Among the Taliban: a soldier-turned-writer’s journey through Afghanistan

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It was late January when I arrived in Afghanistan. A few days later, I met Ismail Khan, a well-known mujahideen commander, in the city of Herat near the Iranian border. He passed me his AK-74 (the snub version of the AK-47, designed for tank commanders who needed a shorter rifle), telling me he’d taken it from the body of a Russian he’d killed in the 1980s. I asked to fire it, so we drove out of town.

Walking to our range, he pointed out a river where he and fellow mujahideen had skirmished with the Russians, and the houses where locals had fed and hidden them. Khan went on to fight the Taliban in the 1990s and served as a governor during the US-backed administration of Hamid Karzai. Jihad, he told me, is a Muslim’s duty. If someone tries to take your religion, your family or your land — fight them. “We beat the Russians,” he said. “And we’ll beat the Taliban too.” He didn’t. When they rolled into Herat in August, Khan cut a deal with them and went into exile in Iran.

On the range, a farmer dipped a rag into some blue paint, which dribbled down his arm as he drew a circle on a high mud wall. Ismail shot first, then invited me to. The recoil felt satisfying as the bullets punched into our target.

Jihad had inspired a childhood friend who left Burnley in the late 1990s to fight in Afghanistan. Recruiters could be found praying with you at mosques or talking to you on the cassette tapes on sale in Islamic shops. Imams said we were in the Ummah, the global family of Muslims, waiting to welcome us wherever we went in the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia, and if they needed us we had to answer their call. It was seductive.

Adnan Sarwar fires an AK-74 as Ismail Khan looks on © Adnan Sarwar

As young Pakistanis, we wore keffiyehs in solidarity with the Palestinians; in the mid-1990s we welcomed fleeing Bosnian Muslims into our homes. My childhood friend was killed in a rocket attack. He is still celebrated in Burnley as a martyr. People imagined his life here in Afghanistan in idealised terms: walking in the mountains with friends, killing animals for food, no need for western comforts, praying on his shawl five times a day, talking late into long, wide nights with the brothers feeling warm and right and true.


I was in the country to make a documentary film. But as a former soldier — I’d served in the British Army from 1997 to 2007 — standing with Khan on the range, I missed the life. “How’s work going?” he asked. “Not well,” I replied honestly. “Well, if you give it up, you can join my private army,” he said. Meals, friends, guns.

I texted an old friend, a white fellow former soldier, about the offer. He replied: “Let’s join up, kebabs and sun.” For westerners confused about why young men head abroad to fight, the structure and meaning that a soldiering unit provides is part of the answer.

I’ve benefited from the west. I had to fight, though; it has not been easy, but I hate being a victim. People kicked my head in. I kicked theirs in back. Things improved after I left my hometown of little opportunity in 1997. The Pakistani boys left back there are told to pull their socks up, get called Pakis, are accused of turning England into an Islamic state, forced into marriages, have fingers pointed at them by politicians when it’s convenient, and today they’re being told to change from being undereducated town-dwellers to remote coders for international tech companies. Yeah, right. A plane ticket to a war zone is much easier.

This may well be the superficial way that footsoldiers see it. But the leaders are looking for something else, a place in Islam’s history. When Mullah Omar, founder of the Taliban, was in Kandahar on the way to take Kabul in 1996, he went to the Kirka Sharif shrine. Locked inside a silver box there is a cloak believed to have been worn by the Prophet Muhammad during the Night Journey, travelling on the back of the winged steed from Mecca to Jerusalem in 621AD. Standing on the roof of a mosque, Mullah Omar put his hands in the sleeve of the cloak and was accepted as the leader of the faithful, of all Muslims, by the hundreds of religious leaders attending.

On becoming the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the caliph in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq. Again, to lead all Muslims. Ask a Muslim stacking supermarket shelves at Asda in Burnley about it today and they will probably reply, “Baghdadi bro, who?”

A local militiaman and his RPG launcher near the Pakistan border
A local militiaman and his RPG launcher near the Pakistan border © Adnan Sarwar

Leaving Herat, I headed east to the border with Pakistan. The feeling that I was in the loving embrace of fellow Muslims was diminished after meeting a local militia funded by the Afghan government. One showed me a rocket-propelled grenade launcher around which he had wrapped silver tinsel. He asked me to follow him up a mountain track, and without ceremony he fired across a valley; the round hit a mountainside and glowed. “Do you want to have a go?” he asked. “Sure,” I said.

