Four decades of war have ravaged Afghanistan, cost America $3 trillion and left more than one million dead. As US troops prepare to withdraw, the award-winning Times journalist Anthony Loyd returns to the country that has always obsessed him – and asks, what next for a nation more divided than ever?
In the rose garden of the warlord walked a newly freed man. Spare-framed, his dark hair cropped in a convict cut, he was in his early thirties and had a pale, drawn face that suggested recent pain.
Seeing a stranger on the lawn he sat down beside me to talk, as Afghans do. The war was close by, fought out in the arid hills of Takhar province, and from time to time as he spoke the sound of distant artillery rumbled over his words from across the Kokcha River. That autumn of 2000, a year before the 9/11 attacks brought America into the conflict, it seemed the Taliban would be victorious.
The man told me something that has resonated ever since, as valid an observation of liberty that day as it is now that the Doha agreement between the Americans and the Taliban, signed in February this year, has ushered in a new and uncertain era of the Afghan war.
It's true, we're sick of killing. But if it takes another 40 years of fighting to succeed, then so be it.
I was recently back from the front. Despite the atmosphere of failing fortune among the mujahidin groups with whom I moved, the days of war were of great wonder and high adventure. I travelled by horse, motorbike and raft and, as so often in Afghanistan, the journey to a place was often more remarkable than the destination itself. A couple of days earlier I had crossed the Kokcha River with 1,500 mujahidin fighters who were on the move for an attack in another sector. On horseback, at the banks of the fast flow I dismounted, took off the saddle and handed the reins to a bare-chested boy who plunged without hesitation into the depths, the horse with him, both swimming through the current to the other side, as I climbed aboard a raft made from stoppered cow carcasses, saddle on my shoulders, to join them on the far bank.
Aside from the murmuring shellfire and my dusty clothes, nothing in the warlord's garden suggested the proximity of war. The prisoner and I sat drinking tea on a lawn that bounced to the touch, while kneeling in a nearby flowerbed a gardener snipped at the shrubbery. The warlord, whose name was Mamur Hassan, had a pair of Lady Amherst's pheasants there too, and the roses were still in bloom.
Mamur Hassan was a leading figure among the mujahidin in northern Afghanistan. He had fought first against the Soviets and that autumn day he was commanding his forces against the Taliban. The Taliban's capture of Kabul four years earlier had caused panic among rival mujahidin groups in the north, who had come together in a military union, the Northern Alliance, led by the famed resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud. Of Uzbek heritage, Mamur Hassan was one of the principal commanders in this alliance, and I stayed as a guest in his compound in Dasht-e Qaleh, a small northern town near the confluence of the Panji and Kokcha rivers.
As the prisoner and I sat there peaceably in the golden light of the afternoon, he told me that he was originally from Kabul, and was one of Mamur Hassan's nephews. A year earlier he had been arrested in Kabul by the Taliban during a random patrol. They had discovered the business card of a Christian aid organisation in his pockets. A friend of his had given him the card, suggesting the organisation might be able to help him leave the country. It led instead to jail.
During his incarceration the prisoner was repeatedly tortured. Hung upside down by chains, he had the soles of his feet and legs beaten with wire cabling.
After eight months of prison and torture, the man's wife sold her jewellery and bribed the Taliban to release her husband. The couple fled north, seeking sanctuary with his powerful uncle, escaping the cohesive strictures and relative stability of the Taliban zone for the lawlessness and war of the mujahidin fiefdoms.
"I didn't like the Taliban, but I don't like these mujahidin either," he said, somewhat conspiratorially, as if his uncle might somehow overhear. "Now, the mujahidin are united. But if they were to push the Taliban back, they would fight among each other again."
"Until I was put in prison, at least I had peace in the Taliban zone," he added. "There is no crime and no war there. You are not free, but you are not robbed. And there is no longer the threat of shelling and fighting."
I asked which way of life he preferred: repressive security or chaotic liberty. He looked at me for a while, and then laughed.
"You never find this answer absolutely, not in your country, not in ours," he said, smiling. "Life is the condition of the search between."
