Letter from Kabul — From the February 2017 issue

The Patient War

What awaits Trump in Afghanistan

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Haji Din Mohammed met with the Taliban for the first time on the public record on July 7, 2015, in the town of Murree, Pakistan, just outside Islamabad. It was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. After sunset, he and his colleagues — delegates from the High Peace Council, the Afghan government’s official negotiating body — sat down for a customary iftar dinner at their hotel before heading over to a nearby golf resort.

Din Mohammed, who is in his early sixties, has a white beard and rheumy eyes. That evening, he wore a lungi, a turban that indicated his elite social status, and a shalwar kameez, an elegant tunic and trousers. He and his delegation were ushered into a sparsely appointed room and seated along one side of a long table. Facing them were three Taliban envoys. On their left were the Pakistani hosts; on their right, three observers from the United States and China. For this historic occasion, the resort served milk tea and summer fruit. Like most Afghans, Din Mohammed prefers green tea, considering the Pakistani variety too sweet, so his cup went untouched.

Rubble at the site of a truck bombing in eastern Kabul, August 7, 2015. The blast killed at least fifteen and injured hundreds of civilians; the target was believed to be a nearby military base. Two more major attacks occurred in the Afghan capital over the next twenty-four hours © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Redux

Rubble at the site of a truck bombing in eastern Kabul, August 7, 2015. The blast killed at least fifteen and injured hundreds of civilians; the target was believed to be a nearby military base. Two more major attacks occurred in the Afghan capital over the next twenty-four hours © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Redux

It was already ten in the evening when the discussion began, though in a sense the participants had been waiting fourteen years, as no one could agree on who was fighting whom. The Afghan government viewed the enduring conflict within its borders as an undeclared war between Afghanistan and Pakistan; Pakistan saw it through the prism of a threat from India; the Taliban were resisting American intervention; America was battling Al Qaeda.

That night, the aim was modest: set an agenda for a follow-up meeting. The group eased in with niceties, as some of the adversaries on either side of the table had once been allies and neighbors. Din Mohammed was the first to address the room. He took inventory of the advances that Afghanistan had made over the past decade: the improvements to education, health care, and the national economy. Then he made his case for ending the war. A death is a death is a death, he said. If friendly forces were murdered, the deaths were mourned, and when Taliban fighters were killed, he insisted, “We cry for them too.” He went on, “War will destroy you. War will destroy us all.”

But the dialogue soon buckled. The Taliban emissaries seemed to have “arrived already angry,” Din Mohammed said when he recounted the meeting to me. Abdul Latif Mansour, a member of the Taliban delegation, told the Americans, his temper rising, “We had our own government, but you pushed us out.” Then he erupted at the High Peace Council. “You let them do night raids. You are nothing! We should be leading the country, not you. We are not tired. We can continue fighting for longer!” This was not an idle threat: The Taliban have an operating budget of around $500 million for some 30,000 fighters. It’s not much compared with the $3 billion that the U.S. Department of Defense will spend in 2017 on the 352,000-strong Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, but the group’s benefactors are unhindered by a legislature or recalcitrant public, and a steady stream of money comes in from drug revenues and zakat (religious taxes). Anatol Lieven, a global-terrorism scholar based at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar, told me, “They can outlast us all.”

Din Mohammed called for a tea break. During the recess, he urged his delegation to stay focused: this was their opportunity to engage, and all they needed was a plan for the next talk. The alternative, he reminded them, was unceasing violence.

When everyone returned to the table, the Taliban negotiators were noticeably less acerbic, more deferential, addressing Din Mohammed with the honorific “mujahed.” The group worked steadily into the night, forgoing the resort’s offer of a breakfast at two-thirty in the morning — the last victual before resuming the fast — so they could keep talking. A few hours before sunrise, they bade one another farewell, promising to meet again at the end of the month.

The following week, Din Mohammed flew from Kabul, where his office is based, to Mecca, to build goodwill with other Taliban representatives. He was told that senior Taliban officials approved of the peace meetings, and returned home glowing with optimism. Days later, the annual Eid al-Fitr message of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s leader, was released. “If we look into our religious regulations,” it read, “We can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited.” The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, praised Mullah Omar’s conciliatory tone in his own Eid address.

But a couple of weeks later, two days before the second meeting was to be held, an announcement was made on the news: Mullah Omar was dead. Not only that, he had died back in 2013. Din Mohammed was shocked, and then filled with questions. Who had written the Eid message? Who had been leading the group for the past two years? And with whom had the High Peace Council really been negotiating?

He learned that the Taliban’s peace delegates were in Islamabad awaiting instructions. They, too, had been stunned by the report of Mullah Omar’s death, which had been kept secret by the organization’s top brass. (According to one account, he had died of tuberculosis at a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan; others reported that he was buried in the southern Afghan province of Zabul.) Yet Din Mohammed was determined to carry on as planned, and convened his team at their office to review the agenda. The discussion had just gotten started when a secretary interrupted with an update: in light of recent events, Pakistan was canceling the meeting. Everyone got up, gathered their things, and left.

That evening, the Taliban Supreme Council in Quetta, Pakistan — known as the Quetta Shura — met to install a new leader. Most were in favor of elevating Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, Omar’s deputy, who had been running daily operations since 2010. But Mansour, a portly man in his late forties, was a drug baron from Kandahar with business interests in Dubai — no revolutionary folk hero. There was an attempt to block his appointment, but by midnight, he managed to win a majority’s consent.

Din Mohammed woke to this news, along with the disquieting revelation that the Taliban envoys he had met with in Murree had likely been sent against their will by the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency. As the confusion mounted, however, he perceived an opportunity. Perhaps the Taliban, with the surprise of a new leader, would be amenable to peace negotiations. Perhaps the United States, after a decade of halfhearted efforts, would put its weight behind ending the civil war. It would be a time of trying all things.

But first, a coronation: in Quetta, thousands of supplicants turned out to swear allegiance to the new Amir al-Muminin (“commander of the faithful”). They hardly could have imagined that within a year, as if in a cosmic test of Afghanistan’s nerve, Mansour would be dead, and the world would be watching the ascent of Donald Trump.

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lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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April 2019

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