The making and unmaking of a Taliban warrior.

from The New York Times Magazine / photograph by Christopher Anderson

Naji received his first letter from Ali in early July. It was delivered by a man on a donkey. The man rode from the Northern Alliance positions in the brown hills outside the city of Taloqan, in northeastern Afghanistan, then across the dusty battle plains, and then farther, to the Taliban roadblock patrolled by Naji. Naji opened the letter, read it through and tore it up. Then he struck a match and burned the pieces.

The letter was written by a midlevel Northern Alliance commander named Ali Ahmed. This was six months ago, when the Northern Alliance controlled only a tenuous pocket of the Afghan highlands and the United States military had scant interest in a far-off civil war. For Naji, the letter was completely unexpected; its mere delivery shot him with fear. ”It was just a small letter,” Ali says, speaking in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian. ”I introduced myself. I sent greetings from my family, and I sent greetings to his family. I said I would be happy to hear back from him. Then I signed my name.”

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