DOHA, Qatar — In the twilight months of the United States’ war in Afghanistan, Americans fought the Taliban, not over fields or villages or hearts and minds, but over spreadsheets.
Since February 2020, when the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban laying out the terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan if certain conditions were met, the insurgent group has recorded its every perceived violation of the deal, totaling well over 1,000 incidents laid out in Microsoft Excel.
Practically every week, the Taliban delivered these lists of infractions to U.S. diplomats and military officials in Doha, Qatar, who took the complaints — investigating some and dismissing others as inaccurate.
In a way, the spreadsheets’ very existence supported President Biden’s rationale for pulling out completely, even when his generals wanted to stay: A conditions-based withdrawal, as the Pentagon wanted, seemed bound to fail because neither side could agree on whether the other party was even meeting the conditions they had signed on to.
foundation to further negotiate a reduction in violence that would last 90 days. The plan is a last-ditch attempt to stave off a deadly summer insurgent offensive and stabilize the battlefield as the last American forces leave — if the Taliban are willing to come back to the table.
By announcing the withdrawal, the Biden administration has given up much of the United States’ negotiating leverage, but it still has one last carrot and stick up its sleeve that could get the Taliban onboard: U.S. envoys could agree to push for the release of 7,000 Taliban prisoners (though the Afghan government is likely to refuse to comply, especially in the wake of the announcement) and the removal of United Nations sanctions against the insurgent group.
It seems possible the end of America’s longest war on foreign soil will not end in a bang, or a whimper, but instead with representatives from an insurgent group and those of a superpower sitting across a table, debating spreadsheets.
Afghan war casualty reports, and was able to verify seven of the incidents that involved civilians, out of the more than 110 violations claimed by the Taliban for the month. (The Times does not record reports of Taliban casualties, of which many of their documented offenses claim to be. In the past, the Taliban have exaggerated or lied about casualty claims, so The Times is only printing the incident items it was able to verify, though the Taliban’s details differ from government or local accounts.)
A look into four of these seven incidents show that even when these cases are put under a microscope, the bare facts of what happened and who’s to blame are still almost impossible to discern — the byproduct of the war’s unending stream of competing narratives.
Unknown gunmen entered a home in the Altamor area of Pul-e-Alam, Logar Province’s capital, and opened fire on family members, killing a mother and three of her daughters, according to local officials at the time. The father of the family was also wounded. The Taliban, however, attributed the attack on the family to an artillery strike. Though officials at the time promised an investigation, Deedar Lawang, the provincial spokesman, recently said they still have not determined who carried out the killings.
When told that The Times had reported the incident as being carried out by gunmen and not an artillery strike, a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid said, “All the recorded incidents are considered a violation by Taliban standards and reporting.”
By all accounts from officials in Kapisa Province’s district of Tagab, a mountainous province just north of Kabul, the country’s capital, the deaths of 11 Afghan security forces and three civilians were the result of a Taliban offensive into several villages on the night of June 14.
The Taliban’s account is that nine civilians were also wounded, during “artillery fire on a wedding.” But local officials said that three civilians were killed and eight others were wounded when a Taliban mortar round hit a house.
On June 18, a mortar round exploded in the yard of a madrasa, or religious school, in Takhar Province’s Ishkamish District, killing nine students and wounding six others, according to local officials. It was unclear if the children were playing with the shell, but last week, Khalil Asir, a police spokesman, said the mortar round had been concealed in a sack.
The Taliban often use mosques as central to their fighters operations: not just as a meeting place, but also where weapons and munitions are sometimes stored. But their incident report said that “the enemy planted a mine next to the mosque,” implying that Afghan security forces, backed by the United States, deliberately planted the round near the madrasa.
Several rounds of artillery landed in a livestock market in Sangin District, a volatile area in Helmand Province, killing 23 civilians and wounding 40 others on June 29, according to local officials. Residents of the area, which was under Taliban control, blamed government forces, while government officials blamed the insurgent group. Later on, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations determined that government forces had fired the mortar rounds in response to a Taliban attack on their base.
Though the Afghan government’s investigation still has not been made public, last week, Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said the government’s investigation attributed the attack to the Taliban.
Fahim Abed and Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan
BEIRUT, Lebanon — In less than nine months, an assassin on a motorbike fatally shot an Al Qaeda commander given refuge in Tehran, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist was machine-gunned on a country road, and two separate, mysterious explosions rocked a key Iranian nuclear facility in the desert, striking the heart of the country’s efforts to enrich uranium.
The steady drumbeat of attacks, which intelligence officials said were carried out by Israel, highlighted the seeming ease with which Israeli intelligence was able to reach deep inside Iran’s borders and repeatedly strike its most heavily guarded targets, often with the help of turncoat Iranians.
The attacks, the latest wave in more than two decades of sabotage and assassinations, have exposed embarrassing security lapses and left Iran’s leaders looking over their shoulders as they pursue negotiations with the Biden administration aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The recriminations have been caustic.
