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

Page 7 of 8

We get in the car and Shafiq drives slowly, winding through nearly invisible paths, the moonlight obscured by dust. When we reach Shafiq's house, he carries a television into the guest room and turns on the generator. Reading the English titles on the program guide, he finds Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news channel. We watch coverage of the attacks we drove by the day before. Shafiq switches to an Afghan channel, and we watch an Indian soap opera dubbed in Dari. The women are dressed in revealing Western attire. I am amazed that Shafiq would watch something so anathema to the Taliban. It's OK, he tells me — "it's a drama about a family." Later he puts on a satellite channel devoted to Iranian-American pop music. We watch as a portly singer with stubble and long hair imitates bad Eighties rock, but in Farsi. The next video features an Iranian pop singer dressed in leather fringe and a tank top, like a cross between Davy Crockett and Richard Simmons. The Taliban commander watches, mesmerized.

In the morning, I awake to the drone of military planes overhead. Stepping outside, I see a convoy of American armored vehicles a mile away. I fight the urge to walk to them and beg for rescue. Even if they don't mistake me for Taliban and shoot me themselves, approaching them would doom everybody who had helped me.

I wait impatiently for the phone network to go back up. When it does, one of my contacts in Kabul tells me that he had spoken to senior Taliban officials who told the Doctor not to harm me, but the Doctor continued to insist that I am a spy. He thinks the Doctor is just trying to assert his independence and exchange me for a ransom. He tells me that Mullah Nasir, a one-armed Kandahari who serves as Taliban governor for Ghazni, is also trying to secure my release. I try to convince Shafiq to drive me to Ghazni's capital, but he says that if he doesn't return me to Dr. Khalil, the Doctor will arrest him.

In the end, I am saved by the same official who authorized my trip. According to my contact, the Taliban minister of defense called Dr. Khalil and ordered him to release me, warning the Doctor that "he would be fucked" if anything happens to me. My contact tells me I will be let go this afternoon but that once we are on the road we should take the batteries out of our phones, to prevent anyone from tracking us. "This Doctor, he is a very nasty guy," he says. "He might send somebody to kidnap you on the way, and then I can do nothing for you."

As we wait for the Doctor to arrive, Shafiq has other problems to deal with. His nephew has been arrested by a Taliban patrol after being spotted walking with a girl. After Shafiq secures his release, other Talib fighters call to complain that they heard music coming from his house the night before. Exasperated, Shafiq protests that it was only Al-Jazeera. He doesn't mention the Iranian pop singer.

A few hours later, Dr. Khalil finally shows up. He examines my passport and leafs through my notebooks, asking me to show him the photos I took. "Zaibullah Mujahed said I should hit you," he says, referring to the chief Taliban spokesman. "But I will not." Rifling through my bags, he seems particularly fascinated by my toothbrush. Puzzled, he riffles the bristles with his finger, trying to deduce their purpose.

For a man who has spent much of the past 24 hours contemplating whether I was worth more to him dead or alive, the Doctor is now surprisingly friendly. "What can I do for you?" he asks, a model of courtesy. I cautiously ask him a few questions. The Doctor tells me he studied at an Islamic school in Pakistan before entering medical school in Afghanistan. He joined the Taliban early, eventually serving as a commander in a northern district. He says he is fighting to restore a government of Islamic law, but that Mullah Omar does not have to be the leader again. God willing, he adds, it will take no more than 30 years to rid Afghanistan of foreigners. Like the other Taliban leaders I've spoken with, he says he is prepared to allow women to attend school and to work.

We pile into the Corolla and drive off to meet Ibrahim, loading an RPG into the trunk just in case. Dr. Khalil gets behind the wheel, with Shafiq beside him holding the PKM. After an hour of driving, the car gets stuck, and we all collect rocks to put beneath the tires. As we drive through the Doctor's village, he points to its outer limits. "This is the border between the Taliban and the government," he says, stressing his control. He is now jocular and relaxed.

At the edge of town, close to the main road, the Doctor gets out of the car, followed by Shafiq, holding his PKM. The locals appear stunned. Everyone stops and stares, immobilized, their daily routine interrupted by the sudden appearance of two heavily armed Taliban commanders escorting a large foreign man in ill-fitting salwar kameez. The Doctor stops a pickup truck and orders the driver to take us to the bazaar. We part warmly.

Arriving at the bazaar in the back of the pickup truck, we find a tense and apologetic Ibrahim waiting for us. Like my contact, he was worried that the Doctor had set up an ambush for me on the road. "I should not have left you," Ibrahim says. "I was lazy. That was my mistake."

On the way back to Kabul, we dodge more craters in the highway. The military trucks I saw burning two days earlier are still smoldering by the road. Children play on the blackened vehicles, removing pieces for salvage. I tease Ibrahim that the Taliban have made our drive more difficult by destroying the highway. To my surprise, he agrees.

Back in Kabul, we all have lunch together at the office of my friend where I first met Ibrahim. My friend teases me for sending him so many text messages — more than a dozen — and reads some of them aloud. Everyone laughs, relieved that the ordeal is over. I look at Ibrahim, wondering if he would have taken me hostage himself under different circumstances. He again surprises me by expressing disapproval of the Taliban for harming civilians in what he views as a war for national liberation. There used to be rules. Now, for many Taliban, there is only killing. "They are not acting like Afghans," he says.

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