The Taliban’s Secret Prisons: A Reporter’s Perilous Trip

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It was a throwaway line in a grim Human Rights Watch report that sent me on my quest: “The Taliban run dozens of unacknowledged prisons.” Here, for me, was a new and sinister aspect of the kind of parallel government that this insurgent group has constructed in Afghanistan.

Bombings and shootings have been written about at length. These prisons were an overlooked element in the Taliban’s terror campaign: a below-the-radar network of incarceration that is waiting to arbitrarily swallow up and punish citizens who are considered enemies of the group.

As the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times, I surmised that this network must have affected a substantial number of Afghans. My goal was to describe the physical features of these prisons as closely as possible, the conditions under which the Taliban’s prisoners are held and the psychological aftermath. What followed was a trip north, to Badakhshan Province, and a series of wrenching accounts of beatings, privation, despair and lingering trauma, culminating in one interview I will remember for a long time.

buzkashi match — a rough game of mounted polo in which the headless corpse of a calf or goat is chased by riders around an immense field — was unfolding noisily beneath us.

Before the interview, I had ranged far and wide in the mountains of Badakhshan looking for ex-prisoners of the Taliban, with my small and excellent team of colleagues: the photographer Kiana Hayeri; a reporter in the Kabul bureau, Najim Rahim; and a great Faizabad freelance journalist and driver (who asked not to be named).

One of our destinations was a forlorn rural outpost of an ineffectual pro-government militia in Jorm District. We were told as soon as we arrived that we would have to make the interviews quick, as the Taliban had gotten wind of our arrival. So we hurried, and afterward the Faizabad colleague sped our small car through the hills to get us out of there.

As we were making our way back, we could see the white flag of the Taliban fluttering across the river. When we arrived back in town, our colleague told us with grim humor that the last stretch of road was known locally as “the valley of death” because Taliban kidnappings were not infrequent.

Just the week before, he told us, a judge from Faizabad had been kidnapped on it.


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U.S. Pushes U.N.-Led Peace Conference in Letter to Afghan Leader

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has proposed a United Nations-led peace conference in Turkey aimed at forming an inclusive Afghan government with the Taliban and establishing a three-month reduction in violence leading to a cease-fire.

In a letter to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan requesting his “urgent leadership,” Mr. Blinken signaled that the Biden administration had lost faith in faltering negotiations between Mr. Ghani’s government and the Taliban. The unusually blunt letter, in which Mr. Blinken asked Mr. Ghani to “understand the urgency of my tone,” reflected American frustration with the Afghan president’s often intransigent stance in stalled peace talks.

The existence of the letter was confirmed by a U.S. official in Washington and the Afghan government.

Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September as part of a February 2020 agreement between the militants and the United States. But the talks have faltered over issues like a prisoner exchange and reductions in violence.

Mr. Blinken wrote that the United States had not decided whether to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan by May 1, as outlined in its agreement with the Taliban. He expressed concern that “the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains” following a U.S. withdrawal.

The State Department declined to comment on the letter but said in a statement that “all options remain on the table” regarding the withdrawal of American troops.

“We have not made any decisions about our force posture in Afghanistan after May 1,” the statement said.

A pullout would create enormous security challenges for Mr. Ghani’s government and its overburdened security forces.

The United Nations-led conference in Turkey would include envoys from the United States, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and India “to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken wrote.

The existence of the letter was reported after Zalmay Khalilzad, the American peace envoy, delivered an outline of U.S. policy options to Mr. Ghani’s government and Taliban negotiators last week. The proposals, intended to reinvigorate the stalled peace negotiations, included a road map for a future Afghan government with Taliban representation, a revised Afghan constitution using the current one as an “initial template” and terms for a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.

The New York Times obtained a copy of the proposals, dated Feb. 28, which Afghan officials confirmed were delivered by Mr. Khalilzad last week.

Significantly, the proposals called for national elections after the establishment of a “transitional peace government of Afghanistan.” The Taliban have opposed elections, dismissing them as Western interference.

The proposals also include guaranteed rights for women and for religious and ethnic minorities, and protections for a free press. The Taliban violently suppressed women and minorities and did not permit independent news media when the group led Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Taliban negotiators have said they support women’s rights within the strictures of Islamic law — the same strictures the militants cited to ban women from schools and workplaces.

