen Afghan escorts were waiting. Ahmadullah learned of the ambush at the last moment and fled. But his deputy and cousin, Abdul Haq Wasiq, and his brother-in-law, Ghulam Rohani, had already reached the appointed location. They were bound, gagged, and taken away.
Arif Shahjahan, a doctor and exiled anti-Taliban commander who returned following the invasion and whose forces quickly took control of Ghazni, told me Ahmadullah disappeared after the botched sting. “I tried all day to reach him on his satellite phone,” he said. “There was no answer.”
Ahmadullah had a history with Shahjahan, an ethnic Hazara and former commander of the Harakat, a predominantly Shia group of mujahideen. In the early months of 1995, Mullah Omar ordered Ahmadullah, who was fluent in Farsi and on good terms with the Hazara community, to negotiate a surrender of arms with Harakat leaders. Though this initial attempt failed, Shahjahan eventually handed over his weapons to the provincial governor. “Once we disarmed, the harassment began,” he told me. “Every day I would be stopped by a Talib asking me for a gun.”
Ahmadullah extended his protection to his old acquaintance for several months, but Shahjahan eventually left Ghazni for Pakistan and then Virginia, where he waited tables at an Afghan restaurant and worked as a pump-wala at a Mobil station. Then came the events of 9/11, which reversed the polarity both of Afghan political life and of the relationship between the two men. By October 2001, Shahjahan was back in Afghanistan, equipped with satellite phones and a direct line to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. He reactivated his old command in Ghazni, recruiting hundreds of fighters. Now Ahmadullah sought Shahjahan’s protection. He arrived one December afternoon in a Mercedes-Benz minibus — no ministerial ride — accompanied by Naeem and two others. The former intelligence chief was defeated, trying to figure out his next step.
“I assured him that no one could touch him,” Shahjahan recalled. But American officials, through various channels, urged Shahjahan to turn Ahmadullah in and collect the bounty — Shahjahan claims it was $1 million. The doctor refused, going so far as to station armed guards outside the house of Ahmadullah’s father-in-law. “A million dollars was a lot of money in those days — no, even a hundred dollars was a lot! But I couldn’t do it. He had been too nice to me in my time of need.” Soon Shahjahan’s U.S. sponsors took back their satellite phones. He returned to Virginia.4
4 Both Arif Shahjahan and Ghulam Rohani, one of Ahmadullah’s relatives seized by the CIA, now live in Afghanistan. Rohani was released from Guantánamo in 2007 and immediately returned to take up command of guerrilla forces around Khogyani, where he is still fighting. Shahjahan currently serves in the Afghan parliament. During the most recent parliamentary elections, Rohani’s men abducted four of Shahjahan’s campaigners. Shahjahan found Rohani’s number and called him, perhaps reminding him of the kindness he once showed Ahmadullah. Rohani relented. “He said he would have released them even if all four had been Karzais,” Shahjahan told me.
The American pursuit of Ahmadullah continued. At around two a.m. one night late in December of 2001, U.S. warplanes flying over a province bordering Ghazni bombed the house of a mullah named Ahmad Taha. “There was nothing left,” said Nader Khan, a resident who visited the scene at dawn. “The crater was so deep that water had emerged.” Khan and a neighbor, Haji Khalil, counted sixteen people killed — mostly women and children from Taha’s family. “We heard that two of the dead were armed Taliban,” said Khan. “Mullah Taha was not home, but his brother was martyred. The two Taliban outside the family — God knows who they were.”
Western news outlets reported Ahmadullah among the dead. Several contradictory accounts cited the same source for their information, a deputy intelligence minister named Abdullah Tawheedi, who died years later. The Associated Press published an extensive article on the air strike on January 3, nearly a week after it took place, in which an Afghan intelligence official said he had witnessed Ahmadullah’s burial “in a remote and sparsely populated area of Ghazni” on December 31.
