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Amid Taliban Surge In Afghanistan, A Recollection Of Mazar-e-Sharif’s Bloodied Past

An Afghan civilian carries a wounded child to the hospital after he was injured during fighting between Taliban and government in Badghis province, northwest of Afghanistan, on July,7 2021. AP/PTI

It’s only a matter of time before Afghanistan falls into the hands of the Taliban once again. NATO forces have left for good. And under attack is Mazar-e-Sharif. There’s news that around a thousand soldiers of Afghan Army soldiers have fled to Tajikistan. This is the area populated by Hazaras, who are Shias, Taziks and Uzbeks. And General Abdul Rashid Dostum, former Vice President of Afghanistan, is the man who controls Mazar. But will he be able to save Mazar-e-Sharif?

Apart from its beautiful blue mosque of Hazrat Ali, is famous for its beautiful carpets. It is also infamous for its brutality.

Mazar was the first province to fall to American forces in 2001. It was here that hundreds of Taliban men were caught by the American forces with the help of Rashid Dostum’s Uzbek fighters. They were imprisoned in a small jail in Sheberghan, 130 kms from Mazar.

I came to know that among those prisoners there were many from Pakistan, who had been trained by Taliban and it’s masters, the Pakistani Army and the Inter Services Intelligence or ISI of Pakistan, to fight in Kashmir. This was a sitting duck of a story. So I travelled to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and then flew to the nearest town to Afghanistan, Termez. From the airport, a rickety bus took my guide Narendra Gudavalli and me to the Hairatan border post and we entered Afghanistan by crossing the Friendship Bridge, on foot.

We checked into the Hotel Mazar-e-Sharif, which was near the center of the town, close enough to the big blue mosque for us to hear the Azaan. The hotel was basic. Clean beds and hot running water. We weren’t expecting more. Afghanistan was in turmoil. Fighting was going on elsewhere. 

In the morning we started for Sheberghan. It was a small prison. Two and a half wings with a courtyard in the middle. It was filled like sardines jamming a tin. There was hardly any space to move inside the cells.

Taliban prisoners were brought out one by one and were allowed to talk to us on camera. They were pretty candid. One told me how many of them were chosen by the Pakistani Army and the ISI to come and train with the Taliban. Another was even more forthright. He told me that he was there to train to fight in Kashmir. To free Kashmir from Indians. I asked him if he knew anything about Kashmir? Had he ever been there? He had only heard what Mullah used to tell him in his madrassa. And there was another one who was absolutely sure that if he ever got out alive, he would indeed go to Kashmir to fight for its freedom. No they did not think that it was terrorism. Not one of them. However, they did believe that they had been abandoned by the Pakistani Army and the ISI when they needed them the most.    

Abandoned and how! Each prisoner knew how lucky he was to have survived. The horror stories they told me are hard to forget. They had surrendered in large numbers. Thousands. Americans had handed them over to Rashid Dostum’s men. And then they were transferred to prisons in containers. Containers used to transfer goods. Containers with no holes for oxygen. Hundreds were pushed into each. After hours of journey when each container was opened, more than half of those inside had suffocated and succumbed to asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen.  

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There were stories of more brutality. Two prisoners told me that many of those who surrendered were buried in the ground, in holes with only their heads showing, and horses were made to run over them till they died. When I asked Rashid Dostum, who I met in Tashkent on my way back, he categorically denied that anything like this ever happened.

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But it is clear that this western gateway to Afghanistan is known for its brutality. And the Taliban are unlikely to forget what happened to its men two decades ago. No wonder, Afghan soldiers are fleeing to Tajikistan. 

And that makes India worried. Very worried. Afghanistan is once again in turmoil. Kidnappings for ransom, IED, car-bomb attacks are all present and clear dangers. There are over 3,000 Indian nationals working in Afghanistan, mainly in reconstruction companies, international aid agencies and government employees working in embassies and consulates. India has put in millions of dollars in Afghanistan’s reconstruction in the last 20 years. 

But the situation is back to what it was two decades ago. For the first time since IC 814 hijacking in 1999, Indian officials are involved in direct talks with the Taliban. It happened in Qatar last month. Last time, the Taliban had helped the hijackers by supplying them arms and ammunition when the plane had landed in Kandahar. Though the official Indian contingent led by the then Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh had ensured release of all passengers of IC 814, except Rupin Katyal who had been killed while the plane was not being refueled in Dubai. 170 passengers came back to Delhi safe, but India had to pay a heavy price of releasing three dreaded terrorists, Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar for it.   

Along with direct talks with the Taliban, India is also trying its good offices and relationship with Iran to reach out to the Taliban. Iran does have some influence with the Taliban and on its own is trying to forge peace between warring groups in Afghanistan. However, India’s relations with Iran are not the same as they used to be after India decided to back American interests lock, stock and barrel. 

Putin’s Russia is also believed to have some influence in the area. It has also come closer to China and Pakistan. This trio could also create problems for India in the future. However, right now India seems to be in a position to seek Russia’s help to try and wriggle some safety and security for its nationals working in Afghanistan.   

It seems to be a matter of time before the war-torn nation of Afghanistan will completely fall in the hands of the Taliban. America has already washed its hands off it. Very soon it is likely to be Pakistan and China, which would have major dominance and presence there. And the nation of Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, will again be used for its strategic depth in all kinds of anti-India activities.

Sanjay Ahirwal was the editorial head of NDTV India, the Hindi News Channel of NDTV, before moving to NDTV Worldwide as its Managing Editor. He currently heads the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Apeejay Stya University, Gurugram.

WATCH: Strategically Speaking | Will the war in Afghanistan end?


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