The outline presented by Mr. Khalilzad proposed a High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence to advise an independent judiciary to resolve conflicts over the interpretation of Islamic law. The proposals recognized Islam as the country’s official religion and acknowledged the importance of “Islamic values” in a future Afghan state.

The outline proposed that the government and the Taliban each name seven members to the High Council, with a 15th member appointed by the Afghan president. Similar arrangements were proposed for a commission to prepare a revised constitution and for a Joint Cease-fire Monitoring and Implementation Commission.

The proposals also called for the Taliban to remove “their military structures and officers from neighboring countries.” Pakistan has provided a sanctuary for Taliban commanders and fighters crossing back and forth into Afghanistan and has permitted the militants to maintain a political council in the country.

Both Pakistan and the Taliban are unlikely to agree to such a proposal.

An introduction to the document said it “sets forth principles for governance, security, and rule of law and presents options for power sharing that could help the two sides reach a political settlement that ends the war.”

The Biden administration has said the Taliban have not lived up to their commitments to reduce violence and to cut ties with extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. But Washington has also grown impatient with Mr. Ghani, who has refused to consider an interim government that would almost certainly end his second five-year term as president.

Violence has escalated in Afghanistan over the past year, with persistent Taliban territorial gains and attacks on beleaguered government forces. Mr. Ghani’s government has blamed the Taliban for a series of targeted assassinations of government officials and supporters, security force members and their families, civil society advocates and journalists.

The Taliban have used the violence as leverage in the peace talks in Doha, Qatar, dragging out negotiations while awaiting a decision by President Biden on the May 1 troop withdrawal.

Mr. Blinken’s letter expressed impatience with the pace of negotiations, saying the United States intended “to move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

Asfandyar Mir, an analyst at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said the Biden policy outlined in Mr. Blinken’s letter was “focused, aggressive, ambitious in scope, but also comes with enormous risks.”

He added: “It has far too many moving parts, and time is not on the side of the administration, so it can fail. There might be pushback from some U.S. allies,” particularly since “the Taliban has shown limited interest in meaningful engagement.”

Mr. Mir said the letter indicated that the Biden administration sees Mr. Ghani as an impediment to peace. “It is in no mood to indulge his parochialism,” he said.

Mr. Blinken’s letter, first reported by the independent channel TOLO News in Kabul, said the proposed three-month reduction in violence was intended to forestall a widely anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban while giving negotiations a chance at a fresh start.

“I urge you to strongly consider the proposal,” the secretary told Mr. Ghani.

Mr. Blinken has previously indicated that American troops would not remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Many analysts say Afghan security forces, already hollowed out by high casualty and desertion rates, would be hard pressed to hold off the Taliban without the presence of American troops — even if Washington and coalition allies continued to provide financial aid and military hardware.

“I must also make clear to you, Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option,” Mr. Blinken wrote.

Adam Weinstein, research fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said the Biden administration considered Mr. Ghani both a necessary partner and a roadblock to a peace agreement.

“This letter sends a strong message to Ghani to play ball or get out of the way,” he said.

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Afghan War Casualty Report: March 2021

The following report compiles all significant security incidents confirmed by New York Times reporters throughout Afghanistan from the past seven days. It is necessarily incomplete as many local officials refuse to confirm casualty information. The report includes government claims of insurgent casualty figures, but in most cases these cannot be independently verified by The Times. Similarly, the reports do not include Taliban claims for their attacks on the government unless they can be verified. Both sides routinely inflate casualty totals for their opponents.

At least 21 pro-government forces and 22 civilians were killed in Afghanistan the past week. The deadliest attack took place in Kunduz Province, where the Taliban attacked a security outpost in the Telawka area of the Sixth Police District in Kunduz city, the provincial capital, killing eight soldiers and wounding four others. The Taliban captured the outpost and seized weapons and equipment, including two Humvees. In Nangarhar Province, unknown gunmen entered a plaster factory in the Mar Ghondi area of Surkh Rod District, killing seven workers who were Hazara. The gunmen first tied the hands and legs of all seven civilians and then shot them with a suppressed pistol. Local officials in Nangarhar believed that the attack was carried out by the Islamic State affiliated group. In another attack in the province, three women who worked at a local television network were shot and killed in two different attacks in the First Police District of Jalalabad city, the provincial capital. All three women were working in the dubbing section of the television network. Another woman was also wounded in the attack.

