Journal Cover Naji's Taliban Phase
Journal Spread Najis Taliban Phase

Naji’s Taliban Phase

The making and unmaking of a holy warrior.

The New York Times Magazine / December 2001
by Michael Finkel / photographs by Christopher Anderson

Naji received his first letter from Ali in early July of 2001. 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.”

Naji’s father and Ali’s father are old friends. Both are in the textile business and occasionally share expenses on shipments from Pakistan. Naji and Ali had actually met, though only once, when they were young. The two boys were raised in the same region of northern Afghanistan, and both came from families of Tajik descent. Otherwise their lives had followed different trajectories. Naji fought for the Taliban, and Ali was with the Northern Alliance. They were trying to kill each other.

Ali’s letter was not written only out of kindness, and both soldiers knew it. Ali’s ”family greetings” were a veiled way of pointing out that the two men shared the same ethnicity. It did not need to be mentioned that most soldiers of Tajik descent had joined the Northern Alliance; the Taliban were dominated by Pashtuns from Afghanistan’s southern provinces. Ali’s invitation to write back was a way of expressing that the Northern Alliance would welcome Naji into their army. These meanings were clear to Naji, and potentially damning, which is why the note was promptly destroyed.

When Ali’s letter arrived, Naji had been with the Taliban for nearly five years. He was 24. His beard spilled from his face in a mass of black curls; he wore a dark blue turban. He was a low-ranking soldier, often positioned on the front lines. He’d been trained to shoot a Kalashnikov and a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher and a Russian-made machine gun called an RPK.

Naji had fought his way across Afghanistan. He had fought in Charikar, and in Bagram, and in Shir Khan and Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. Death seemed to be around him all the time; it had become like a fog. By his count, he’d watched more than a hundred of his fellow soldiers die, and had inflicted no small vengeance of his own. He was never paid a salary — he was given only food and clothing and boots and weapons.

If you ask Naji about his experiences, he doesn’t have much to share. ”I spent a lot of time fighting,” he’ll say, then he’ll look at you with the sort of tired expression that suggests either that he has pushed these memories into a far corner of his mind or, perhaps, that he has seen so little else in his life that he can’t understand how war stories could be interesting. Naji has big, somber eyes, with lids that seem to furl no higher than half-mast. His countenance appears gloomy no matter his mood. When he is sitting in a room, away from the battlefield, it is difficult to picture him as a warrior. He has a habit of nibbling on the ends of his thumbs, and he speaks so softly that you have to lean in to hear him. He’s a bit chubby. He has never been married; he says he has never had a girlfriend.

Last winter, Naji’s unit helped capture the city of Taloqan, forcing the Northern Alliance troops into the hills and casting thousands of families out of their homes. Though Naji didn’t know it, one of these families was Ali’s — Taloqan is his hometown. Ali has three wives and three children, a son by each wife. He is young, 28, and well educated, with a degree in pharmacology. He wears his hair in the sort of mop cut that was once popularized by the Beatles, and keeps his chin clean-shaven. One of his front teeth is capped in silver, lending an element of thuggishness to an otherwise boyish face.

In the Northern Alliance Army, Ali ascended from foot soldier to officer in a matter of months; his brothers call him, with only a bit of facetiousness, the Commander. His favorite game is chess, and he plays in a style both meticulous and, even from the black pieces, almost invariably aggressive. When he takes a piece, he does it with fanfare, plucking up his opponent’s piece and slamming down his, an action at once brash and daunting.

It was from his retreated position, in the hills, that Ali learned from his father of Naji’s location and sent his first letter. Naji says that after he read it he felt suddenly anxious. He thought about things he had seen that he wished he had not seen. He had watched, more than once, as civilians were forced to leave their homes. He’d watched as bales of hay were lighted and then tossed into these homes. He’d watched as some of these fleeing civilians were murdered. ”I saw children get killed,” he says, ”and I became sad and ashamed and I thought, This is not how Islam works.”

Such thoughts, Naji says, are the main reason that the man on the donkey rode back to the Northern Alliance side a week later, this time bearing a note from Naji.

A donkey plodding past tanks and rocket launchers and front-line positions may seem a wildly incongruous sight. In Afghanistan, at least, it is not. Riding a donkey is the second most common way for Afghans to travel. Most common is by foot. Virtually all of Afghanistan is without a telephone system, or mail service, or electricity, or highways, or railroads. Villages are constructed entirely of baked mud and straw. The only resource the country seems to have in any surplus is dust. It’s an amazing sort of dust — it hangs in the air like smoke, muting the sun, accumulating so thickly and rapidly that automobiles often drive with their windshield wipers on.