Perhaps it was having been on ranges with soldiers before that prompted me to ask in which direction we were firing. “At Pakistan,” he proudly pointed. “We hate them.” It was clear that they did not get on with their Muslim neighbours: no brotherhood here. They complained that Pakistan was sending terrorists over, and showed me photos on their phones of men they’d killed. I passed back the launcher, not wanting to start a war. Soon afterwards I had to return to the UK.


This September, bored in Burnley, I received a text message asking if I could go to Afghanistan and help produce television and radio packages for international news crews. Do the logistics and medical cover. “Deffo,” I replied. A few days later, after updating my will, I was flying back to a very different country. The Taliban had conquered it and the president had fled.

A Taliban fighter rests on a checkpoint barrier
A Taliban fighter rests on a checkpoint barrier © Adnan Sarwar

Instead of flying into Kabul, we came in from the north. After passing over the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan Friendship Bridge from Termez to Hairatan, we met the Taliban, finally in charge of a country they’d fought 20 years for. The call to prayer sounded and the gate stayed shut. We waited an hour for them to finish their prayers before they let the world disturb them.

My crew was hungry and thirsty. I asked in a mixture of Arabic and English if I could leave the border and cross into Afghanistan to fetch food; my passport was in an office waiting to be stamped but they allowed it. On leaving a roadside café, I paid with $20: food and water for six people, but this was Afghanistan, so things were cheap. The Taliban sentry noticed that I’d not received any change so he collected it. The next time I saw him was three days later, when he tried to return it to me.

The fundamentalist organisation proudly proclaims it is anti-corruption. I spoke to people who told me that where the Taliban controlled checkpoints across the countryside during the previous government’s reign, they set fair and low tolls; government charges, by contrast, had varied wildly. Kabul had money, but the rest of the country did not. Positions of power, for example as police chiefs in a position to extract bribes, were passed to friends and family.

The Taliban concentrate heavily on security. They stopped us one night in Mazar-i-Sharif as they looked for kidnappers. I was asked to leave the vehicle and questioned. The commander searched my belongings. “Indian?” “British,” I replied. I asked in a Syrian dialect if he spoke Arabic; he did and we stayed with it. In the top pocket of my rucksack he found wooden prayer beads from Baghdad. “Muslim?” he asked. Na’am, yes. He handed back my things and told me I was welcome to go anywhere I wanted in the Islamic emirate, apologising and asking if I was upset with him. La, la, intay akhi — no, no, you’re my brother — as we shook hands. He smiled. And we left.

Women study medicine at a private all-female university in Mazar-i-Sharif
Women study medicine at a private all-female university in Mazar-i-Sharif © Adnan Sarwar

Not everyone is comfortable with the new rulers. We heard of women who had worked for the previous government now in hiding and not daring to come out. A young Hazara student broke down describing her former life, which was all she knew; she was too young to have lived under the last period of Taliban rule. She’d heard horrific stories from elders.

The Taliban also took us to a private all-female university where women studied law, medicine and economics. There was a poster of Adam Smith on the wall. In the yard they posed for photos, wearing designer shawls and trainers, not burkas. Our Taliban guide asked that we give the new government time. “Soon we’ll have a system to educate both men and women,” he said. But he was adamant that we wouldn’t be seeing western-style freedoms. “Your system does not work here,” he said.

We left for Kabul. The main threat in the capital today is Isis, locally known as Daesh. When Zabihullah Mujahid, the lead Taliban spokesman in Kabul, announced that his mother had passed away, people were invited to pray for her at the Eid Gah Mosque. Isis took advantage. At about 3.30pm local time on October 3, I heard the explosion, gunfire, sirens. I raced to the scene. At the mosque the Taliban would not let us through for fear of secondary explosions. So we went to the emergency hospital in Shahr-e Naw where blast victims tend to go. Outside, there were Taliban fighters with bloodstained shalwar kameez.

One had been thrown by the blast, visibly shocked, staring and shaking his head, saying he’d lost a friend. Blood was on his trainers and forearm as he dug into a black bin liner, removing the bloody and torn camouflage shirt of a comrade. He said the Taliban knew their enemies — the US and Daesh. A common theory across Afghanistan goes that the US is funding and supporting Daesh to fight the Taliban because it lost to them. How else, people ask, do you explain Muslims bombing mosques and killing other Muslims?

