Arnon Grunberg



On Afghanistan - Christoph Reuter in Der Spiegel:

‘At first, it was just a rumor that quickly spread from village to village and was met with doubt and the shaking of heads – at least until the person who spread it was able to provide the scant details. Mohammed Zafar, a farmer, was on his way back from his field at 11 a.m. in early June when he ran right into the five men. They gruffly ordered him to stop and asked what he was doing here. He answered that he was from here, that this is his village. He says his thoughts were muddled out of fear and confusion. And he simply didn’t dare to ask the men what they were doing here. They told him they were from the "emirate.” Then they continued on their way and out of his sight.

The Taliban had arrived.

Enemies have reportedly always lurked everywhere here, in the plains outside the entrance to the valley or high up in the primeval forests on the ridges of the mountains that stretch all the way to the Pakistani border. The roughly 50,000 people living in Darah-i Noor don’t really expect much good from the outside world.
But the brazenness with which the five Taliban would just saunter through their valley in broad daylight has been disturbing to a population that is usually quite self-confident. Granted, the five were carrying AK-47s. But viewed in the light of local customs, that would be about as disturbing as finding a Swiss Army knife in the backpack of someone hiking in the Alps.’


‘Many of the locals moved to the big cities for work or education, only to come back a few years later. Is it possible that some have defected to the Taliban and are now undermining the rule of the maliks from within? Mahboob suspects it is the "teachers at the madrassa.” Maybe some of the shopkeepers, too? Or some of the car mechanics in the villages in the lower part of the valley that the road stretches to? In any case, everyone is certain that the Taliban must already be in their midst. Otherwise the five men wouldn’t have walked through the fields so fearlessly. Now they say it is important to proceed with caution. They don’t know how powerful the opponents within their own ranks may be.’


‘A joke is making its way around the country that only slightly exaggerates the actual situation. A lone member of the Taliban got lost and couldn’t read a map, the joke goes. By mistake, he had ended up in front of a heavily secured army checkpoint. Thirteen soldiers surrendered to him at once.’


‘Preparations for the takeover of the northern provinces, which are now falling to the Taliban, have been years in the making. The Taliban have discreetly expanded their sphere of power over the years like the delicate and far-reaching subterranean roots of mushrooms – and now it is abruptly coming to light. The web has been nourished by people’s discontent and fear, but also by their susceptibility to religious promptings.
That’s what happened in northern Afghanistan, and it’s also what is happening now in the east. This kind of infiltration is often hard to detect in cities and in the open, flat countryside. But in the remote, barely accessible mountain valleys of eastern Afghanistan, even the most subtle changes don’t escape notice. Like the fact that five Taliban would dare to walk through the fields in the middle of the day.
Just a few days earlier, Haji Mahboob had still sounded confident: "We have everything under control!” he said at our first reunion in a decade at his home in Jalalabad, the local provincial capital and a large city in eastern Afghanistan.
It wasn’t simply a throw-away remark. Mahboob has had a talent for juggling between major powers in the past. As the maliks’ spokesman, he had always managed to keep everyone at arm’s length. When the U.S. military wanted to establish a base at Darah-i Noor, there was a meeting at the headquarters of the district administration at the very bottom of the valley entrance. American officers and Afghan maliks sat together over green tea, raisins and almonds. Haji Mahboob addressed the officers, saying they were welcome as guests. But if they came as occupiers, with heavy equipment and troops, it would mean war.
The same happened just a few valleys to the northeast, where U.S. Marines had taken up positions in the Korengal Valley in April 2006. Before that, American patrols had repeatedly encountered resistance. Now, they wanted to take control of the valley. But, instead, they unleashed a merciless war of attrition that dragged on for years. They shelled wooded slopes with artillery and from helicopter gunships, and they were constantly attacked by local residents. By the time the U.S. military gave up and pulled out after four years, it had lost 42 soldiers in Korengal. Writing about Korengal in 2008, DER SPIEGEL described it as "one of the most dangerous regions in Afghanistan.” It had wrongly been suspected that Osama bin Laden was here, and award-winning books and films were made about this "haven of terror.” But in 2010, people started forgetting about the valley again.
The valley is a good example of why foreign armies have always had such trouble occupying this country.
"The war only came to Korengal because the Americans came here,” Haji Mahboob said at the time. Had they come to his valley, he explained, all hell would have broken loose there, too. "Jihad,” he simply noted. "We would have defended our freedom and our homeland at any cost.” But the Americans didn’t come, he continued, "so later we could also tell the Taliban to stay away. After all, there was no one they had to wage war against.”’