The head of Parliament’s strategic center said Iran had turned into a “haven for spies.” The former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps called for an overhaul of the country’s security and intelligence apparatus. Lawmakers have demanded the resignation of top security and intelligence officials.
explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant last month. But it was unclear who he was, whether he had acted alone and if that was even his real name. In any case, he had fled the country before the blast, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said.
killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, in January of last year. Israel assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist and a brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guards, in November.
Even if General Hejazi died of natural causes, the cumulative loss of three top generals was a significant blow.
The attacks represent an uptick in a long-running campaign by the intelligence services of Israel and the United States to subvert what they consider to be Iran’s threatening activities.
Chief among them are a nuclear program that Iran insists is peaceful, Iran’s investment in proxy militias across the Arab world, and its development of precision-guided missiles for Hezbollah, the militant movement in Lebanon.
daring nighttime raid to steal a half-ton of secret archives of Iran’s nuclear program from a warehouse in Tehran.
Israel has also reached around the world, tracking down equipment in other countries that is bound for Iran to destroy it, conceal transponders in its packaging or install explosive devices to be detonated after the gear has been installed inside of Iran, according to a former high-ranking American intelligence official.
an explosion in the Natanz nuclear plant in July. The explosives had been sealed inside a heavy desk that had been placed in the plant months earlier, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the former chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said.
The explosion ripped through a factory producing a new generation of centrifuges, setting back Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by months, officials said.
more recent explosion at Natanz this month except that it destroyed the plant’s independent power system, which in turn destroyed thousands of centrifuges.
It would have been difficult for Israel to carry out these operations without inside help from Iranians, and that may be what rankles Iran most.
But the infiltrations have also sullied the reputation of the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guards, which is responsible for guarding nuclear sites and scientists.
A former Guards commander demanded a “cleansing” of the intelligence service, and Iran’s vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said that the unit responsible for security at Natanz should be “be held accountable for its failures.”
The deputy head of Parliament, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, told the Iranian news media on Monday that it was no longer enough to blame Israel and the United States for such attacks; Iran needed to clean its own house.
As a publication affiliated with the Guards, Mashregh News, put it last week: “Why does the security of the nuclear facility act so irresponsibly that it gets hit twice from the same hole?”
But the Revolutionary Guards answer only to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and so far there has been no sign of a top-down reshuffling.
After each attack, Iran has struggled to respond, sometimes claiming to have identified those responsible only after they had left the country or saying that they remained at large. Iranian officials also insist that they have foiled other attacks.
were arrested last month in Ethiopia for plotting to attack Israeli, American and Emirati targets.
But any overt retaliation risks an overwhelming Israeli response.
“They are not in a hurry to start a war,” said Talal Atrissi, a political science professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut. “Retaliation means war.”
Conversely, the timing of Israel’s latest attack on Natanz suggested that Israel sought if not to derail the talks, to at least weaken Iran’s bargaining power. Israel opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement and opposes its resurrection.
the covert, regionwide shadow war between Israel and Iran has intensified with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria and tit for tat attacks on ships.
But as Iran faces a struggling economy, rampant Covid-19 infections and other problems of poor governance, the pressure is on to reach a new agreement soon to remove economic sanctions, said Ms. Vakil of Chatham House.
“These low-level, gray zone attacks reveal that the Islamic Republic urgently needs to get the J.C.P.O.A. back into a box” to free up resources to address its other problems, she said, referring to the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.
Though she noted that she was unaware of the station receiving any threats specific to the murdered women or female employees generally, “Being a journalist in Afghanistan is a risk. There’s no other way to put it,” she said. “Even just going to work or walking home from work, as we saw happen yesterday, can pose a risk.”
Since 2018, more than 30 media employees and journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, according to a recent United Nations report. It has been particularly bad for them, and for other civil society figures, during an increase in targeted killings documented by The New York Times since peace negotiations started in September 2020.
“I feel like we’re living in a horror movie these days,” said Rada Akbar, a Kabul-based photojournalist and artist. “So many people left the country. A lot of people got killed. And everyone else who is in the city is just …” she trailed off, then continued. “Everyone is so silent. It’s very scary.”
‘A Warning to Me’
Mariam Alimi, a Kabul-based photojournalist, remembers the precise moment she heard that the three media workers in Jalalabad had been killed. “I was at my brother’s house,” she said. “I heard that three journalists had been killed, so I switched on the TV, and saw the story.”
The news, she said, was “a warning to me.” She travels throughout the country for her work, often alone. For years, she said, she felt safe enough doing so that she preferred to drive to assignments across the country rather than fly, which she considered a hassle. More recently, however, she has been threatened and followed by unknown men while on assignment. Her clients have canceled assignments and warned her not to travel.
And then came the killings on Tuesday, which felt like a message she couldn’t ignore.
The New York Times documented the deaths of at least 136 civilians and 168 security force members in such targeted killings and assassinations in 2020, more than nearly any other year of the war.