The country has been in a state of war for so long that war has been absorbed into daily life. Bomb craters fill with water and become drinking holes for cattle. Wooden ammunition boxes are used to construct window shutters. Food-supply bags from relief agencies are sewn together to make tents. A burst of gunfire from a few yards away does not disturb a conversation.

During lulls in the fighting, there is often a steady stream of traffic passing through the front lines. Merchants drag burros laden with corn and rice and cooking oil and tea. Displaced families head to refugee camps, infants held to chests, possessions strapped to backs. Herdsmen guide sheep and goats and cows and camels. Women seem to float within their burkas, shapeless save for an exposed ankle or the dent of a nose against the scrim. Everyone tries to walk in tank tracks or footprints so as not to trigger land mines.

Amid such a flow rode the letter carrier. He delivered letters through the summer, as the Taliban surged forward, and then, after the September attacks in the United States, he delivered letters as the Taliban were pushed back. The notes grew longer, and more eloquent, and increasingly personal. Because there was distance between the two men, and because they did not know each other, the strictures of social conventions were loosened, and Naji and Ali could be freer with their thoughts, more opinionated — riskier — than they could with friends or family. ”Sometimes,” Naji once wrote, ”I think about living in another part of the world.” Ali wrote back: ”I think about it always.”

The letter carrier crossed the front lines almost once a week for nearly five months. There were letters about religion, and bigotry, and honor. The tone was sometimes frank and sometimes droll. And in this way, cumbersome but effective, a strange sort of friendship was forged.

When Naji was 13, he left home to get an education and ended up in a war. His given name is Najibullah; he prefers Naji, and like many Afghans, he doesn’t use a surname. There were 10 children in his family, and Naji was clearly one of the brightest, the only one his parents encouraged to seek schooling. This was the time of the Soviet invasion, and most schools in Naji’s province were closed. He had an uncle who lived in Pakistan, where he could attend a madrasa free. So Naji walked east, for seven days, over the Hindu Kush mountains and across the border.

Naji’s family was Muslim, but at the madrasa he learned a new form of Islam. Here, he was schooled in a puritan interpretation of Islamic law — a version that preached that music and dancing were anti-Islamic; that women should not work or attend school; that card playing and kite flying and most athletic pursuits were impure. Naji memorized large portions of the Koran. He studied the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. He was told that the culture of the United States was ”like a type of cancer.” He was schooled by mullahs who saw no need to teach math or science or literature or history. He sensed that there was more to learn. He felt that there was a world just beyond his fingertips — but there was nothing he could do. It was the only education available to him.

Even the limited offerings of the madrasa were better than anything he could find at home, so Naji studied for six years. Then he was informed by the mullahs that he needed to fight. ”I was told,” he says, ”that foreigners had overtaken my country; that non-Muslims were controlling Afghanistan. I was told that because I am educated I had to join the Taliban, and purify my country.”

And so he did. He returned to Afghanistan, to the Taliban capital of Kandahar. There he studied for a month with the movement’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. He learned about the value of the Taliban’s ideals and the baseness of the enemy. ”I concentrated with my whole mind on Mullah Omar,” Naji says. The mullah, he says, had a quiet but addictively powerful charisma, a type he’d never before experienced. ”You were pulled to him like a magnet,” he says. When he speaks about Mullah Omar, the volume of Naji’s voice drops by half, as if the Mullah himself might somehow be listening. ”I was ready to give my life for him.” Then, armed with ideology and a Kalashnikov, Naji was sent off to war.

Until Ali’s letters began arriving, Naji says, he believed that the Northern Alliance forces were composed primarily of non-Islamic, non-Afghan fighters. This idea, Naji says, was often repeated by the Taliban leadership. Ali’s letters refuted it, and Naji became curious. He began to question a lot of what he’d been taught. In Taloqan, which was once the Northern Alliance capital, he spoke with civilians passing through his roadblock. ”Everyone told me the same thing,” Naji says. ”They told me that all of the Northern Alliance fighters were Afghans.”

Naji also had a troubling sense that, as a Tajik in a Pashtun-controlled army, he was never afforded more than second-class status. ”This is why I spent so many days on the front lines,” he says. ”This is why I was never made an officer.” He felt somehow expendable; he worried that a Taliban victory might eventually exclude him. He discussed these ideas in his letters to Ali. They also corresponded about ”the culture of Islam,” as Naji puts it. ”Ali wrote that a Muslim can have a long beard or a short one, can go to mosque or not, can wear a burka or not, and still be a good Muslim. I was very nervous to write this, but I said I agreed with him.”