I never learnt the prisoner's fate, but ever since the US agreed a timeline for its withdrawal from Afghanistan in the February 29 deal it signed with the Taliban in the Qatari capital, the question of what place liberty might have in his country's search for peace and stability is again at the forefront of Afghan minds, even as their latest invader, coronavirus, begins its insidious advance across the land.
No one can doubt the imperative to end the world's most protracted and costly conflict. Since fighting began in Afghanistan in 1979, well over one million Afghans have died violently, and more than six and a half million have become refugees. Among those who stayed inside their country, three in four have been displaced by fighting. Afghans are exhausted by four decades of conflict, and deserve the peace most of them crave. The impact of a pandemic on them at this moment of extreme vulnerability, with fighting continuing and peace as yet a chimeral prospect, could cause death and displacement on a scale that far exceeds that of the most recent years of war.
One of the soldier's legs had been blown off; the other, just ligament and bone. He was conscious.
It is equally understandable that the US wishes to conclude its longest involvement in a war that has cost it more than 2,400 American lives and an investment of up to US$2 trillion ($3.3 trillion) – for so little obvious result.
Supporters of the Doha agreement see it as a groundbreaking opportunity to secure peace for the Afghans and an honourable withdrawal for the US. Others regard the accord as little more than a political gamble designed to allow President Trump delivery on his pledge to pull American troops from Afghanistan ahead of the US presidential elections in November.
Just a few weeks after it was signed, and with American units already pulling out of Afghanistan, the omens for Doha are inauspicious, even before the coronavirus added its own foreboding drumbeat to Afghan affairs. The clauses of the accord acquiesced to every major Taliban demand and gave the Afghan government nothing. No ultimate peace settlement is even required for a full US withdrawal to occur: under Doha's terms, all American forces are required to pull out from Afghanistan by summer next year merely so long as some sort of talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban are in progress.
Civil liberties, human and women's rights? These are passionate aspirations for the millions of educated Afghans who have a vision of modernity beyond the limitations of conflict and fundamentalism. Yet no word of rights, liberty or even democracy is mentioned in the Doha accord, let alone stipulated as a prerequisite of any ultimate peace settlement. With Washington's interests turning inwards in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, at no time since the US invasion of 2001 has Afghanistan faced such a critical juncture in its history.
Some foreigners are spellbound by Afghanistan. I am one of them. It has lured me back time and again on assignments over the 24 years since I first went to Kabul in February 1996. Of decisive events I saw little. Mostly, I witnessed the war, its slow tides and lightning twists, through the details in a day or moment: a remark in a conversation such as that with the newly released prisoner in the rose garden; a dead man on a road; a colonel's face, luminous with grief; the swimming boy and horse in the Kokcha River.
Returning home to the UK in March after my 27th assignment in Afghanistan, these are the slivers of my recall in the pirouettes of the Afghan war; these are the memories with which I wonder at the prisoner's riddle in the rose garden that autumn day, as Doha awaits to reveal its truths amid the coming of corona.
Even in life he was a legendary figure, but the last time I saw him – in a car coming back from the front one autumn afternoon – Ahmad Shah Massoud seemed much worse than exhausted. He looked like his luck was almost out.
Sleep kept seizing him as we drove. Mid-conversation his eyes would slip closed and his head nod and roll from side to side as the vehicle bumped over the rough terrain. During wakeful moments he discussed war and regret, his face deeply lined and lacking its normal glow as the desiccated land, hued with autumnal browns, bucked and plunged past the car windows.
These days, 19 years on from his assassination at the age of 48, Massoud is officially a posthumous "national hero" of Afghanistan, his legacy enduring not just in the road, named after him, leading to Kabul's international airport, but across the northern half of the country in thousands of roadside billboards and office portraits.
In each, his pakol cap cocked jauntily on the back of his head, brow furrowed over an ascetic face and wide, good-humoured mouth, he appears the wise champion on the edge of provident decision: victory must surely be his, the portraits suggest. In person, he was no less convincing and had an ethereal glow about him – an aura, a shining, call it what you will – that made his presence captivating.
