A Taliban Commander’s Double Life, in a War He Couldn’t Leave Behind

Commander Zarqawi — a.k.a. Zabet Khan — with a rocket launcher in the Khogyani district of Nangarhar Province, in eastern Afghanistan.


By Mujib Mashal

Source: nytimes.com

SURKHROD, Afghanistan — In one life, he was Zabet Khan, a 25-year-old with a high school diploma, four children and a fondness for taking photos with his pink selfie stick.

In the other, he was Commander Zarqawi, a Taliban veteran in eastern Afghanistan with 10 years of combat experience in a war he couldn’t break away from. Even after he went as far as Greece in search of a job, the war sucked him back in.

Mr. Khan’s life by the gun, and his death in a mysterious parcel bombing last August, point to how complex the Afghan insurgency has become as the United States tries to negotiate its way out of the long war.

Over 18 years, the Taliban’s ideological movement has intertwined with local rivalries, blood feuds and a thriving black market. And it may have seen a divide open up between some young fighters, like Mr. Khan, and the Taliban’s more dogmatic leadership.

Signs of that divide emerged during a rare cease-fire last year, where some Taliban fighters openly disobeyed the limitations set by their leaders. Since then, the insurgent leadership has resisted all the calls by American negotiators and Afghan leaders for another cease-fire, with senior insurgent leaders privately saying that a new truce could have disastrous ramifications to their only leverage in an endgame — battlefield momentum.

An ice cream shop near Jalalabad that Mr. Khan visited, against orders, during a holiday cease-fire last year.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

That divide, family members believe, led to his murder.

“My son was killed by the Taliban — no one but the Taliban,” said Mr. Khan’s father, Aref Khan, 70. “They killed him because he stopped working with them.”

Commander Zarqawi had tried at least twice to end his insurgency — to become Zabet Khan again.

The oldest of four brothers, he picked up arms with the Taliban when he was in the eighth grade, around 2008. The American military had a nearby outpost; every time troops left the base, fighters like Mr. Khan tried to ambush them.

Yet during the day, Mr. Khan rarely missed class at his local school, which was run by the government and funded by international donors.

“The school was a government school, but the area was Taliban — everyone had a Talib in their family,” he said.

Mr. Khan with unidentified people in Athens. He moved to Greece in 2014 and stayed for three years.

When Mr. Khan graduated and got married, he started thinking about how to change his life.

In 2014, when American troops started leaving his district, Khogyani, as part of President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of combat forces, he thought his share of the war was over. He was reluctant to attack the Afghan soldiers who replaced the Americans, which did not go over well with his Taliban leaders, Mr. Khan’s family and friends say.

So he joined the migrant trail to Europe, arriving in Greece in 2014 in search of a job.

For much of his three years there, he worked on a family farm on Crete, helping to grow vegetables and get them to local markets. The Greek family he worked for had an easy nickname for him: Ali.

Fearing deportation, Mr. Khan largely kept to the farm and the nearby town. But sometimes he made it as far as Athens to explore.

In pictures from those days, the Taliban fighter looks like any other young migrant, at once in awe and at ease in a new world, with a short beard and spiked hair. For a village boy and Talib, he looks comfortable with women, his elbows gently resting on their shoulders in photos.

Categories: Afghanistan,Articles

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