Fifteen years of regret: The ex-Taliban commander who now lives in hiding

Rural areas in Nangarhar province have seen both Taliban and Islamic State control. The two insurgent groups fight each other here.
(Stefanie Glinski / For The Times)

It was on the day that Abdullah gave orders to blow up a health facility under construction that he started questioning himself.

A Taliban commander for 15 years, he had killed many in his native Afghanistan, but today, the 38-year-old lives in hiding with his wife and five children, working part time as a real-estate agent.

“I joined the Taliban to fight for Islam and for the removal of foreign forces, but two years ago it suddenly hit me. I was destroying my own country,” he explained from his apartment in Jalalabad, an eastern city in the war-torn country.

Since leaving the insurgent group less than two years ago, Abdullah, whose full name has been withheld for security reasons, has been on the run. “They’ve been trying to kill me,” he said quietly, his eyes watery. He looked away, embarrassed, using his sleeves to wipe away the tears, but they keep coming, dripping into his long black beard, making small puddles on the dusty floor in the hallway.


Abdullah, a tall man with black hair and soft brown eyes, wearing a traditional white tunic, said his life is full of regrets.

Many orders came straight from Pakistan, and I realized they were destroying Afghanistan.

Abdullah, former Taliban commander

He first joined the Taliban in his early twenties after attending a madrassa, a religious school, in Pakistan, and soon rose to the ranks of commander in Bati Kot, his home district in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. His five children were born during that time.

Decades of war have taken a toll on Afghanistan. Last year, the highest number of civilian deaths was recorded since records have been kept — a total of 3,804, including 927 children, the United Nations say. In the last 10 years, at least 32,000 people have been killed.

While peace talks between the U.S. government and Taliban are ongoing, the Afghan government says it has been largely left out when it comes to brokering a long-term deal, and since the start of the Taliban’s annual fighting season in April, violence has again increased. Talks earlier this month have included representatives from Afghan society, prompting an intra-Afghan dialogue that could pave the way for the government and the Taliban to negotiate directly.
About 14,000 U.S. troops remain in the country; a brokered peace deal with the Taliban would see large-scale withdrawal.

Abdullah said most of his orders came from Peshawar, a city in Pakistan where many Afghan Taliban commanders still live and are educated, and a short drive — about two hours on well-paved roads — from Bati Kot.

It was the health facility explosion, in which several workers were injured and a much-needed clinic being built was left in rubble, that made him rethink his role.

“Before giving orders to destroy it, I went to have a look. I saw the construction workers. They were laboring away in the hot sun, stacking heavy bricks. We desperately needed healthcare at that time and were in the process of getting it. The explosion leveled it all.”

Afghan woman
An Afghan woman holds a rifle as she stands among orphaned children and grandchildren at their home in the Kot district of the Nangarhar province.
(AFP/Getty Images)

For Abdullah, things changed from there on. The bombing didn’t sit well with him, and he traveled to Peshawar soon after, trying to meet his commanders to officially resign from the Taliban.

“I was beaten and sent to prison for three months,” he remembered, saying he only made it out by promising that he would take up the fight again. In return, the Taliban promised a higher salary; $320 or 50,000 Pakistani rupees, the currency predominantly used in Nangarhar, a province bordering the Durand Line between the two countries.

Yet Abdullah had made up his mind.

“My hope was for jihad, but I was wrong for 15 years. I knew I needed to leave at all costs. The Taliban was using Islam’s name, but that’s not what they were fighting for. Many orders came straight from Pakistan, and I realized they were destroying Afghanistan.”

In the middle of a clear starry night, he fled Bati Kot in a red Toyota Corolla, a friend behind the wheel. His family followed soon after and, since the escape, they have been on the run.

“We move houses — even towns — every few months,” Abdullah explained, emotions once again stirring up in him. “This isn’t easy for my children. They are happy to have me at home, but they don’t understand. The frequent moving has kept them out of school for a while.”

His white-walled three-bedroom apartment that he rents for $125 a month, with red carpets in the living room, is barely furnished, with only a few thick patterned cushions lining the walls. “We pack up often, so we don’t have much.”

Abdullah said it’s time to leave again. He’s eager to not establish a pattern.

It’s hard to say just how much of Afghanistan the Taliban controls these days, and the U.S. military announced in May that it had stopped counting. In Nangarhar, the group continues to hold several districts, while fighters allied with Islamic State have increased their presence over the past years and fight the Taliban.

Abdullah said he’s not interested in joining a militant group again, hoping for a quiet and “good” life.

“It’s not fair what I’m doing to my family,” he explained, sitting next to his 5-year-old son, who was holding a toy gun. His son wore a brown shalwar-kameez, Afghanistan’s traditional linen tunic, a shy smile on his face.

His two daughters sat opposite him. “They usually play with dolls,” Abdullah said.

The children, between the ages of 5 and 9, seem carefree as they run through the apartment, chasing each other in the empty rooms.

“Being with my family is the only thing that makes me happy,” the father said. “The fighter life is dangerous, but so is leaving it behind. Everywhere I go I’m afraid.”

In Jalalabad, he spent the last few months working as a real estate agent, showing properties to interested buyers. This week, he’s packing up again to move his family to a new town in a different province.

Abdullah says the Taliban are now his enemy. “I wasted 15 years of my life,” he said, still emotional and in deep thought.

At home, he’s the kind of father who jokes around with his kids and wants them to be safe and educated. Out on the streets, he walks fast, keeps his head down and feels lost.

“I have one message for them though,” he said about the Taliban. “This is not a holy war, and it’s not in the interest of the Afghan people. Let us stop the fighting. Otherwise we’re destroying our whole country.”

Glinski is a special correspondent.