Yet that day in Takhar province in 2000, with just ten months left to live, Afghanistan's best-known resistance fighter seemed enervated, even remorseful. The Taliban were on a roll, pushing Massoud's Northern Alliance forces back into a shard of territory, less than 10 per cent of the country, squished up against the border with Tajikistan, an area that seemed barely defensible.
"I have had so many 'worst moments' in my life that I can't remember the worst," he said at one point, turning around to me in his seat, his hooded eyes ringed with darkness. "Also regrets. I have many regrets. Regrets for things I have or have not done in the war. Who would like to spend their whole life constantly fighting? I do so because I am without choice."
One of the most impressive guerrilla commanders in modern times, Massoud was born in the Panjshir Valley in northeastern Afghanistan and had there battled with the Soviets throughout their occupation, earning himself the sobriquet of "Lion of Panjshir".
Yet after leading his mujahidin into Kabul in 1992, three years after the Soviet withdrawal, Massoud became embroiled in a civil war involving a shifting array of allegiances that reduced much of the capital to ruination and killed thousands of Kabulis.
We do not fight," said the Taliban leader, "to make deals with democrats in the time of our victory".
In a single three-month period that year the UN reported 1,800 Kabulis as being killed on the streets by artillery barrages, while in the same period 500,000 fled the city. Two years later, 25,000 were recorded as being slain in the capital, a third of which was destroyed. Those that remained there did so terrified by the random barbarities inflicted on them at whim by rival mujahidin groups, which continued until the Taliban captured the capital in 1996.
"I regret that when I had Kabul I could not do better for the people," he continued glumly, turning around again. "And I regret that the system they lived under was so corrupt."
I wonder now if prescience of his own death caused him to speak with such reflective introspection that day. I had never seen him in that mood before. It was like listening to a general's confession on the eve of a doomed battle.
"Our only choices are to fight or surrender," he concluded bitterly. "And that is no choice at all."
As the prisoner in the rose garden had described, the Afghans' essential problem was that they were so seldom given a better choice than theological austerity or authoritarian criminality. Few liked the Taliban. Yet many preferred the relative security in Taliban zones to the banditry and corruption of areas controlled by warlords or whatever forces passed themselves off as representing "central authority".
Many Afghans found that "liberty" became a definition of surviving unmolested by violence and crime, rather than anything related to the abstract benefits of an imported political system named democracy.
Driving into Afghanistan in the winter of 1996 during the Taliban's tenure of power in Kabul, I saw a state of wretchedness. Much of the capital was in ruins, ravaged by the years of civil war, and hungry Afghans huddled in the city's carcass, water and electricity supplies haphazard or absent, burning whatever combustible material they could find in an effort to keep warm.
While it was true that the capital was experiencing relief from the shelling and the looting that had characterised the four previous years in which the mujahidin had fought over it, the stabilising influence of the Taliban's repressive rule carried its own particular band of misery.
The arrogance of the Taliban's religious leaders, who believed they could run a country on the back of their madrassa educations, quickly ensured that whatever was left of the Afghan economy collapsed. Inflation was running at 400 per cent and more than half of the country was unemployed; 6.3 million Afghans – a fifth of the population – were refugees in Pakistan with little inclination to return. Living standards had been further eroded when the Taliban banned women from working.
In the city's bazaars I met men selling broken locks, empty Biros and soleless shoes in a bid to survive. At first I did not believe the rumours of a trade in human bones, until I searched the cemeteries and saw it for myself.
The grave robbers were children. I asked the leader of the first gang I met to open his bag so that I could see the bones inside. Faizadeen was 14 years old and only the thinnest layer of parchment-dry skin, withered by malnutrition and the winter wind, separated his frame from the bleached jumble of human remains in his tattered cotton sack. He reached inside it to take hold of a tibia, which he used to stir around the fragments.
