KABUL, Afghanistan — A younger Taliban fighter with a pair of handcuffs dangling from his finger warily watched the stream of approaching automobiles as he stood in entrance of a set of metal barricades.
Friday prayers would start quickly on the Sakhi Shah-e Mardan shrine and mosque, a holy Shiite website in central Kabul that he was guarding.
There had been two bombings of Shiite mosques in Afghanistan by the Islamic State in current months, killing dozens, and this 18-year-old Taliban fighter, Mohammad Khalid Omer, wasn’t taking any possibilities.
He and his police unit of 5 different fighters, colloquially often called the Sakhi unit after the shrine they defend, represents the Taliban’s vanguard of their latest battle after the group’s gorgeous takeover of the nation in August: They won the war, however can they secure the peace in a multiethnic nation racked by greater than 40 years of violence?
Journalists from The New York Occasions spent 12 days with the small Taliban unit this fall, occurring a number of patrols with them of their zone, Police District 3, and touring to their houses in Wardak Province, a neighboring mountainous space.
Thus far, the brand new authorities’s method to policing has been advert hoc at greatest: Native Taliban models have assumed the function at checkpoints throughout the nation, whereas in massive cities, comparable to Kabul, Taliban fighters have been imported from surrounding provinces.
Even with solely half a dozen members, the Sakhi unit affords a telling snapshot of the Taliban, each when it comes to who their core fighters are and what the largest problem is for them as Afghanistan’s new rulers: As soon as a primarily rural insurgency, the motion is now being compelled to cope with governing and securing the unfamiliar city facilities it had been stored out of for many years.
Not are fighters like Mr. Omer sleeping below the celebs, avoiding airstrikes and planning ambushes towards international troops or the Western-backed Afghan authorities.
As a substitute, they’re wrestling with the identical 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 metropolis of about 4.5 million those that they’re virtually strangers to.
The Sakhi unit lives full time subsequent to the shrine in a small concrete room painted vivid inexperienced with a single electrical heater. Metal bunk beds line the partitions. The one ornament 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 motion, severely persecuted Hazaras the final time they dominated the nation. However the seeming implausibility of a Talib unit truly guarding such an emblematic Shiite website is belied by how significantly the boys appeared to take their task.
“We don’t care which ethnic group we serve, our aim is to serve and supply safety for Afghans,” stated Habib Rahman Inqayad, 25, the unit chief and most skilled of them. “We by no means assume that these persons are Pashtun or Hazara.”
Reporting From Afghanistan
However Mr. Inqayad’s sentiments distinction with the Taliban’s interim government, composed nearly completely of Pashtun hard-liners who’re emblematic of the motion’s harsh rule within the Nineteen Nineties, and who’re perceived as anti-Hazara.
As he spoke within the unit’s cramped barracks, a small speaker typically performed “taranas,” the spoken prayer songs, with out musical accompaniment, standard with the Talibs.
One of many group’s favorites was a tune about dropping one’s comrades, and the tragedy of youth misplaced. In a excessive skinny voice, the singer intones, “O demise, you break and kill our hearts.”
On a fall day final yr because the Sakhi unit appeared on, households gathered on the tiled terraces across the shrine, consuming tea and sharing meals.
Some cautiously eyed the Talibs patrolling the positioning, and one group of younger males rushed to place out their cigarettes as they approached. The Taliban usually frown on smoking, and the unit has at occasions bodily punished people who smoke.
One other day, two teenage boys got here to the shrine, openly strolling with their two girlfriends. They had been confronted by the Sakhi unit, who requested what they had been doing. Unhappy with their solutions, the Talibs dragged the boys into their bunk room to reply for the transgression. In conservative Afghanistan, such public consorting is taboo, doubly so in a holy website below Taliban guard.
Inside their room, there was an argument among the many Sakhi unit about how one can deal with the 2 boys: good cop versus unhealthy cop. Hekmatullah Sahel, one of many extra skilled members of the unit, disagreed along with his comrades. He pushed for a verbal lashing relatively than a bodily one. He was overruled.
When the youngsters had been lastly allowed to go away, shaken by the beating they’d simply obtained, Mr. Sahel referred to as out to the boys, telling them to return again once more — however with out their girlfriends.
The episode was a reminder to the shrine’s guests that the Taliban fighters, whereas usually pleasant, might nonetheless revert to the ways that outlined their non secular hard-line rule within the Nineteen Nineties.
For the group of six fighters, contending with flirting youngsters was simply one other indicator that their days of combating a guerrilla battle had been over. Now they spend their time preoccupied by extra quotidian policing issues, like recognizing potential bootleggers (alcohol in Afghanistan is banned), discovering gas for his or her unit’s pickup and questioning whether or not their commander will grant them go away for the weekend.
Mr. Omer had joined the unit solely months earlier than. “I joined the Islamic Emirate as a result of I had an awesome need to serve my faith and nation,” he stated.
However to some Talibs, Mr. Omer is what’s derisively referred to as a “21-er” — a fighter who solely joined the motion in 2021, as victory loomed. This new era of Talibs convey new expectations with them, chief amongst them the will for a wage.
They and most different rank-and-file fighters have by no means obtained a wage from the motion. Regardless of seizing billions in American-supplied weapons and matériel, the Taliban are nonetheless removed from being properly geared up. Fighters are depending on their commanders for fundamental provides, they usually need to scrounge for something additional.
Mr. Sahel, at 28, is older than most of his comrades, slower to excite and extra restrained. He spent 4 years finding out at a college, working the entire time as a clandestine operative for the motion. “None of my classmates knew that I used to be within the Taliban,” he stated. He graduated with a level in physics and math training, however returned to the battle.
Relieved the battle is over, he and his comrades nonetheless miss the sense of objective it supplied. “We’re joyful that our nation was liberated and we’re at present residing in peace,” he stated, however added, “we’re very unhappy for our pals who had been martyred.”
Each few weeks, the boys are allowed to go to their households again in Wardak for 2 days. On a crisp morning in November, Mr. Inqayad sat in his house within the Masjid Gardena valley, a stupendous assortment of orchards and fields hemmed in by mountain peaks.
He defined that many households within the space had misplaced sons to the combating, and estimated that 80 p.c of the households within the space had been Taliban supporters.
Mr. Inqayad attended faculty till the seventh grade, however needed to drop out. Non secular research stuffed in some gaps. He joined the Taliban at 15.
Lately married, he faces new challenges now that the motion is in energy. The one potential breadwinner in his household, he wants a wage to help his spouse, mom and sisters, however up to now he has not been drawing one.
Again in Kabul, the Sakhi unit loaded up for an evening patrol, bundling as much as fight the chilly wind that blows incessantly from the mountains ringing town.
Mr. Omer rode within the mattress of the unit’s truck, a machine gun resting on his lap and bands of ammunition wrapped round his neck like occasion beads.
However there was little to warrant the heavy weaponry meant for suppressing enemy troops. Their space of duty was quiet, and the boys appeared bored as they spun across the metropolis as packs of avenue canine chased and snapped on the tires of passing automobiles.
Sami Sahak contributed reporting.