MAZAR-I-SHARIF — As the Taliban swept toward this northern city last week, I sat with 27-year-old Safidullah Mohammadi, an Afghan special forces commander, outside his military compound on the fringes of the city in the haunting quiet.
Not far away, his forces were supposed to be pushing the Taliban back — only there was no sound. Just an uncomfortable gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach as it dawned on us both that something was very, very wrong.
“We will not stop fighting. We will fight until the end,” he told me with wide and weary eyes. “My men have promised me that they will fight. We have to fight — we don’t have another choice.”
But they didn’t fight. Or at least, they never got a chance to.
The commandos were Afghanistan’s most trained and treasured troops, the core of the Afghan Special Security Forces, and they numbered around 4,000. The qualification course to become a commando takes a grueling 14 weeks, with each hand-picked soldier assigned to one of 10 teams around the country.
While they composed less than 10% of the Afghan army’s numbers, the force was responsible for more than two-thirds of its combat.
Mohammadi hails from a well-heeled family with business ties in Dubai, but he grew up fascinated by James Bond movies and ditched suits for salutes. He started working for the National Security Directorate in 2012 before going to London for military training and returning to join the Army’s elite commandos unit.
“We special forces are ready to fight. We are not thinking about whether we will make it out alive or not,” Mohammadi continued. “For months and months, we haven’t seen our families as the situation becomes very bad.”
Indeed, as the war effort strained on under a smaller American footprint, and the Taliban ratcheted up their land-capture campaign, the commandos were deployed from hot spot to hot spot. Mohammadi slumped a little further forward as if he were holding the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“These days, everyone is very tired from the fighting,” he lamented in the days before the Taliban takeover. “We need more soldiers to stand again and fight.”
Their low numbers aside, Mohammadi and his thinning team had long been fighting internal corruption, a problem that only escalated after the US announced its departure earlier this year, sowing distrust among Afghan National Security Forces officials and prompting desperate grabs for cash.
“There are a lot of our people in the cities, people inside the governments, who are passing information to the Taliban,” he commented. “That is why we are in this position.”
And that position was a grim one — paid for with much blood and treasure. Mohammadi said that he instructed his unit to never discuss death toll statistics, knowing that the number of Afghan lives lost was so high it would have evaporated morale.
The war in Afghanistan is estimated to have claimed the lives of at least 240,000 people, more than 66,000 of them belonging to the military and security forces. Wincing, Mohammadi shared pictures of youthful, smiling faces: the sons, brothers, and young fathers who risked and lost their lives for a nation that no longer exists.
Outside, the small base was largely empty, save for a plastic table in the backyard and a small couch for occasional escapes from the horror of endless fighting. Despite his youthful face, the commander carried himself like a wizened fighter, combing through maps of the latest battle positions and rattling off the many ways that the Taliban had amassed to storm their way toward victory.
The rules of engagement, Mohammadi emphasized, mattered.
“We never want to hurt the people. If we see all the Taliban in a house and a woman, we would never want to strike and hurt that woman,” he said. “That is another reason we lose against them. If we knew it was only the Taliban in this area, we could beat them easily. But there are so many civilians, and that is the biggest thing.”
And the odds were stacking up.
Mohammadi bemoaned the thousands of Taliban prisoners who had been released as part of the Doha Peace Agreement negotiated by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February 2020. Mohammadi said he had warned “higher-ups” that Afghan security forces were simply not ready to take on the influx of fresh, battle-hardened fighters that fateful decision unleashed.
As the northern provinces began falling like dominoes over the past months, swaths of security forces stopped showing up for work, evidently fearing that information was being leaked and sold to the Taliban and that they would be left to the slaughter.
Abandoned by other military branches and local leaders, the commando units shuffled themselves desperately around the bloodstained country, pushing back the ever-growing swell of insurgents. And when reinforcements failed to show amid the fighting inside the northern province of Faryab in early summer, some two dozen commandos were captured and executed in cold blood.
“People are defecting to the Taliban. People want to be on the winning team,” Mohammadi said, appearing both stoic and soft at the same time. “But this is the time we must stand together. This is something we can do — but we need the air support.”
Over and over, Mohammadi told me that they could win the fight if they had air power and other vital resources. His team had no night vision — no way of knowing when and where the enemy was coming from.
Even as the Taliban encircled the ancient city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the skies were clear and soundless. The Afghan Air Force, paid for with billions of US tax dollars, was nowhere to be seen.
Although Mohammadi refused to admit it, he knew — I knew — that the help they needed would never come. The elastic band of security had snapped, and there was no way to repair it.
While the commandos often called desperately for backup and reinforcements, it had become increasingly rare for help to arrive.
For long moments we said little, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, passing the time until the front lines would explode again. It was every morning, when the first glimpse of pink rolled around the ridges of the city after morning prayer, that the first shots of the day were fired.
If Mohammadi was afraid, he did not show it. He was frustrated with the United States’ decision to withdraw, but he was not bitter.
“We just needed more time to plan for this. But still, all my American friends all the time are texting me. Before the soldiers left, they hugged me, telling me they did not want to leave, but the decision was made from far above,” he said slowly, savoring the memory. “They said all we can do is pray for you to win this fight.”
Mohammadi wanted to keep talking, to listen to music and drink beer — a token from the outside world. So I promised the next night we would enjoy life and celebrate another pale victory of keeping the Taliban out.
I climbed back into the commander’s armored truck in the darkness, and we swerved through the snaking streets back into the barren city.
“If you are ready to die for your country, you will never fear anything. We have to believe in our country to fight,” Mohammadi said, his last face-to-face words to me. “Otherwise, we will never win this fight. And I believe.”
The next day, the Taliban stormed the gates at every entrance to Mazar-i-Sharif. Mohammadi moved frenetically from one hot zone to another, outnumbered and outgunned. Then, around 4 p.m., he received the heart-shattering notification that the city had been turned over by top leaders and warlords, such as Abdul Dostum and Atta Noor, who had all left the country, leaving Mohammadi and his men exposed to slaughter.
Mohammadi’s three bodyguards were killed, and he realized that the country he loved had sold him out.
“There was some deal made that I did not know about,” he told me days later when I was able to reach him by phone. “They were all accepted to go into Uzbekistan. But we could not go. And about 200 Taliban surrounded me.”
With a stroke of luck and careful planning, the commander changed into plain clothes and made his way down the danger-filled roads to Kabul.
“They are already looking for me,” he said calmly from his hiding place in the chaotic capital. “But I have no interest to get out. I have hope I can do something for my people. We will come back stronger than before, God willing.”