There were six other kids in the gang. Faizadeen was the eldest. They were employed to rob graves, smashing the skulls and larger bones with rocks to hide their origin, before selling them to local merchants who mixed them with the bones from livestock. The bones were then sold on to middlemen, who trucked them to Pakistan where they were boiled down to be made into glue and cooking oil.
"I used to dig for scrap iron," the boy said, raking through the human remains. "But now I dig for bones. We need the money for food.''
As he stared out across the smoke-wreathed vista through a set of binoculars, gunfire hammering the air, Gul Haider swung around from his perch on the compound wall, his peg leg sticking out and a scarf around his head, eyes ablaze, yelling at his war captains.
"The lines are breaking! The Taliban are fleeing! Don't let them escape! Go, go, go!"
Below the walls, their hour at hand, scores of waiting mujahidin roared back in unison, punching the air with their assault rifles and charged off in the track lines of a T-55 tank as it pitched forward across no man's land in a grind of gears and belch of black smoke. It was November 12, 2001, the day the Northern Alliance smashed through the Taliban lines on the Shamali Plain north of Kabul and raced forward to recapture the city.
The nearest group of fighters was running hunched behind the tank. I followed them. No man's land was a stretch of withered vines and shrapnel-tilled soil.
Since I had last seen Massoud the previous year, the whole war had revolutionised in a way unforeseeable at the time. Massoud himself was dead, slain two months earlier on September 9 in a suicide blast by two al-Qaeda operatives posing as journalists in his northern headquarters. Two days later, before word of his killing leaked out among his beleaguered Northern Alliance, the hijacked jets had slammed into the twin towers and Massoud's leaderless fighters suddenly had the most powerful nation in the world as their ally.
Days after Massoud's death I had travelled across the mountains to reach the Shamali Plain, where there was a build-up of Northern Alliance forces preparing to capture Kabul as US airstrikes blasted Taliban defence positions. By the day of the battle, I was in optimum condition for a war assignment: two months in-country, in the war's rhythm, thin, feral and sick enough to shit wherever I needed to.
The battle slouched onto the Shamali Plain with a three-day warning, as thousands of levied fighters turned up in early November to join Northern Alliance militia already in place under the field command of Gul Haider, one of Massoud's Panjsheris. On the fourth day, the attack for Kabul began. Perched on the wall of his command post, Gul Haider judged the moment his strike units had broken the Taliban line and then committed his main force to the fray. They rushed forward into no man's land ululating.
The nearest group of fighters was running hunched behind the tank so I followed them. No man's land was a stretch of withered vines and shrapnel-tilled soil, and a sense of pandemonium accompanied the run across it: hoarse shouts and gunfire, whistling bullets and exploding rockets; the crash of airstrikes, chatter of radios and thump of mortars.
Dropping over the lip of a trench, a bullet-riddled Taliban soldier lay at my feet, with a group of wild-eyed Northern Alliance fighters already looting his body. Just ahead, over the lip of a berm, three other Taliban fighters broke cover and made a run for it. An RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) blast knocked them down but they rose again, stunned now and staggering, only to be overwhelmed by a pursuing group of 20 or so Northern Alliance fighters who killed them where they stood: a chatter of Kalashnikov fire sending their brains rolling out into their turbans as their bodies thumped down in the dust.
All along the Shamali Plain, thousands of mujahidin pushed through breaches in the Taliban lines, pressing on to the next objectives, moving on foot, hanging from tanks, piled on trucks. Details swirled out of the roil and heave of the fight: dead prisoners, their hands tied; looted corpses; a gut-shot mujahidin on his knees, holding the spreading bloodstain as his comrades ran past him; a one-legged fighter, his prosthesis lost, hopping desperately though the smoke and dust alongside a truck carrying his unit, crutch in one hand and rifle in the other.
The advance paused at nightfall, then continued again at dawn. By sunrise, the Northern Alliance were at the gates of Kabul. The Taliban, having left their rearguard to fight and die on the Shamali Plain, had abandoned the city overnight.
