Hayatullah Haqdost sat on the floor of his sunbaked living room as he reflected on the decades of turmoil that had defined his life. With his face creased by wrinkles and his medium-length white beard, he looked older than his years. That, though, was a small price to pay for what he and his 11 children had been through. As he placed his pakol hat by his side, his pride and grief were palpable.
Hayatullah had fought the Soviets in the 1980s and the Americans in the 2000s. Now, with the Taliban’s victory representing the pinnacle of his life’s struggle, he hoped his family and his country could finally be at peace. This is his story, but it is also the story of Afghanistan, a land trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.
I met Hayatullah during a visit to my home province of Laghman in the weeks after the Taliban seized Kabul last summer. It was before the international sanctions against the new government had begun to bite, leaving millions of Afghans facing starvation. No one quite knew what the immediate future held. There was fear and exhaustion in the air, but there was also hope — a sense that more than 40 years of political instability and war might finally be coming to an end and that we could begin to put aside our differences and come together as a nation.
During most of the U.S.-led occupation, security was so bad in this part of Afghanistan that I had rarely been able to travel far beyond Laghman’s provincial capital of Mihtarlam. But this time I had no such problems. The fighting was over, and all I could see was the scarred landscape it had left behind. Old government checkpoints were riddled with bullet holes, and photos of dead Taliban fighters revered as martyrs were plastered on shops and street signs in Mihtarlam.
Hayatullah lives in the south of the province, in the district of Qarghayi. In his 50s, he is the father of seven sons and four daughters — a typically large rural family. In any other country, his story would be significant because of its unique and exceptionally tragic arc. In the context of eastern Afghanistan, however, it is significant because it is commonplace. Violence is passed down like an heirloom here, and that can be both a source of pride and a cause for sorrow. Often, as in this case, the emotions are intertwined.
Hayatullah is known locally by the honorific “mo’allem,” meaning teacher in Dari, Pashto and Arabic, because that is what he always wanted to be. In the end, though, a mixture of circumstance and his own stubborn religious conviction meant he would become a man of both the pen and the gun. In 1979, he was a student at a teacher education center in the nearby city of Jalalabad when the Soviets invaded. He quit his course and joined the mujahedeen’s resistance as a member of Afghanistan’s most extreme Islamist faction, Hizb-e-Islami.
Laghman is a verdant, mountainous province ideal for guerrilla warfare, and Hayatullah fought the Russians in the districts of Alingar and Qarghayi. More than 1 million Afghans are estimated to have died in the war and countless others received life-changing injuries, but Hayatullah was lucky. Thanks to what he ascribes to the grace of God, he lived to fight another day.
The Soviets were defeated after nine years only for the rival mujahedeen groups to turn on one another as the Afghan communists clung to power. The war became a fratricidal, purposeless struggle in which killing was an end unto itself. Hayatullah gradually withdrew from combat and returned to his great love: teaching.
After the Taliban first seized power in 1996, he offered his support to the new regime but had no interest in being one of its foot soldiers. Instead, he pressed on with the task of working at a high school in Qarghayi, where he taught Pashto. It was the first time since his student days in the late 1970s that he had lived in peace.
Then, in 2001, the U.S. invaded and Hayatullah’s life was turned upside down again — just as it had been by the Soviets. But this time he had the welfare of his growing family to consider. After weighing the risks, he decided to resume his jihad — convinced that the Taliban’s cause was righteous. His decision would cost him and his children dearly.
As the first Taliban regime collapsed under U.S. bombardment, Hayatullah sheltered several local Taliban leaders at his house in the village of Ghondey. He also called his family together and made his intentions clear. Any new government established under U.S. occupation would be un-Islamic, he announced. They therefore had a religious duty to support the insurgency until Afghanistan was free again.
