Scarred and Weary, an Afghan Force Wonders: What Is Peace?
JELDAK, Afghanistan — Their young bodies are as broken as the bomb-pocked 40 miles of highway they guard.
Some are missing fingers, others a leg or an eye. Many carry multiple scars and the ringing sound of the last explosion trapped in their heads. Most have not been home in years — to go home is to drive into Taliban territory. So their mothers come to them once in a while, with dried fruit or embroidered tunics.
A brief truce has brought this battle-weary unit of the Afghan police, holed up in their hilltop outposts in Zabul Province, an unexpected respite from the daily attacks they had come to see as inevitable.
It is the final days before a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban insurgency is expected to be signed, and the partial cease-fire that was set as a precondition seems to be holding. The police on this remote, southern battlefield suddenly have time for questions they once hardly imagined asking: Could there really be peace? What would that be like?
Lt. Col. Musa-Kalim Rodwal, the unit’s commander, draws on at least 15 years of perspective, loss and hurt as he ponders. The life they have lived — of assaults and roadside bombs when on duty, and targets on their backs when not — is like being chained by fear, he said.
“Freedom is the most important thing for humans in life,” Colonel Rodwal told me as he drove us between outposts. “What we live is not really life.”
During a seven-day period of violence reduction agreed to by the Taliban and Afghan security forces as a test run, officials have recorded as much as an 80 percent drop in major attacks. That compliance rate is most likely acceptable enough for the signing of the deal to go ahead on Saturday, in the Gulf state of Qatar.
An agreement would formally begin the end of the United States’ longest war, laying out a conditional timeline for the remaining 12,000 U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. But for Afghans, it would be the beginning of a long and difficult challenge. Bitter enemies must try to find their way to a peace, and maybe someday a reconciliation, that they have never experienced, and that their country has not seen in generations.
The truce for the highway police in Zabul has meant that the hit-and-run assaults by motorcycle-riding Taliban at night have stopped. The Taliban still lurk, but mostly to visit relatives they would not have been able to before, the police say. Colonel Rodwal says his men have followed the central government’s orders, resisting the urge to shoot first while they can.
The force also has not encountered any roadside bombs. He has roughly 300 men spread over 14 outposts along the road, and every morning each group combs their stretch of highway with rakes tied to long bamboo poles. They check about 200 meters on each side of the road for hidden wires. They investigate under each bridge, all destroyed and rebuilt several times.
For the first time in years, the men have been able to fetch water to their outposts without the fear of snipers taking them out.
“I have lost more men fetching water than I have in face-to-face fighting,” Colonel Rodwal said.
In the second decade of this conflict, begun as an act of vengeance by the United States in 2001 and at its peak involving a force of more than 100,000 American troops, the war has increasingly fallen on the backs of young Afghans.
Over the past five years alone, about 50,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have died fighting. The number for the Taliban is estimated to be the same if not more. The fighting has been brutal, intimate, the same forces on each side often battling each other in familiar localities over long stretches of time.
Most of the fighters in the Zabul highway police unit are in their early 20s, but already veterans of the war. The latest addition is an 18-year old from eastern Laghman Province. On his arm is a tattoo of a heart, the word mother written underneath.
Many of them have earned by the gun, killed by the gun, since adolescence. The war, in some shape or form, was already raging long before they were born.
Among the fighters are three brothers from the Deh Rawood District of Uruzgan Province. Their father, Mohamed Sadeq, part of the local police’s engineering team there, was blown up by a roadside bomb last year, after he had unearthed thousands and thousands of them over more than a decade on the job.
“He had defused two bombs when the third went off,” said Zalmay Jan, 20, who said he had served since he was 12.
The family’s first losses came right at the start of the war, when a mistaken American airstrike killed 13 relatives who were with Hamid Karzai, the man who not long afterward became the president of Afghanistan.
They have seen other kinds of loss, too. One brother was on leave after losing a leg to a bomb blast. And all three have lost any easy way home, which lies in insurgent territory.
Zalmay was a week late to his own wedding. He could not get on a military flight. And it took him so long to find a truck driver who was willing to smuggle him for the two-day drive on a dirt road held by the Taliban that he arrived after the wedding dinner was already over. They rushed a religious ceremony to close the day.
At 29, their commander, Colonel Rodwal, brings perspective and survival instincts. How many relatives has he lost to the war? Fifteen? Twenty, maybe? He said that in the 15 years that he has been in the police, he has gone to his home village just once, to bury a cousin.
Colonel Rodwal is using the brief truce to buttress his outposts — new dirt-filled barriers to protect from incoming fire, new trenches with sniper holes that cannot be seen from a distance. He is surprisingly open about where the money for it comes from: the businessmen who use the road.
I asked him whether he was collecting a toll — it is against the rules, but common — and he insisted that they were freely given donations to help secure the road. “You can’t force an Afghan to do anything,” he said.
When talking about what a future peace could look like, Colonel Rodwal largely echoes what he has heard on television — that there will be a prisoner release, that there might be an amnesty. But he can express more emotion about the dire state of the war than his younger fighters.
He tells the story of a man who lived in the area, Mawlawi Ahmad Jan, who had come to the base about a dozen times for tea or lunch as a local elder. Colonel Rodwal had no idea the man was a Taliban commander until the day he and his men were cracking down on a group of bomb-planting insurgents and found Mawlawi Jan was among them.
“Who is it on the other side?” Colonel Rodwal said. “I wish it were people from a different country that we were fighting — they are not even from a different district.”
Ultimately, real peace would mean tens of thousands of Taliban fighters either laying down their arms and going home, or integrating into a united Afghan security force. For the young fighters in Zabul, even just the idea of sharing barracks with bitter and familiar enemies seems unbelievable.
“I don’t like their looks,” said Zalmay, who said that he had only once talked with a Taliban fighter — during a three-day ordeal when the insurgents held and tortured him. “But peace is good. We will see then.”
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