The morning of their downfall, as I drove through the ripped backsides of the battle towards the city, among the dead and dying I found a single slain Taliban fighter on the tarmac, robbed of his Kalashnikov and turban. On his back, arms flung wide, knees slightly bent, a rivulet of blood poured from his groin, streaming down the road's slight incline to pool nearly 10ft beyond. He appeared to have been killed by the single act of castration.
So began the liberation of Kabul.
Beneath the lip of his helmet, the colonel's face had the grey luminosity of sudden grief. "I've just lost one of my best soldiers," he said to me, his words so quiet that they were nearly a whisper. The identities of two dead soldiers had come over the radio just minutes earlier. One of them, a serjeant, was among the battalion's most renowned soldiers. The other was an 18-year-old battle casualty replacement who had only been in Afghanistan for a fortnight.
I had often seen that look on the faces of British officers in Afghanistan. They talked about their mission and their operations with an air of enthusiasm, becoming a little more cautious as they explained the "small steps of progress". Then, bang, one more of their soldiers was dead – "rag-dolled", as the men called it – and the patter stopped, the mask would drop and raw grief stared back into your face.
It was August 20, 2009, the day of an Afghan presidential election in the year that the US-led coalition "surged" its forces in an attempt to quell the Taliban revival. The polling booths in Sangin, a small town in Helmand that was already infamous for the number of British soldiers killed there, had not even been open an hour and already two more British troops were dead.
In his sandbagged operations room inside Sangin's district centre, the colonel and his headquarters staff were in full body armour and helmets as Taliban rocket fire and mortars detonated about the base, while from the gun emplacements on the roof soldiers blazed away with machineguns at insurgents in the tree line along the Helmand River to the north, rage, frustration and vengeance ploughing the river reed lines with every burst of fire.
The colonel's unit, built around a core of several hundred soldiers from 2 Rifles, already had the worst casualties of any British brigade sent to Helmand, with just over 100 soldiers killed or wounded, a fifth of their total. When their tour ended a few weeks later, one in four was dead or wounded, a figure that compared to British infantry casualty ratios in Europe in the later stages of the Second World War.
Eight years after their downfall and ejection from Kabul, the Taliban were regenerating. Fuelled by a mixture of coalition clumsiness, Pakistani support and Afghan government corruption, their insurgency was spreading across southern and eastern Afghanistan. The more the coalition exercised force to quell it, the more the local population was antagonised, the more empowered the Taliban became.
I had taken a helicopter to Sangin a week earlier, flying up from the main British base in Helmand at Camp Bastion. Before leaving Bastion, a doctor had invited me to visit the field hospital there. I had not even walked through the main entrance before a wounded British soldier arrived by helicopter. He was a young man in his prime, with the torso of an athlete. One of his legs had been blown off above the knee. A branch of a bush was sticking out of his thigh. The other leg had been grotesquely stripped so that it was no more than bone and ligament. One of his hands was pulped. He was still conscious.
In the operating theatre they tidied him up with a saw. He would leave the hospital a triple amputee.
Soon, more wounded arrived, some of them with terrible injuries. Three dead soldiers, killed earlier that day in Sangin, were already lying dead in "Rose Cottage", the hospital's morgue.
Once I reached Sangin I spoke with survivors from the 2 Rifles patrol on which these men had died. They described how during a search operation along the green belt of vegetation outside Sangin the first soldier had trodden on an IED (improvised explosive device) in a compound. It blew his legs off. The other two went to his aid. As they carried him out of the compound, one of them trod on another IED. The blast left all three men dead or dying. Amid the dust cloud and carnage, other soldiers froze. Some were crying.
Next, a helicopter tried and failed to land on the compound roof to evacuate the casualties. The space was too small for it to do so. Two of the injured were dead by then. Eventually, one soldier, a sniper, lost patience waiting for his wounded friend to be evacuated and, cradling the legless man in his arms, ran 200 metres with him through the mine-infested green zone, as the area was known, to reach a new landing site. The soldier died anyway. As they extracted back to the base in Sangin later that day, the survivors hit another belt of IEDs; two interpreters were killed and two more soldiers wounded.
