Afghan policemen take a break as local government officials meet with tribal… (Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson/U.S.…)
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — For most of their lives, Gul and Razziq slept under the same dusty blankets on the same dirt floors. They toiled side by side in the same potato fields and prayed in the same mosque, two poor brothers in a forgotten corner of the Afghanistan war.
Gul, the elder brother, was the first to choose. With no gun or money, he walked out of his home one summer day and into the ranks of the Taliban. Razziq soon followed, but down a different road: to the barracks of the U.S.-backed Afghan national police. The brothers’ decisions have transformed them into enemies and forced them to consider a day they had never imagined.
“I don’t know when I will face my brother on the battlefield, but it’s only a matter of time,” Gul said. And when it happens, Razziq said, “I will have no choice but to fight him back.”
In Afghanistan, personal choice is often all that separates America’s friends from its enemies. Combatants share the same religion, land, language, even blood. “Upset brothers” is how President Hamid Karzai describes the Taliban.
And so the war has become one prolonged appeal for allegiance: The United States relies on tens of thousands of troops and a gusher of development dollars to make its case; the Taliban offers a simpler mix of intimidation and kinship.
The safest territory in Afghanistan is the neutral middle, a space that the expanding war has eroded. Forced to take sides, Afghans have divided into factions, complicating any attempt to end the war — and chipping away at any hope of bringing warring brothers home to the same family again.
Gul and Razziq, who spoke on the condition that only their first names be used, grew up in Bazargan, a village in Zabul province, along the southeastern border with Pakistan. They are ethnic Pashtuns from the same tribe that produced Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban. Since Razziq joined the police a year ago, the brothers have not spoken to each other. Separately, and without each other’s knowledge, they agreed to interviews in Kandahar city.
Neither looks the part of the warrior. Even with his grey turban, Gul, 23, stands barely over 5 feet tall. He has gentle brown eyes and delicate features: a finely crafted figurine of a fighter. He allowed no recordings or photographs but said he could move freely and without fear of arrest. Razziq, 20, arrived in civilian clothes — beige robes similar to his brother’s, his thick black hair spilling from under his notched Kandahari cap. He seemed more forlorn and introverted than Gul, and he told his story in a whisper.
Fighting the ‘invader’
The Northern Alliance, backed by the might of the United States, overthrew the Taliban when Gul was 13. He felt no allegiance to the Taliban regime, but he gradually developed an admiration for its interpretation of Islam. He spent more time at the mosque than Razziq. Gul objected to their younger sister taking classes in a neighbor’s home. His classmates called him “little mullah,” said Asadullah Nawabi, a friend and pharmacist in Zabul.
Gul’s views hardened when U.S. soldiers killed a cousin, Ismat, during a night raid in their village, according to both brothers. “The Americans had surrounded a compound. When he tried to leave it, he was shot,” Razziq recalled. Ismat was a bystander, they said, not an insurgent.
“That was the moment I realized the Americans were not here to build our country,” Gul said.
Not long after, he dropped out of high school and left home to find the Taliban.
“It’s every Muslim’s obligation to fight the invader and occupier,” he said. “I was nervous when I left. I didn’t know what would happen to me. But I was also happy because I was going to join a group of people who were fighting for God.”
A peripatetic life
Finding the insurgents was not difficult. “Anyone can join them,” Gul said. “They are not like government officials who don’t open the door even after you knock 20 times.”
A few days after leaving home, Gul returned with his new comrades. Razziq watched as three motorcycles came up to the family’s home, two turbaned Taliban fighters on each. He noticed that his brother, for the first time, was carrying a gun.
Razziq was disgusted. He had pleaded with Gul not to join the Taliban. It would put him in danger, the younger brother had argued, and would draw unwanted attention to the family. As the eldest son, Gul was responsible for tending the farm and supporting their parents and siblings. As it was, their meager harvests earned them barely enough to survive.