In his 2012 book, The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, Crumpton claims that Ahmadullah tried after the initial strike to escape Taha’s house. The video feed from a Predator drone showed a man fleeing by foot. A bomb was dropped on him. “He disappeared in a fiery blast,” writes Crumpton. Abdul Haq Wasiq, still imprisoned at Guantánamo as a “high-risk” detainee, said more or less the same at the conclusion of his tribunal.
tribunal member: Do you know what has become of Mr. Qari Ahmadullah?
detainee: Yes, I know.
tribunal member: What happened to him?
detainee: He is under the grave.
tribunal member: Sorry to hear that; I have no further questions.
Soon after Ahmadullah was reported killed and Mullah Omar went on the run, I got a scholarship to study at Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in western Massachusetts. Nine months of ESL and a summer of vocabulary and reading classes (in return for which I scrambled eggs at 5:30 every morning in a camp cafeteria) prepared me for sophomore English, and for Orwell. As I read haltingly about Big Brother, the shadowy leader without a past or present, an election — the first of its kind — was in full swing back home. Several warlords and technocrats were challenging Hamid Karzai, the interim leader since 2001. For years we had been ruled by men who went mostly unseen. Now, all of a sudden, we were reading about the lives of the candidates in the press.
One of the themes Orwell emphasized in 1984 was the manipulation of history:
when memory failed and written records were falsified . . . the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.
For the Taliban, the job of creating such acceptance was comparatively easy — the recent past had been horrific. Afghanistan had been looted and bloodied so badly in factional fighting that the swift return of physical security, which Omar and his comrades brought to a certain extent, was enough to persuade most adults that the conditions of human life had improved. The new generation — my generation, who had no memory of Afghanistan’s festive days — could simply be closed off from the rest of the world.
Throughout the five years of the Taliban’s rule I thought of my upbringing as normal. A glass elevator in a hotel lobby in Karachi changed my mind. I was on my first trip outside Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and I remember riding the elevator up and down for at least half an hour. The only other elevator I had seen in my life was the one in the hallway of one of Kabul’s largest hospitals. The hallway stank of urine and blood, and the elevator did not function.
“Funeral?” repeats Naeem. “Many funerals may have taken place, but none for Ahmadullah. If there was a funeral, shouldn’t we have been the ones putting him to rest?”
When I first approached Naeem for an interview, he asked for time to “consult.” What is clear to me now is that he consulted not with Taliban leaders, as I initially assumed, but with Ahmadullah himself. What is less clear is whether Ahmadullah intentionally faked his death in 2001 or merely got lucky. In his final interview, conducted in a hideout in Pakistan’s tribal areas several days before the bombing on Taha’s house, Ahmadullah more or less gave the Christian Science Monitor — and its readers — his planned itinerary, prompting the newspaper’s editors to insert a disclaimer: “it is impossible to know the intelligence chief’s motives for meeting and talking to a reporter.” Perhaps he was betting that the American military would accommodate him with a plausibly deadly explosion and a hasty claim of mission accomplished, allowing him to slip away, as many other Taliban leaders did, into Pakistan. (This might also explain why Wasiq, who was captured weeks before the strike, knew to say his cousin had died.)
It is still impossible to know the intelligence chief’s motives. Why allow Naeem and Mohammad to speak with a reporter? Perhaps Ahmadullah no longer feels that his life is at risk. Unlike Al Qaeda, the Taliban have emerged from the past decade remarkably unscathed. Many of the group’s leaders have vanished into tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and others live in urban areas — such as Quetta and Karachi — where U.S. drones could not reasonably operate. Still, if Ahmadullah, who is no older than forty-seven, has any hope of playing a role in Afghanistan’s future, he will have to emerge at some point from “under the grave.”
Naeem speaks of his brother’s children — a son and a daughter, both qaris — who live in Peshawar but visit Ghazni often and bring news of their father. Naeem claims Ahmadullah is working as a seminary teacher. Before I leave the madrassa to return to Kabul, I ask Naeem about the last note Ahmadullah sent him. It arrived two months after the fall of Kabul — and weeks after the reports of Ahmadullah’s death. I ask whether there have been any recent letters. “Letters?” He raises his eyebrows and smiles. “It’s a time of telephones now.”
You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
More from Mujib Mashal: