How the Taliban Drove Afghan Villagers to Rise Up Against Them

U.S. troops have battled insurgents in rural Andar district for the past decade. Shah Marai / AFP-Getty Images

No one was more surprised than the men of Ghander village themselves by their sudden uprising against the Taliban. It began unexpectedly after evening prayers on a Sunday in late May, according to eyewitnesses in the dirt-poor farming community in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. Dozens of men had gathered as usual in front of the mosque to trade gossip and discuss local events. But as they pulled their blankets tighter around their shoulders against the biting end-of-day wind, their conversation suddenly turned to a subject they had always avoided: their resentment of the Taliban. “We supported them for 10 years,” said one elder. “And what have we got in return? They’re not letting us send our children to school or to the provincial hospital. I guess their next idea will be to bury our daughters alive to make sure they never go to school, work in an office, or walk around without a veil.”

People in Ghander had never dared to express such thoughts openly—and now the villagers realized for the first time how sick they all were of the Taliban leadership’s brutal rule and backward policies. Emboldened, they took their complaints to the local Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Malik. The moderate young guerrilla said he agreed that it had been a mistake for the Taliban to close the schools in the neighborhood, and he promised to get the ban lifted. He then dispatched his deputy commander to Quetta, the Taliban’s capital in exile, to warn the leadership that his neighbors were seriously angry and ask that the schools be reopened.

Malik should have known better. The militants always seem to have something they think more important than whatever the people might want or need. Across the border in North Waziristan, a polio immunization drive was abruptly canceled after Pakistani Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur announced a ban on the vaccine. The announcement came just days before roughly 161,000 Pakistani children under 5 were supposed to be vaccinated, but Bahadur said it didn’t matter: he wants an end to the Americans’ drone attacks before he’ll let the doctors in. Pakistan is one of only three countries where the crippling and potentially fatal virus remains endemic. (Afghanistan and Nigeria are the other two.) Bahadur doesn’t have to care if parents are aghast that their children are at risk; his fighters are firmly in control in North Waziristan.

The explanation for the school closings in Ghazni is no less cockeyed. The Taliban’s leadership has no blanket education policy, aside from an absolute opposition to public book learning of any sort for girls. Male children in the remote eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan have been allowed to attend school freely for the past decade, and yet secular education is flatly prohibited in parts of the east and south. This past April, the Quetta-based leaders ordered the schools closed in Ghazni. The idea, they said, was to protest a year-old government ban on motorcycles (the primary means of transportation not only for the Taliban but for most Afghan civilians) in the province’s most insurgency-wracked districts. People in Ghazni may have been angry with the government for leaving them on foot, but that was nothing compared with preventing their children from going to school.

Malik’s deputy traveled to Quetta as ordered and delivered his commander’s message to the Taliban’s higher-ups. At first, the men he spoke with agreed to reopen Ghazni’s schools—but it didn’t happen. According to a senior Taliban source who is close to the Quetta Shura, hardliners on the council decided instead to move against Malik, the commander who sided with the villagers instead of with the shura. The hardliners had connections to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, says the senior Taliban source, by way of a partial explanation.

Several days after the first protest in Ghander, 10 Taliban from a neighboring district showed up unannounced at Malik’s house. He tried to be a good Pashtun host to the unexpected guests, pouring cups of green tea for them and making sure a generous meal was laid out. But in the midst of the festivities, the visitors overpowered their host and his bodyguards, tied his hands, and marched him off into the night.

The Taliban’s arrest of Malik was the last straw. When morning came, the people of Ghander gathered in force at the mosque to protest the popular commander’s detention and the guerrilla leadership’s retrograde policies. Malik and his older brother, Rahmatullah, were both regarded by their neighbors as upstanding Taliban members. The brothers had spent two years in U.S.- and Kabul-run prisons after U.S. forces arrested them in a 2007 night raid on their home in Ghazni.

The villagers were voicing their outrage when more than 20 Taliban gunmen (not local members, the villagers say) roared into town on motorcycles, firing their weapons in the air—“like they were going to convert everyone to Islam,” as one scornful villager puts it. The display only made the villagers angrier. Abdul Samad, an elderly villager with a long, white beard, confronted one of the young strangers, yanked his long hair, slapped his face, and scolded him for opening fire. The startled gunman, a 17-year-old, according to witnesses, shot Samad dead.

afghanistan-taliban-OVNB04-secondary When the Taliban closed the schools, people in Andar district drew the line. Shah Marai / AFP-Getty Images

The infuriated crowd rushed the astonished gunmen and immediately overpowered them. The trigger-happy teenager tried to plead that the shooting was an accident, but the villagers refused to listen. They aren’t saying what became of him. Muhammad Eisa, a villager who was present at the incident, derides the team of would-be Taliban enforcers as “sons of Punjabis”—as Pakistanis, that is, and not even from the tribal areas. “You did not suckle at the breast of an Afghan mother,” he contemptuously says of them.

Many of the villagers continue to celebrate what they regard as the end of the Taliban’s decadelong tyranny over Ghander. “Their rule is over,” says Eisa. “They sleep in our houses and eat our food in the name of Islam, but then do nothing to solve our problems. We are fed up with them riding roughshod over the population.” Everyone was stunned by the sudden shift: veteran insurgents who had fought the combined forces of America and Kabul to a virtual stalemate now seemed helpless against the villagers. “The Taliban won’t dare to stay among unhappy villages anymore,” a former schoolmaster boasts. “People hate them and would inform on them to the government or Americans.”

The revolt spread quickly. On the very morning of the Ghander confrontation, residents of nearby villages held anti-Taliban rallies of their own. Just as in Ghander, gangs of militants with unfamiliar faces roared in on motorcycles and tried to quash the protests. The villagers prevailed. Practically every adult male in the region has always kept firearms for protection against bandits and other threats, so local men were able to organize themselves into village militias almost immediately.

One of Malik’s deputies tells Newsweek that in the intervening weeks the movement has grown from 20 or so armed villagers in Ghander to more than 150 militiamen. He and his fighters have sworn to free Malik, reopen the schools, and give village elders more say over education, health, and development. “We want traditional rule by tribal elders and village councils, not by the Taliban or the government,” says Mamor Jabar Shelghari, a former member of parliament from Ghazni. In recent years the Taliban have threatened to kill past and present legislators who dared attempt to return to their homes in the province.

Roughly 20 percent of Andar, the administrative district surrounding Ghander, is now controlled by the newly formed anti-Taliban militias, according to Hajji Khan Muhammad, a senior elder in the district. Fighters under and allied with one of Malik’s deputies are also patrolling 10 villages in the neighboring district of Deh Yak, Hajji Muhammad says. Still, he adds, the expansion has had its cost in bloodshed: at least 20 people, including villagers as well as Taliban, have died in the fighting so far.

In one of the boldest moves yet, the fledgling rebels recently captured and imprisoned an entire squad of Taliban fighters. The prisoners—17 of them, by one count—were mostly Pakistanis from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The hope was that a prisoner exchange might be worked out, said Hajji Aminullah, one of the militia leaders. “If the Taliban release Malik and leave our areas silently, we will release them,” he told Newsweek. “The people just want the basic right to live and breathe normally.” But the possibility of a swap may have already passed. The Pakistanis were being held in the home of a villager known as Wali Muhammad, according to one unconfirmed report, but a Taliban force is said to have attacked and burned the house, freeing the men.

Taliban leaders say they have no intention of caving in to the villagers’ demands. “We don’t care if they join the government,” says Mullah Burhan, a commander in Andar. “Our jihad will continue forever.” He happens to be an old friend of Malik’s, but he says that won’t protect the villagers from the Taliban’s wrath. “We are warning them to change their minds and allow the Taliban to return,” he says. “If not, we will use force and teach them a lesson they will not forget. We won’t spare their lives.”

The villagers’ uprising might seem perfectly tailored for the coalition’s strategy of building local anti-Taliban forces, in preparation for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. In other Afghan provinces the allies are actively raising, training, and paying village militias, with the idea of enabling them to defend their homes when the Taliban try to come back. In Ghazni, however, the Americans are only standing back and monitoring the situation.

The trouble is that the villagers are just as sick of the Americans and of Hamid Karzai’s government as they are of the Taliban and the war itself. “We are not with the government, the Americans, or the Taliban,” the Ghander militia leader tells Newsweek. “We just want a decent future for our children.” Despite his recent conflicts with his former Taliban comrades, he remains convinced that the Americans are invaders on Afghan soil. “The U.S. must be defeated and driven away,” he says. “But the Taliban should change, because the people have changed. They’ve seen development, technology, and the benefits of knowledge.”

At present, however, many villagers are simply reveling in their unaccustomed sense of liberation. A 53-year-old former math teacher in the village of Abdul Rahimzai, four kilometers down the road from Ghander, says he can’t remember feeling so relaxed. “We hate Karzai, the Taliban, and the Americans,” he says. “The Taliban eat our food; Karzai steals from us, and the Americans arrest and kill us in night raids.” Now, he says, the local militias’ rise has made those problems a memory: “For the first time in 10 years I feel safe from the Taliban and free from Karzai’s corruption and the Americans’ night raids and biting dogs.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with him. But he’d better enjoy that freedom while he can. The rebels aren’t nearly strong enough to stand on their own, and the Taliban’s vengeful forces are practically guaranteed to try reclaiming control soon. Last week they burned down Malik’s father’s home. The militants’ violent return may only further alienate the villagers—but there’s no reason to think the Taliban’s leaders are worried about things like that.

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