Then came Sept. 11. Naji first learned of the attacks on America when U.S. planes dropped leaflets — books that fell from the sky,” he calls them. The books explained, in pictographs and simple language, a little of what had happened. ”I had already seen my army burn our own people’s houses, so I was not surprised that they would burn other people’s houses,” he says. ”After the books came the bombs, and after the bombs I thought I was going to Allah.”

In a matter of weeks, the momentum of the war shifted. The Northern Alliance advanced on Taloqan, and Naji developed a plan: ”I told my commander that I had an earache, and that I had to go into the city to see a doctor.” He left his post and did not return. Three days later, on Nov. 15, as the city fell and Northern Alliance troops stormed in, the letter carrier was sent out with a final note — the 20th, by Naji’s tally. It was as short as the first. ”I told Ali where I was staying,” Naji recalls, ”and then I said, ‘I’m waiting here to greet you.’ ”

When Ali and Naji finally met, they kissed each other on the left cheek, in local fashion, and then Ali asked Naji if he’d like to stay at his house. Naji accepted. ”In a minute, all my nervousness went away,” Naji says. He moved into the two-story home, made of cinder block and cement, that Ali himself had just returned to. The house sits on a street lined with maple trees, where horse-drawn carriages, which serve as taxis in Taloqan, continually clop past.

On the first full day of his post-Taliban life, Naji visited a barber and had his beard cut to a reasonable length — an experience he found amusing, for one of his duties in the Taliban Army was to punish soldiers whose beards were ”shorter than a man’s fist.” He also shed his turban. He now covers his head with a pakool, the brown beret that was worn by Ahmed Shah Massoud, the slain Northern Alliance general.

In Ali’s home, as with most Afghan homes, there is no furniture — just thin cushions, large pillows, Persian carpets, posters of Koranic verses and a prayer rug aligned with Mecca. In the evenings, the men sit on pillows beside a kerosene lantern and eat rice and mutton, balling the rice in their fingers, then scooping up a bit of meat. Ali’s wives never enter the room, but his three sons continually run about, and Naji appears to have developed a bond with the youngest, Bahman, who is 3 and whom Naji likes to chase down and tickle. Naji says that he hasn’t felt so content since he left home to go to school.

Two days after his defection, Naji returned to the front lines — this time with the Northern Alliance, as they fought to capture the city of Kunduz, where most of the Taliban retreated after their defeat in Taloqan. Naji was armed not with a weapon but with a radio. He remained well back of the fighting, where a group of commanders sat cross-legged on a duff of straw, in a circle, talking rapidly and fingering prayer beads. As machine-gun fire was exchanged from positions on opposite hills, Naji spoke by radio with Taliban officers he had just served under. The negotiations took five days, during which a village that had the unfortunate luck to be situated between the front lines was more or less returned to the soil. Then 200 soldiers defected, driving across the front lines in a convoy of Toyota pickup trucks that had been camouflaged in the Taliban style — smeared with a thick layer of mud. The soldiers carried their bedrolls and canteens and Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. They were greeted by the Northern Alliance troops with smiles and waves.

The defectors were of many ethnicities, though all were Afghans. They were lodged in Northern Alliance barracks, permitted to travel home to visit their families and allowed to keep their weapons. The defectors cut their beards, exchanged turbans for pakools, hung posters of Massoud on their pickup trucks and swore death to Mullah Omar. Many vowed that they’d had a sudden and powerful change of heart. They said they were ready to return to the front and fire upon soldiers they’d shared foxholes with the day before.

”When someone switches sides,” Naji says, ”we forget all past hatred and accept each other like brothers.” Ali repeats a Dari expression: ”Derose derose buth wah imorse imrose hast” -Yesterday was yesterday but today is today.”

Such is life in Afghanistan. A generation of Afghan boys do not know how to farm; have not learned a trade; have no specialized skills. There is no chance for them to obtain a real education. They do not have employment opportunities. There is no way for them to earn money. All they know how to do is fight. There is nothing else for them. They have made a career of waging war. To them, switching armies most likely feels no different than a businessman moving to a rival company. They simply hope to be on the winning side.

From the more thoughtful soldiers, there is talk of wanting peace. Naji says that he may one day join his father in the textile business. Ali says that he’d like to continue his schooling, and perhaps become a doctor. But both men acknowledge that they will most likely continue doing what they know best. ”I will fight with Ali until the Taliban is gone,” Naji says. ”And if this does not bring peace, then I will fight some more.”

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