In the early years of the war against the U.S.-led coalition, Hayatullah continued teaching Pashto at the high school in Laghman even as he helped the Taliban with logistics — providing regular supplies of food and medicine to their fighters. As the war dragged on, he was arrested several times, but each time he persuaded the Afghan security forces to release him. Then, in 2014, one of his sons, Ebadullah, followed in his footsteps and joined the insurgency. The young man’s inspiration was not so much the life of his father, but the death of his cousin, a 22-year-old named Atifullah Farooqi, who had been killed while fighting for the Taliban.
Jihad has long been a family tradition in households across Afghanistan; it’s a rite of passage that has little to do with international terrorism and everything to do with honor and a very particular sense of justice. In 1975, an Islamist student movement known as the Muslim Youth staged a failed uprising in Laghman against the autocratic regime of Mohammed Daoud Khan, who ruled Afghanistan at the time. The rebellion had no popular support, but attitudes here irrevocably changed with the communist takeover and the Soviet occupation. For more than four decades now, generations of Laghmani men have taken up arms in the name of Islam. Those who fight believe they cannot lose. If they survive having fought enemy troops in battle, they are considered “ghazi,” warriors in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. If they die, they are “shaheeds” — martyrs.
Ebadullah was a skilled middleweight boxer and coached a number of young sportsmen in the area. Within six months of joining the Taliban, he was lucky to escape with only minor injuries when a drone strike targeted him and another fighter as they rode on a motorbike in Sangar, a village in Alingar district. Two years later he had risen through the ranks to become a member of an elite four-man team that took pride in being “fedayeen,” insurgents willing to volunteer for the most dangerous missions. In 2016 the team was attacked by U.S. forces. Ebadullah was seriously injured. One of his friends, another member of the team, was killed.
This narrow escape — Ebadullah’s second since joining the Taliban — could have been a wakeup call for the family, a moment to rethink its commitment to the jihad or accept that it had already sacrificed enough. But that is not the way Afghanistan works. After again recovering from his injuries Ebadullah rejoined the insurgency and developed a reputation as a skilled marksman with M4 and M16 assault rifles. His links to the Taliban were strengthened when he agreed to marry the sister of a local commander, Mullah Khalid. Then, just as he should have been entering the prime of his life, he was killed. It was January 2019; he had been engaged for two months.
Ebadullah was shot by a fellow Talib during a raid on a government military post in Alingar. The exact circumstances of his death have never been fully established, but an internal investigation by the Taliban ruled that it was a deliberate act rather than a mistake in the heat of battle. One of the insurgent group’s shadow courts ordered the culprit to pay compensation to the surviving family members, then declared an end to the matter. There was a war still to be won and, from the Taliban’s point of view, martyrs were to be celebrated rather than mourned.
The old teacher Hayatullah had now lost a son and a nephew to the war against the U.S. and its allies, but those deaths did not deter him. In continuing the family’s jihad, he offered another of his children to the cause. This time it was the turn of his son Barakatullah, a young man very much in his image.
Barakatullah had graduated from high school and been accepted to study at Nangarhar University when he joined the Taliban with his father’s encouragement. More than a year had passed since Ebadullah’s death. By now the war against foreign occupation was also a civil war. Although the U.S. still had troops in the country, Afghan government forces were doing the bulk of the fighting for their side. Muslims were again killing Muslims in a conflict not of their making, just as they had done when Hayatullah was in the mujahedeen.
In May 2021, Barakatullah was killed during an Afghan army operation in Mihtarlam. He was 22 years old. Three months later the Taliban entered Kabul victoriously.
Hayatullah, the veteran teacher, is now widely respected in the Taliban’s ranks for the sacrifices he and his family made in the name of jihad. Outwardly at least, it is a reputation he carries with pride. He insists he has few regrets. His two sons and nephew are, he tells himself, martyrs who paved the way for a great victory and no different from the thousands of other insurgents who died fighting the Americans and their allies.
As he sat at home and looked to the future, however, Hayatullah did not seem like a man entirely at ease with his life’s achievements. Instead, he cautioned that the Taliban’s struggle was not over. Now that an Islamic government has been established, he was sure the world wanted it to fail. It was only his faith in God that convinced him it would succeed.