shadow

What one death threat says about Taliban's campaign of fear

Why We Wrote This

What advantages do insurgents have? Afghanistan’s Taliban have been tenacious – in battle, in gathering intelligence, and in the way they can “play” people, as our reporter learned close at hand.

Scott Peterson/Getty images/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Afghan boys stood beside a car decorated for newlyweds outside a wedding hall in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2015. A brief visit by an American reporter at a Pashtun wedding prompted a series of Taliban death threats to the Afghans who escorted the reporter.

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Swept up in the jubilation of a cease-fire last June between Afghan and Taliban forces, Abdullah ventured back to his Taliban-controlled home village in Wardak province for the first time in a decade. What awaited him was the horrifying realization that an episode from 2-1/2 years before, when he drove an American reporter to a Pashtun wedding in Kabul, had landed him firmly on the insurgents’ kill list. “When we saw you over there with the American, we added you to the list [of those] we would immediately behead,” one Taliban leader told Abdullah. “All people there thought I was absolutely an infidel,” Abdullah says about his home village. “Because they are illiterate, all people accept what the Taliban says.” The episode provides a lesson in the Taliban’s depth of penetration in the Afghan capital, and in their ability to intimidate fellow Afghans apart from their battlefield gains. Abdullah says he was only spared because of his overt religiosity and the fact of the cease-fire. “When I prepared to go, they told me: ‘We had a plan to behead you. Don’t come anymore without a cease-fire.... Don’t contact us. It’s not good for you.’ ”

The young Afghan man never thought a 15-minute visit with an American reporter to a glittering wedding celebration in Kabul could have such long-standing and potentially lethal consequences – or yield a Taliban plan to kill him.

Abdullah did not even leave the parking lot that fateful night, three years ago. But he had driven the American in his car, and, at the ethnic Pashtun wedding, Taliban insurgents were among the hundreds in attendance.

The result has been an abject lesson in the Taliban intelligence’s depth of penetration in the Afghan capital, and in the long memories and scale of antipathy these Islamist militants hold against Western-leaning Afghans and those they consider spies and traitors.

Abdullah felt that fear this June when he returned for the first time in years to his Taliban-controlled home village in Wardak province, west of Kabul, during a short cease-fire between Taliban and government forces. It was 2-1/2 years after the wedding.

“When we saw you over there with the American, we added you to the list [of those] we would immediately behead,” one Taliban leader told Abdullah, whose name is a pseudonym to protect his identity. He is a Pashtun, a member of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, which forms the bulk of support for the Taliban.

“All people there thought I was absolutely an infidel,” Abdullah says about his home village. “Because they are illiterate, all people accept what the Taliban says. That community is radicalized.”

That proven ability to widely and effectively intimidate fellow Afghans whom the Taliban see as enemies and unbelievers has only added to the growing sense of foreboding in the capital, Kabul, as the Taliban continue to make battlefield gains against US- and NATO-backed Afghan forces, most recently in western Ghazni province.

So far, back-channel talks between the United States and Taliban have not borne fruit. Since last year, the Trump administration has stepped up airstrikes and increased US troop numbers.

But away from the shooting war with Western forces, the Taliban have been waging a far quieter battle to bring despair to Afghans – not just through high-profile suicide bombings in Kabul and the targeting of Afghan security forces, but with the extensive use of threats and fear.

For Abdullah, the 2015 wedding was a problem from the start. Even though he stayed in the parking lot, his friend – also a Pashtun, and like Abdullah known to the wedding party – escorted this reporter into the Paris Castle wedding hall to visit for a few awkward moments.

Traditional music played from the small stage, and in the men’s section all eyes focused on the unexpected and unwelcome Western visitor.

“They think very badly toward me, that I am a bad Muslim, an infidel, for bringing you here,” Abdullah’s friend said in hushed tones at the wedding.

After the wedding, threats

Two days later, his family started receiving telephone warnings, accusing him of facilitating an American spy “collecting information” at the wedding, to “prepare a plan with coalition forces to destroy us.”

Within days, he had to move house with his wife and two children, after men came knocking at their door in the middle of the night.

But that was not the end of the story. The car had been photographed in the parking lot during the wedding, and Abdullah’s family also began receiving calls from people accusing their son of being a traitor, charging that he had “left his religion.”  

Abdullah had in years received death threats, when he was involved in a US-funded development program in Wardak in 2013. But after the 2015 wedding, the Taliban promised to issue a “formal warning.”

And indeed they did, as the young Afghan found out last June, when he was swept up in the jubilation of the unprecedented cease-fire and ventured back to his home village for the first time in a decade.

Taliban fighters had come to Kabul, checking in their guns with the police and eating ice cream, recalls the Afghan. In the opposite direction, roads to Taliban areas were clogged with people going back briefly to home areas, relatively safe from the war that has largely defined their lives since the US first orchestrated the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.

“Government and Taliban fighters hugged each other, took selfies, sang and danced together, and exchanged flowers and gifts,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in a July report on the peacemaking implications of the cease-fire. “Tens of thousands of Afghans crossed battle lines to visit friends and kin.... Most of the country, particularly areas that suffer the worst violence, saw scenes of joy and optimism unknown for years.”

Saved by prayer

The three-day truce was “instructive for future peace efforts,” wrote ICG, because it “showed the depth of most Afghans’ yearning for an end to the war” – among government and Taliban combatants alike – and critically that both sides “exert significant control over their forces.”

Such optics impressed Afghans more used to the taste of bad news than optimism. Against the express wishes of his father in Kabul, Abdullah joined relatives on their return to Wardak.

Along the way, he was reassured by the obvious presence of both Afghan security forces and Taliban, all armed, intermingling and celebrating. At one point, Abdullah stopped to pray along the road. When one Taliban fighter saw him, he was shocked.

“When I was in my village, I thought that all the Afghan Army and police, and all the people in Kabul, are infidels – they are not Muslim,” the Taliban fighter told Abdullah. “All the [Taliban] leaders told me: ‘If you see them, kill them.’ But you are Muslim. You are offering prayers.”

The Talib said he could not shoot upon a fellow Muslim, and would go back to his village, “put away my weapon and never use it, because now I know how important is peace.”

Such sentiments, however, were not enough to clear the Taliban charge sheet against Abdullah, despite strong family connections: His grandfather was a shop owner who decades ago often helped out the poor local cleric, and the family reputation was good.

Display of intelligence prowess

But meeting face to face with local Taliban leaders, Abdullah had a hard time allaying their suspicions. He prevailed, he says, convincing them that Americans he knew respected Islam and Afghan traditions.

Yet he blanched when they responded to his description of insecurity in Kabul, and the number of suicide bombings. One Taliban leader told him: “Suicide attackers are only targeting infidels. It’s really good. We are praying to God for them to be successful.”

And in his own case, they demonstrated their intelligence prowess by giving him details of a meeting where he was spotted working alongside an American official at a large Wardak gathering five years before. They also detailed how they had photographed the mystery American’s visit to the wedding, and Abdullah and his car in the parking lot.

They made clear that Abdullah’s neck was only saved by his overt religiosity, respect for his family, and the fact of the short cease-fire.

“When I prepared to go, they told me: ‘We had a plan to behead you. Don’t come anymore without a cease-fire,’ ” recalls Abdullah of the Taliban’s final words for him. “Stay in Kabul. Work everywhere you want. But don’t contact us. It’s not good for you. And please, take care. But sometimes, if you find some money, help us.”

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