Three days later, the same unit went out on another operation. They ran straight into another multiple bomb incident in the green zone. Three more soldiers were blown up and killed: two more were wounded. In this way the Sangin summer passed. If ever a soldier there had refused to go out on patrol, then I never heard of it, but I never met one of them who spoke of "winning".
The man in the rocks with the gun in his hand had jail time in his memory, shrapnel scars in his gut, and said he was tired of killing, but was ready to kill some more. We met in March this year, just nine days after the Doha agreement was signed. A Taliban commander, his name was Khalid Agha, and he was sure of victory, though his narrative of impending triumph involved no compromise.
"We haven't been shedding blood all these years with the intent of sharing power with the Kabul government," he said, tapping his PK machinegun. He laughed too, as if the concept of power-sharing was ridiculous. "We fight for sharia, for the Islamic Emirate, not to make deals with democrats in the time of our victory."
Our rendezvous was near the Afghan frontier with Pakistan in Kandahar province. Perched among boulders overlooking a dusty plain, his bodyguards staring out across the vista for signs of movement, Khalid Agha had the typical profile of a mid-rank Taliban fighter.
Thirty years old, he had been born as a refugee in Pakistan, and had studied at a madrassa before joining the Taliban at 17. He had fought British soldiers in Helmand; as well as Americans, Canadians and Afghan security forces. During the course of the war he told me that he had lost many men, spent several months in jail, and had been badly wounded in the stomach by shrapnel.
Noting the trajectory of the Taliban's advances across Afghanistan over the recent years – even US reports admitted the Taliban contested or controlled nearly 50 per cent of the country and towns like Sangin were long ago ceded to the insurgents – Khalid Agha saw the Doha deal neither as a peace agreement nor the end of war, but as a totemic moment of defeat for America.
"We have just defeated a superpower," he smirked. "Once the Americans have gone it will be easy to sort out the Afghan government."
Across the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan this narrative – of victory against a superpower – was deeply entrenched and growing, the Taliban fighters regarding the Doha agreement not as a peace deal, but instead a milestone victory on the road to a further stage of war in which they will overthrow the Kabul government and re-establish sharia.
Narrative has exponential power in any war, especially so in Afghanistan where logic, emotion and rationale have for so long been contorted by killing and chaos that Afghans are eager to believe in almost any discernible storyline that may make sense against the backdrop of disempowerment, confusion and violence.
In Taliban areas, where war aims are often merged with cultural traditions of vengeance, the decades of conflict have produced a younger generation of deeply radicalised fighters, less malleable to the authority of their elders, many of whom see no more purpose to life than death itself. To some, peace is death.
Last summer I had met a 23-year-old Taliban suicide bomber, Fawad, who, along with his teenage brother, was determined to die despite being begged by their widowed mother to live.
"I am counting the days impatiently waiting for my mission," he told me one afternoon as we sat beneath the shade of a weeping willow. "Without that, there is no point to my life."
Fawad's urge to kill and die began in 2018, when his father and two sisters, aged 16 and 6, were killed in a night raid by Afghan special forces in their village in Ghazni province. On seeing their bullet-riddled corpses, and noting that his father's hands were tied, Fawad and his brother, Shorib, vowed suicidal vengeance and left home to train as suicide bombers with insurgent group the Haqqani network, in a camp across the border in Pakistan.
"From time to time one of our fellow pupils would get his mission and would walk out of the gates," Fawad recalled. "Our mood was good in this time. We had not required much motivating – we were eager to die and felt we were close to jannah [paradise]."
However, their widowed mother – her two sons all that was left of her family – tracked them down to the camp, and begged the Taliban commanders to release them from their duty. The Taliban acquiesced, but within weeks both sons had returned to the ranks of militant groups as suicide bombers: Shorib had joined Islamic State and Fawad was back with the Taliban.
These two groups are sworn enemies, but the brothers still spoke by phone as Fawad attempted to persuade Shorib to return to die for the Taliban.
"I promised Shorib that, if he rejoined the Taliban, I could get him a really good suicide mission," Fawad told me, his eyes lambent with the glow of fervour as he waited for news of his own mission.