[Read the Afghan War Casualty Report from previous months.]

March 4 Badghis Province: four security forces killed

Four pro-government militia members were killed in a Taliban ambush in the village of Band-e-Qashqah in Ab-Kamari District. The militia members were on patrol when they came under attack.

March 4 Nangarhar Province: one female doctor killed

A sticky bomb attached to a rickshaw exploded in the Third Police District of Jalalabad, the provincial capital, killing a female doctor and wounding a child.

March 3 Kunduz Province: eight soldiers killed

The Taliban attacked a security outpost in the Telawka area of the Sixth Police District in Kunduz city, the provincial capital, killing eight soldiers and wounding four others. The Taliban captured the outpost and seized weapons and equipment, including two Humvees.

March 3 Nangarhar Province: seven civilians killed

Unknown gunmen entered a plaster factory in the Mar Ghondi area of Surkh Rod District, killing seven Hazara workers. The gunmen first tied the hands and legs of all seven civilians and then shot them with a suppressed pistol. Local officials in Nangarhar believed that the attack was carried out by the Islamic State affiliated group.

March 3 Khost Province: two civilians killed

The Taliban attacked a truck in Sabari District that belonged to a company providing food for Afghan forces in Zazai Maidan District, killing two civilians and taking another prisoner.

March 3 Helmand Province: one police officer killed

A sticky bomb attached to a police vehicle went off in the Third Police District of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, killing one police officer and wounding one civilian.

March 3 Kabul Province: one civilian killed

Faiz Mohammad Fayez, a religious scholar was shot and killed by unknown gunmen while he was on his way to mosque for morning prayer in the 17th Police District of Kabul city, the capital. Mr. Fayez was head of the provincial scholars council in Kunduz Province, but due to security threats there, he moved to Kabul and was teaching in a madrasa.

March 2 Jowzjan Province: one security force member killed

A military vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in the eastern part of Sheberghan, the provincial capital. One member of the public protection forces was killed and six others were wounded.

March 2 Nangarhar Province: three journalists killed

Three women employees of a local television network were shot and killed in two different attacks in the First Police District of Jalalabad. All three women were working in the dubbing section of the television network. Another woman was also wounded in the attack.

March 1 Jowzjan Province: one civilian killed

A bomb attached to a private vehicle exploded in the First Police District of Sheberghan, the provincial capital, killing a tribal elder and wounding three civilians.

Feb. 28 Kunduz Province: one police officer killed

The Taliban abducted and killed a counternarcotics police officer in the Third Police District of Kunduz city. The officer was aware of the Taliban’s arrival and he tried to escape.

Feb. 28 Badghis Province: two police officers killed

Two police officers were shot and killed by the Taliban in the village of Laman in Qala-e-Naw, the provincial capital. Both officers were traveling by public transport when they were abducted by the Taliban.

Feb. 28 Ghazni Province: one civilian killed

A roadside bomb explosion killed one civilian and wounded five civilians and two security forces in Qalay-e-Sabz area of Ghazni city, the provincial capital.

Feb. 27 Badghis Province: four civilians killed

One woman and three children were killed and five others were wounded when a mortar fired by the Afghan army hit a house in the village of Langar in Qadis District. The mortar shell was fired after a military convoy came under the Taliban ambush in the area.

Feb. 27 Kabul Province: one civilian killed

One civilian was killed and two others were wounded when a roadside bomb hit a civilian vehicle in Bagrami District.

Feb. 26 Kandahar Province: four police officers killed

The Taliban loaded a stolen Humvee with explosives targeted a highway police battalion in the Faqiran village of Arghandab District, killing four police officers and wounding six others.

Feb. 26 Nangarhar Province: one civilian killed

A sticky bomb attached to a rickshaw exploded in the Ninth Police District of Jalalabad, killing one civilian.


Reporting was contributed by Najim Rahim from Kabul, Asadullah Timory from Herat, Zabihullah Ghazi from Nangarhar, Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.

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