After years, the track that leads to Zurmat is passable again despite the hell that it continues to suppose for vehicles. But truck drivers, who can barely step on the accelerator in some stretches, are surprisingly unaware of the dangerous swaying of their cargo. Now they can say that they are going slowly, but surely. Until recently, and for decades, mines, explosives, kidnappings, attacks and endless warfare have imposed their law on this path. This is a war that still keeps asphalt in oblivion, despite being the main road that leads from Paktia province to Paktika province.
The Taliban took over Zurmat on July 2, leaving behind a trail of murders between local officials, members of the Security Forces and civilians. Then, with them in command, the violence began to fade, but the seed of hatred had already taken deep roots in a broken population.
Now they sing victory with a popular and multitudinous act attended by thousands of people, including two ministers of the new government, some from the dictatorship from 1996 to 2001 and historic guerrillas. A true jihadist pilgrimage with clear electoral and propaganda overtones in a place where no one knows when the elections will return. A party in which homage is paid to what they consider shahid (martyr), that is, the dead for his cause. Many are represented on canvas or posters. Of those of the other side, no sign.
From the podium it is epic. “We, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, share our deepest condolences with the families of the martyrs, soldiers of the jihad, who gave their lives for Islam. The United States and its allies failed, ”said Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban government and Deputy Minister of Information and Culture. “The United States and its allies oppressed our people. They bombed our houses, destroyed our mosques and madrasas (Koranic schools). They killed our innocent Afghan children and we will never forgive or forget. ” Some members of the official entourage look at the only foreign reporter as if he were a Martian. They do not know how he got to an event some four hours by road from Kabul that he was not invited to.
Children on bicycles or playing football alternate along the path that leads to Zurmat with the holes from the explosions, the destroyed military posts and the mud villages in ruins. To the left, the neighboring mountains of Shahi-kot, a cave-studded enclave that was never dominated by the Soviets in the 1980s. A jihadist sanctuary in which hundreds of Taliban and members of Al Qaeda died in the Anaconda operation carried out by international troops together with the local army in 2002. Some of those captured alive ended up in the US prison at Guantánamo. All are the object of veneration among the pilgrims of Zurmat.
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That valley and those mountains turned into a mythical battlefield mark much of Mujahid’s speech. “Shahi-kot was the largest and most challenging place of the holy jihad against the United States and NATO troops. The mujahideen and the Taliban started the jihad from this valley ”, but“ the United States used its greatest power (…) and was never successful. Many helicopters, airplanes, military planes were shot down by the resistance ”, boasts the spokesman for the Government of the Emirate, Mujahid.
Large tents erected in the middle of an esplanade shelter the attendees, almost all sitting on the ground in front of a stage with a lectern. The aesthetics of the moment prevail, bearded men dressed in traditional clothing and turbans and young men armed to the teeth dressed in camouflage. Among the audience, the guerrillas stand to one side, each with his Kalashnikov on the carpet that covers the earth, and the rest of the town, to another. There is a special place reserved for the students of Koranic schools to take good note of everything.
Despite the crowds of the celebration, not a single woman is seen. Dozens of huge pots of rice with lamb await outside. A few meters away, hundreds of motorcycles are parked, the main means of transportation for the Taliban in rural Afghanistan. Quite a symbol.
Also appearing as one of the stars of the ceremony is Abdul Latif Mansur, current Minister of Water and Energy, one of the Taliban negotiators in Qatar and head of the Agriculture portfolio of the first Taliban government. It belongs to the so-called Mansur network, which is disputed in this province with the Haqqani network for influence under the Taliban umbrella. Both organizations are important pillars of the insurgency and terror in Afghanistan. They have lost dozens of followers in and around Paktia, and are also responsible for numerous deaths, including citizens who had nothing to do with the conflict. Asked about it, some draw a thick veil in Zurmat denying an evidence that, now that they occupy power, becomes uncomfortable.
“They attacked Afghanistan to destroy the Al Qaeda network, but the leader of Al Qaeda was in another country (referring to Pakistan) and was killed there. We wonder why our people paid for Al Qaeda’s mistakes. Why do the United States and the world blame Afghanistan for supporting Al Qaeda? ”Minister Mansur, who plays at home, harangued from the podium. “But fortunately the power of the Afghan mujahideen increased day by day.”
“Today Afghanistan faces international sanctions, they freeze our money, stop humanitarian aid and all commercial flights” but “the fight is over now. Let’s get together and build a bright future for our next generation, ”Zabiullah Mujahid optimistically claims. Two days later, the vice minister verifies that the fight continues. An attack on the Kabul mosque where the funeral was held for the death of his mother leaves several dead. Everything points to the Islamic State.
Zurmat has sometimes been dubbed Little Kandahar – the Taliban’s historic stronghold – because of its long roster of fundamentalist leaders, especially linked to the Mansur network. This district, traditionally disputed between the authorities and the jihadists, is considered one of the cradles of Afghan resistance to the occupation of the country by foreigners. In this area, some 150 kilometers south of Kabul and close to the Pakistani border, battles have been fought almost uninterruptedly over the past decades. Attacks, assassinations, kidnappings, military operations or the collection of extortions have been the order of the day until a few weeks ago. The dead number in the hundreds on both sides and in almost every family in a trickle that lasts four decades.
Some were civilians killed during dark operations by international or local troops, some investigations report. Those executions did nothing more than stir up a population whose last generations know nothing like peace. In one of these interventions, six men were murdered in Zurmat on the night of December 30, 2018.
It was an attack for which local authorities blame a CIA-backed militia, something the US denied. Ghulam Mohammad, a Mujahideen in Shahikot and a former Zurmat police chief, lost two brothers, two nephews and a son-in-law as well as a neighbor. He is one of those attending the tribute to the martyrs and defends without blinking the jihad undertaken by the Mansurs. “God will help us keep this country stable,” he says, convinced of the goodness of the Taliban’s victory and the support they will receive from Allah to move the Emirate forward.
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