We've heard 'corona' on the radio. You foreigners are our corona. You filled our graveyards.
Fawad's story, of a family so riven and mauled by war that loyalty, respect and a wish to live had all become subsumed by an enraged yearning for destruction, epitomised not only the fate of Afghanistan after four decades of war, but illuminated too how great is the division between radicalised Taliban fighters in the field, implacable in their fundamentalist war aims to re-establish sharia, and the vagaries of the Doha settlement.
Yet when I discussed the atomisation of his country with Khalid Agha and his Taliban bodyguards in the rocks on the Kandahar hillside in March, asking him finally if Doha might offer the chance for a negotiated settlement, even peace, and suggesting that the Taliban must also be exhausted by war, he laughed in the same way as the prisoner in Mamur Hassan's rose garden did two decades before, amused by my apparent naivety.
"It is 40 years we have been fighting now to establish an Islamic emirate, either as the Taliban or as the mujahidin," he told me while a slow breeze danced dust around the desert plains beneath us. "It is true we are sick of killing and dying. Who wouldn't be? But if it takes another 40 years of fighting and killing to achieve what we fight for, then so be it."
The Taliban's confidence was further inflated by the political crisis that engulfed the Afghan government in the immediate wake of the Doha accord. After a bitterly disputed presidential election, two rival claimants – Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah – were both inaugurated as president on March 9, each swearing on a Koran in the eyes of God to serve their people as president. Their rift, reflecting a deeper north-south divide in the country, opened up sectarian divisions in the Afghan security forces even as Taliban attacks continued. The government's situation became worse when on March 23 the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced a $1 billion cut in aid to the Afghan government, much of it earmarked to fund the Afghan security forces, after he had failed to negotiate an end to the impasse. Following on from their bilateral agreement with the Taliban at Doha, this punitive "fining" of the Afghan authorities by the US represented a volte-face in American policy: suddenly, it was very clear that the survival of the Kabul government was no longer an American priority.
Then corona began to play its hand, its spread accelerating with the influx of 150,000 Afghans returning to the country in March from virus-stricken Iran. At the time of writing, official figures suggested there had only been 1,279 Covid-19 cases confirmed and 42 deaths across Afghanistan, though in the absence of widespread testing the real scale of infection will be much higher.
Its medical infrastructure weakened by years of war and mismanagement, the country is totally unprepared for what will follow.
The ministry of health admitted last month that it had just 300 ventilators, and lacked the trained staff to operate them. Emblematic of the government's growing misfortunes, the virus had also penetrated the presidential palace, where at least 20 cases were reported among staff.
Though fighting continued in many parts of the country and the intra-Afghan talks envisaged by the Doha accord had not yet begun six weeks after their intended start date, in some areas the Taliban released videos of their fighters wearing PPE, enforcing quarantine, isolation and social distancing. The videos provided powerful imagery as part of the overall campaign to launder the organisation's reputation, but it is doubtful they represented much real coherence in the campaign to counter Covid-19.
Travelling through Taliban areas in March, as the virus first began to make its presence known, I noticed that so much exposure to the random awards of death had freed many Afghans from a fear of coronavirus. In communities within the Taliban heartland we sat together side by side, thigh to thigh, eating with our hands from the same plates, as the men trilled over the certain coming of victory, with little thought given to the virus.
In triumphant mood, they likened corona to just another of death's many impositions, and built the virus's likely toll into their narrative of endurance and ultimate victory.
After all, after four decades of war with two superpowers, was Covid-19 not just another way to die?
"You talk about your coronavirus in the west as a disease," said Haji Taj Mohammed, 82, a resplendently bearded former mujahidin commander who had fought against the Russians in the fields around his village in Kandahar province, where we sat one afternoon six weeks ago. His adult son was killed by the Americans in the same fields.
"We joke about the term among ourselves, now we've heard it on the radio," he added. "You foreigners are our corona. You filled our graveyards."
Written by: Anthony Loyd
© The Times of London