On patrol: 12 days with a Taliban police unit in Kabul

Friday prayers would begin soon at the Sakhi
Shah-e Mardan shrine and mosque, a holy Shiite site in central Kabul that he
was guarding.

There had been two bombings of Shiite mosques
in Afghanistan by the Islamic State group in recent months, killing dozens, and
this 18-year-old Taliban fighter, Mohammad Khalid Omer, wasn’t taking any

He and his police unit of five other fighters,
colloquially known as the Sakhi unit after the shrine they defend, represents
the Taliban’s vanguard in their newest struggle after the group’s stunning
takeover of the country in August: They won the war, but can they secure the
peace in a multiethnic country racked by more than 40 years of violence?

Journalists from The New York Times spent 12
days with the small Taliban unit this fall, going on several patrols with them
in their zone, Police District 3, and travelling to their homes in Wardak
province, a neighbouring mountainous area.

So far, the new government’s approach to
policing has been ad hoc at best: Local Taliban units have assumed the role at
checkpoints across the country, while in large cities, such as Kabul, Taliban
fighters have been imported from surrounding provinces.

Even with only half a dozen members, the Sakhi
unit offers a telling snapshot of the Taliban, both in terms of who their core
fighters are and what the biggest challenge is for them as Afghanistan’s new
rulers: Once a mainly rural insurgency, the movement is now being forced to
contend with governing and securing the unfamiliar urban centres it had been
kept out of for decades.

No longer are fighters like Omer sleeping
under the stars, avoiding airstrikes and planning ambushes against foreign
troops or the Western-backed Afghan government.

Instead, they are wrestling with the same
economic hardships gripping their countrymen, with the same threat of Islamic
State attacks and with the raucous, puzzling, winding streets and back alleys
of Kabul, a city of about 4.5 million people that they are practically
strangers to.

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The Sakhi unit lives full time next to the
shrine in a small concrete room painted bright green with a single electric
heater. Steel bunk beds line the walls. The only decoration is a single poster
of the sacred Kaaba in Mecca.

In Afghanistan, many Shiites belong to the
Hazara ethnic minority. The Taliban, a Sunni Pashtun movement, severely
persecuted Hazaras the last time they ruled the country. But the seeming
implausibility of a Talib unit actually guarding such an emblematic Shiite site
is belied by how seriously the men appeared to take their assignment.

“We do not care which ethnic group we serve,
our goal is to serve and provide security for Afghans,” said Habib Rahman
Inqayad, 25, the unit leader and most experienced of them. “We never think that
these people are Pashtun or Hazara.”

But Inqayad’s sentiments contrast with the
Taliban’s interim government, composed almost entirely of Pashtun hard-liners
who are emblematic of the movement’s harsh rule in the 1990s, and who are
perceived as anti-Hazara.

As he spoke in the unit’s cramped barracks, a
small speaker often played “taranas,” the spoken prayer songs, without musical
accompaniment, popular with the Talibs.

One of the group’s favourites was a song about
losing one’s comrades and the tragedy of youth lost. In a high thin voice, the
singer intones, “O death, you break and kill our hearts.”

On a fall day last year as the Sakhi unit
looked on, families gathered on the tiled terraces around the shrine, drinking
tea and sharing food.

Some cautiously eyed the Talibs patrolling the
site and one group of young men rushed to put out their cigarettes as they
approached. The Taliban generally frown on smoking and the unit has at times
physically punished smokers.

Another day, two teenage boys came to the
shrine, brazenly strolling with their two girlfriends. They were confronted by
the Sakhi unit, who asked what they were doing. Unsatisfied with their answers,
the Talibs dragged the boys into their bunk room to answer for the transgression.
In conservative Afghanistan, such public consorting is taboo, doubly so in a
holy site under Taliban guard.

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Inside their room, there was an argument among
the Sakhi unit about how to handle the two boys: good cop versus bad cop.
Hekmatullah Sahel, one of the more experienced members of the unit, disagreed
with his comrades. He pushed for a verbal lashing rather than a physical one.
He was overruled.

When the teenagers were finally allowed to
leave, shaken by the beating they had just received, Sahel called out to the
boys, telling them to come back again — but without their girlfriends.

The episode was a reminder to the shrine’s
visitors that the Taliban fighters, while generally friendly, could still
revert to the tactics that defined their religious hard-line rule in the 1990s.

For the group of six fighters, contending with
flirting teenagers was just another indicator that their days of fighting a
guerrilla war were over. Now they spend their time preoccupied by more
quotidian policing considerations, like spotting possible bootleggers (alcohol
in Afghanistan is banned), finding fuel for their unit’s pickup and wondering
whether their commander will grant them leave for the weekend.

Omer had joined the unit only months before.
“I joined the Islamic Emirate because I had a great desire to serve my religion
and country,” he said.

But to some Talibs, Omer is what is derisively
called a “21-er” — a fighter who only joined the movement in 2021, as victory
loomed. This new generation of Talibs bring new expectations with them, chief
among them the desire for a salary.

They and most other rank-and-file fighters
have never received a salary from the movement. Despite seizing billions in
US-supplied weapons and matériel, the Taliban are still far from being well
equipped. Fighters are dependent on their commanders for basic supplies and
they have to scrounge for anything extra.

Sahel, at 28, is older than most of his
comrades, slower to excite and more restrained. He spent four years studying at
a university, working the whole time as a clandestine operative for the movement.

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“None of my classmates knew that I was in the
Taliban,” he said.

He graduated with a degree in physics and math
education, but returned to the fight.

Relieved the war is over, he and his comrades
still miss the sense of purpose it provided.

“We are happy that our country was liberated
and we are currently living in peace,” he said, but added, “we are very sad for
our friends who were martyred.”

Every few weeks, the men are allowed to visit
their families back in Wardak for two days. On a crisp morning in November,
Inqayad sat in his home in the Masjid Gardena valley, a beautiful collection of
orchards and fields hemmed in by mountain peaks.

He explained that many families in the area
had lost sons to the fighting, and estimated that 80% of the families in the
area were Taliban supporters.

Inqayad attended school until the seventh
grade, but had to drop out. Religious studies filled in some gaps. He joined
the Taliban at 15.

Recently married, he faces new challenges now
that the movement is in power. The only potential breadwinner in his family, he
needs a salary to support his wife, mother and sisters, but so far he has not
been drawing one.

Back in Kabul, the Sakhi unit loaded up for a
night patrol, bundling up to combat the cold wind that blows incessantly from
the mountains ringing the city.

Omer rode in the bed of the unit’s truck, a
machine gun resting on his lap and bands of ammunition wrapped around his neck
like party beads.

But there was little to warrant the heavy
weaponry meant for suppressing enemy troops. Their area of responsibility was
quiet and the men seemed bored as they spun around the city as packs of street
dogs chased and snapped at the tires of passing cars.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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