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How We Lost the War We Won: Rolling Stone's 2008 Journey Into Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan

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My mouth goes dry from fear; I feel as though I have lost my voice. My friend in Kabul who helped arrange the trip manages to get through to Shafiq. He tells him he should not leave me, that I am Shafiq's responsibility and he will hold him personally responsible if anything happens to me.

We sit in the car for more than an hour, windows up. The sandstorm is still raging, and it's impossible to see more than a few yards. Outside, men with guns flicker into view, only to vanish in the blinding haze. Finally, Shafiq tells me I can get out. The angry man and his companions depart, taking the rocket launcher with them. Thinking it is over, I put my hand on my heart as they leave, to indicate no ill will. Then Shafiq tells me there has been a change of plan. He has been ordered to escort me to visit a rival commander — a man called Dr. Khalil — who will determine what will happen to me.

I later learn that I have been caught in the midst of the bitter and often violent infighting that divides the Taliban. Ibrahim's recent injury, it turns out, was the result of a clash between his forces and a group of foreign fighters under the command of Dr. Khalil. The foreigners wanted to close down a girls' school, sparking a battle. Two Arabs and 11 Pakistanis commanded by Dr. Khalil had been killed by Ibrahim's men.

As we leave to meet Dr. Khalil, the car jolts forward in the sandstorm, rocking back and forth on the stony path. I feel as though I am in a boat being tossed about by waves. Yusuf tells me not to worry — if Dr. Khalil tries to take me, he will fight them. It is the only reassurance I have. Throughout all our time in Ghazni, we have seen no authority other than the Taliban. Even if American helicopters were to appear suddenly, that would hardly be a relief — it would only be to target us in an airstrike.

I struggle to find a signal for my phone, cursing as the bars appear and disappear. I reach another of my contacts. "I spoke to Dr. Khalil," he says. "If they behave bad with you, don't worry — they just want to punish you." Shafiq also tells me not to worry — that he will die defending me if necessary. My only hope, I realize, is the Pashtun code of hospitality known as Pashtunwali — the same tradition that forbade the Taliban from handing over Osama bin Laden to the Bush administration after September 11th. Unfortunately, as young Taliban fighters have substituted their own authority for tribal customs, more and more insurgents now ignore the code. "All the old rules have broken down," an aid official who has spent two decades in Afghanistan tells me. The guarantees of safety that once protected civilians have been replaced by a new generation removed from traditional society — one for whom jihad is the only law.

Our car crawls through the empty desert. I can see nothing on the horizon. I ask Shafiq if Dr. Khalil is a good guy. "He's like you," Shafiq answers. "No Muslim is a bad man." His faith in the brotherhood of Islam does little to reassure me. "Don't worry," Shafiq says. "The Doctor has a gun, and I have a gun."

Ibrahim calls to say that he has reached a Taliban leader in Pakistan, as well as someone in the United Arab Emirates, and they have promised to call the Doctor and tell him not to harm me. "The Doctor will fight with me, not with you," says Shafiq, who seems to be warming to the idea of bloodshed. My contact in Kabul calls again. "They might slap you, but they won't kill you," he tells me. "It's just to punish you for coming without permission. They might keep you overnight as a guest. You are lucky you called me." Later, he tells me that the Doctor had assured him that he would not "do anything that isn't Sharia," or Islamic law. This was little consolation, even after the fact, since the Taliban's interpretation of Sharia includes beheading.

"I'm a martyr, I'm a star," the Taliban on the car's tape deck chants. "I will testify on behalf of my mother on Judgment Day. When I was small, my mother put me on her lap and spoke sweetly to me...."

We finally arrive at a mosque somewhere between the villages of Gabari and Sher Kala. The Doctor, I am told, is waiting for us inside. As I enter, I inadvertently step on a pair of Prada sunglasses — just as the Doctor walks into the room.

A burly man with light skin and a dark brown beard, the Doctor picks up the bent glasses and examines them somberly. His hands are thick, enormous. He wears a white cap, with palm trees and suns embroidered in white thread. He straightens the glasses and puts them on — it turns out they're his. My heart sinks. Not the best beginning, perhaps.

After everyone prays, the Doctor orders the others to leave the room, except for Yusuf. His voice is low and gruff. We sit on the floor. "Deir Obekhi," I say, apologizing for entering his territory without permission. He accuses me of being a spy for the Afghan army. He asks how I got a visa to Afghanistan. I tell him I am here to write about the mujahedeen and tell their story. If I like them so much, he sneers, why don't I join them?

The Doctor asks about my contact. I say he fought with the mujahedeen from Jamiat-i Islami. The Doctor scoffs, saying the man never fought the Soviets. Then he gets to his feet and announces that he is going to make phone calls to Pakistan to investigate me. We will have to spend the night in the mosque, and he will come back for us in the morning. As I try to protest, he stalks out.

I sit glumly on the floor in the guest room. A few minutes later, Shafiq sticks his head in and says, "Yallah" — Arabic for "come on." I jump up, relieved to get out of there. The Talib fighters sitting with us insist that we drink the tea they have made. I hurriedly gulp it down and step out into the darkness, eager to get away from the mosque. But Shafiq has more bad news: We will have to return in the morning. My mind flashes to the videos I have seen on the Internet of victims being decapitated by jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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