‘Commander Samander has brought the lambs, the salad and Fanta soda. It’s his farewell party, and it is his men who routinely spread out around the compound at every stop, their AK-47s at the ready and all eyes scanning everything. The drive ends with breathtaking mountain scenery above the small power station. Everyone rests in the shade under the canopy of a solitary oak tree with a trunk that is two-meters thick. A sharpshoooter climbs the tree. The water in a crystal clear mountain stream rushes by alongside us.
If the wrong people walked by now, would they all shoot each other down? "Yeah, of course,” Samander says. "But they won’t come now.” He says that even if someone in one of the villages had run off to inform the armed Taliban in the heights, it would still take them hours before they could cross our path.
That’s also why we can’t stay here for longer than three hours. It has to be assumed that "the others” will soon be informed. Samander has a melancholy look as he peers up at the mountains, which are still capped with snow. Chances are he will never return. The future powers-that-be, he says, "don’t like people like me.”’


‘But what shook the people almost more than the murders of the men was the humiliation of the women: In the summer of 2018, IS fighters seized an elderly farmer’s wife who had been on her way to the clinic alone rather than with an escort, as required by the IS. She was old, over 60, a grandmother, and she implored them that she didn’t need a man to protect her. But it was all in vain. As punishment, her head was shaved in public. It wasn’t murder, but it was an affront so egregious that thousands now fled, with valley residents, Taliban and government forces suddenly finding themselves on the same side of the front.
A bizarre war against IS began, one that the West barely took note of. The official governor of Kunar and the Taliban’s shadow governor made a temporary pact. Taliban units marched in from the west over the forested ridges. From the east, the Taliban were then escorted by the army from the towns of Kunar province to the front. U.S. jets attacked IS positions from the air, avoiding – mostly, in any case – Taliban positions marked with white flags. The fierce fighting lasted for almost a year until the IS forces were wiped out and the last fighters surrendered.
The U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban fought together against IS. Indeed, these are the kinds of complicated events you get in the east of Afghanistan. And as difficult as they may be to convey to the outside world, they also underscore the fact that local politics in Afghanistan have always been too complicated for simple narratives of invasion and traditional development assistance.’


‘What happened in the mountains of the east may be harbingers of the coming conflict within the Taliban, which has been spoiled by all its recent victories: A battle is looming between hard-liners and members of the Taliban who are willing to cooperate, as their greatest triumph to date – the agreement with the U.S. on the withdrawal of American troops – was purchased with the surrender of their very brand essence: They traded jihad against the foreign occupiers for talks.
Now there’s rumbling within the Taliban’s rank and file. Some already feel that the exiled leadership in faraway Qatar is overly conciliatory. In an ongoing war, the disenchanted, the hard-liners and those who would gain from continued warfare could obviously abandon the Taliban and join all the even more radical Islamist splinter groups that are already active today, particularly in the east. And those who until recently called themselves IS could soon be calling themselves something else entirely.
But there is still a long way to go on the other side of the mountains. Driving back to the dust-covered steppes and rolling hills around Jalalabad, you encounter the same agony and fear as anywhere else in the country. And government forces are still fighting the Taliban in many parts of the province.’


‘In Khogyani District, just over half an hour from Jalalabad, the fighters with the People’s Uprising also don’t have any night-vision equipment. From their position on the hilltop, they can scout the surrounding area during the day. And, at night, they just fire in the direction from which they have been fired upon. Commander Majnun says the villages directly below the hill are actually still loyal. But a few days ago, the first white flags appeared over the nearest village at night. No shots were heard. Just two white flags were seen fluttering on spindly poplar poles.
Commander Majnun matter-of-factly explains that if the village has changed sides, then they have a problem. Because if the Taliban sneak up from there at night without shooting, "we’ll only hear the crunch of their footsteps on the gravel when they’re here at the door.” And so the government fighters wait anxiously each night for dawn, each day for a miracle – and for this war to finally be over, one that ultimately probably won’t be decided in battles anyway, but by the elders in the valleys and their villages.
As Haji Mahboob put it after the last picnic on the mountain, "As long as the government exists, we will not yield a foot to the Taliban. If the Taliban are the government, then of course we will recognize them. It’s not like we have anything against them.”’

Read the article here.

Afghanistan, an almost forgotten country, Taliban an almost forgotten enemy.

And keep in mind, the Taliban as an ally against forces even more extreme than the Taliban themselves.

What was and still is, is a healthy sense of opportunism: we work together with whoever claims to be the government.

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