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11 years after trying to kill each other, a Marine and a Talib meet again

As I had tried to kill him.

We both remember that morning well: Feb 13, 2010,
Marjah district, Helmand province. We were about the same age: 22. It was very
cold.

Mullah Abdul Rahim Gulab was part of a group of
Taliban fighters trying to defend the district from the thousands of US,
coalition and Afghan troops sent to seize what at the time was an important
Taliban stronghold. He did not know it when we recently met, but I was a
corporal in a company of Marines that his fighters attacked that winter morning
so many years ago.

With the insurgents’ victory in that 20-year war
secured this summer, Gulab, now a high-level commander, was sitting with me in
Marjah’s government headquarters, a mess of a building the Americans had
refurbished years ago. I was his guest, along with two of my colleagues from
The New York Times. I told him that the fight for Marjah had been important in
the eyes of the United States but that most people had heard only one version of
the story of the battle. Not the Taliban perspective.

It was 2010, and the Taliban were once again becoming
a potent military force, threatening nearly every part of Afghanistan. In
Marjah, the insurgents were taxing local residents, administering cruel and
quick justice, and taking in a significant amount of income from the poppy
harvest.

Operation Moshtarak, as the US military called the
2010 mission to seize the district, was the first set-piece battle of President
Barack Obama’s counterinsurgency troop surge, which failed.

Eleven years later, Gulab and I still remember the
call to prayer that February morning in the village of Koru Chareh, a hamlet
set amid half-flooded poppy fields, not far from the center of Marjah. The
surrounding trees, leafless, looked like dead outstretched hands.

“The skies over Marjah were full of helicopters and
dropped American soldiers in different areas,” Gulab said.

I had just moved with my team of seven other Marines
to a small mud brick pump house, having landed with more than 250 other troops
a few hours earlier. As the sun rose, Gulab gathered his band of Taliban
fighters from a nearby village.

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Soon after, the mullah, loud and angry, came over the
mosque loudspeaker. Gulab and his Taliban fighters prayed.

Then the shooting started.

“It was a very tough fight,” Gulab said.

He wasn’t wrong. By the end of the day, a Marine
engineer was dead and several others wounded. The insurgents suffered their own
casualties.

With the war ending this August, the places where I
had once fought as a Marine are now reachable again — stretches of land where
my friends died and I watched my country’s military failures unfold. Now, as a
journalist for the Times, I wanted to return to report on what had changed —
and what had not — on and around these former battlefields.

In November, my drive back to the district, now
controlled by the Taliban, was easy enough. The roads were busy with motorbikes
and trucks packed with cotton. The pavement was pockmarked with craters from
the roadside bombs the insurgents had once placed beneath them. Abandoned
military and police outposts dotted the highway like sporadic Stonehenges.

Marjah was as I remembered, but some things had
changed. There was a paved road. The canals were dry.

And the war was over.

The fall’s cotton harvest was underway, the sound of
tractor engines and chattering field hands now audible in the absence of the
background noise of gunfire, though a withering drought is threatening many
farmers’ financial lifelines, and the country’s economic downturn has affected
everyone.

The two-story building we had once occupied as a
command centre, where my friends Matt Tooker and Matt Bostrom were shot that
day in February, was now a midwives clinic.

On this trip back to Marjah, men were not allowed
inside. But through the cracked door, I could see the steps where my wounded
friends had sat, bandaged, on painkillers and smiling, before the evacuation
helicopter swooped in.

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Around the same time that a Taliban marksman put a
burst of gunfire into my teammates, Gulab lost one of his fighters — as if the
pendulum of violence that played out that day was trying to balance itself.

“My friends were shooting at the foreigners from a
garden, and one was killed,” Gulab said, before explaining how his men planted
explosives meant for advancing Marines like me.

“For each IED, one Talib was there to detonate it,” he
said.

Gulab joined the Taliban in 2005, a year before I
enlisted in the Marines. He had just lost two brothers in the fighting, both
Talibs.

I grew up in the Connecticut suburbs. Gulab grew up in
an isolated and mountainous part of Helmand province.

“When I was child, I was going to the madrassa, and
our mullah was telling us, ‘The foreigners want to occupy our country, and you
guys, you should be ready to defeat them,’” Gulab explained. “I hoped to join
the mujahedeen.”

By the time I landed in Marjah, Gulab was a seasoned
fighter who had survived US airstrikes as the steady churn of US and NATO
troops flooded into southern Afghanistan. He was in charge of about 60 fighters
and understood how to navigate the rules of engagement that kept foreign troops
from killing unarmed Taliban fighters who tossed their weapons into the nearest
ditch.

Whenever US forces got close, Gulab said, “we would
drop our weapons and then come out on the streets and say hi to them, and
they’d ask us, ‘Where are the Taliban?’ and we’d reply, ‘We don’t know.’”

“After that, kids and villagers would collect our weapons
and keep them in their homes until we got them back.”

Gulab said his fighters would use children to spot
patrols and call his men as soon as the Americans left their posts. He
mentioned it as a casual aside, but a decade ago, as we started to learn that
8-year-olds were putting our friends’ lives at risk, we wondered — and argued
about — how far we would be willing go to make sure none of us died in a war we
had already realised we were losing.

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As Gulab recounted his memories of all the ways his
friends killed my friends and vice versa, I looked at his rifle next to my
right arm. He had propped it in the chair next to me before I sat down. It was
an American M4 carbine, much like the one I carried in 2010.

For a brief moment, I was in between time, between the
beginning of my war and its end.

The rifle was a familiar tool, once an extension of
myself and always within arm’s reach. But now that it was no longer needed, it
was little more than a mass of plastic and steel, and it had no bearing on how
I interacted with Marjah and Gulab. He was no longer an enemy but a man sitting
on the floor, pondering his next sentence. He was not fighting in a war that
seemed like it would never end. And neither was I.

He had won his war. I had lost mine.

I went home from Afghanistan in July 2010. Five years
later, the Marjah district collapsed to the Taliban, except for a few outposts.
Then this summer, roughly two weeks before Kabul fell, the Taliban seized it
completely.

“I am very happy that foreigners left the country and
it is over,” Gulab said. “We don’t need to kill them, and they are not killing
my friends.”

Throughout the interview, I wanted to tell him I had
been a Marine. That I had been in Marjah on Feb 13, 2010, and that I had fought
against him. I wanted to say I was sorry for all of it: the needless death, the
loss. His friends. My friends.

But I said nothing. I stood up, shook his hand,
smiled.

And I left Marjah.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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