Taliban soldiers outside a mobile phone shop in Kabul
Taliban soldiers outside a mobile phone shop in Kabul © Adnan Sarwar

Hospital staff asked if anyone was of a blood group matching that of the victims. Two Taliban fighters came forward and handed over their weapons before entering. In shock, the fighter outside cried out, “Do they not think we are proud of our dead?” I watched and heard him play, perhaps nervously, with the round selector switch on his M16: semi-automatic to burst, semi-automatic to burst.

Another night, when I was having tea in a café, the vendor played a ballad to the Taliban, a tarana, on his phone. When I asked about it, he sent me a link to a Facebook video in which two Talibs in shalwar kameez danced in circles, vests carrying bullets, rifles strapped across their bodies and sandals. The lyrics go: “We defeated the world/ They cut the people in half/ We defeated the world/ My dusty village, I sacrifice your dusty houses,/ I throw my plague to the palaces of Paris/We defeated the world/ Taliban are created by people/ Although Nemat is mad he is proud for Afghan’s name.” Mentioning the poet Nemat in the final line is typical of Afghan poetry.

A Taliban fighter, encountered on the streets of Kabul
A Taliban fighter, encountered on the streets of Kabul © Adnan Sarwar

This image of the Taliban as mountain men with AK-47s belongs partly in the past. Walk around Kabul today and you do see it; but you also see soldiers with modern uniforms, weapons, tactics and discipline — plus the experience of at least two decades of fighting the best militaries in the world. Under the video are congratulations from people across the world. Some people on my street back home in Burnley don’t hide their happiness that the Taliban won either.


One evening I was watching some Taliban soldiers play volleyball, their guns laid to the side, laughing as they scored against each other. Some are bored now. With the First Kalima (Declaration of Faith) on their headbands and uniform patches reading “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”, they are used to fighting for Allah. Now that the prize of an Islamic emirate has landed in their laps, what next?

Taliban soldiers playing volleyball
Taliban soldiers playing volleyball © Adnan Sarwar

They’re trying to stop educated people leaving; they want them to stay and help build a country; they’re trying to get the US to release funds. Qatar, which organised and continues to host negotiations between the Taliban and the international community, is arguing that they can serve Allah and be more modern. China and Pakistan are flying in aid. There are queues outside the banks for Afghans to withdraw their weekly limit of $200 and a long line outside the Iranian embassy as Afghans head west for work.

Nation-building? It won’t be easy. Isis wants to keep fighting. Recently it bombed another mosque in Kunduz, killing dozens. Where the Taliban were seen as the extremists for the past 20 years, Isis have taken that stage.

Joe Biden was right about one thing: western forces did not invade Afghanistan to nation-build, it was to remove al-Qaeda. After that was achieved, they should have left. Instead, they stayed and showed Kabul a different way to live. It wasn’t all Coca-Cola and high fives. Western drone attacks killed innocent people. Some in Kabul lived western lifestyles, but the majority in the countryside did not. And here we are now trying to make the best of the mess.

There are many Afghanistans. This was mine. I may have benefited from my brown male privilege, speaking bits of several Asian languages, my prayer beads and my beard. I met women too scared to leave their rooms, saying they felt imprisoned, while others walk the streets not wearing burkas, buy wedding dresses and meet in cafés. I met internally displaced people scared that winter is coming, who were then transported back to their homes by the Taliban.

Taliban flags fly at Kabul airport
Taliban flags fly at Kabul airport © Adnan Sarwar

I’ve seen a Taliban soldier whip a market trader and I’ve seen a kebab shop owner whip a begging boy with a skewer. I’ve seen both the white flag patch and the Afghan flag on uniforms. I’ve seen women march through the streets and men laying rugs on roundabouts to pray. I’ve seen the blood and the shock of an attack on a mosque by an organisation that calls itself Islamic. I’ve seen the children of Afghanistan, girls and boys, smile and struggle through it all.

I need to go, but want to stay.

Adnan Sarwar won the 2013 Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize for ‘British Muslim Soldier

More on Afghanistan . . .

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The battle for Afghanistan’s libraries

As cultural and educational institutions face up to Taliban rule, there are still ways for the west to help

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