The rumbling of engines echoed across the valley at dusk as scores of men with mismatched camouflage and mud-caked Kalashnikovs descended into the town in northern Afghanistan.
Many had driven hours down the snow-capped mountains to reach the town and join forces with Mawlawi Mahdi Mujahid, a former Shiite commander within the mostly Sunni Taliban who had recently renounced the new Taliban government and seized control of this district.
For months, the Taliban had tried to bring him back into their fold, wary of his growing clout among some Afghan Shiites eager to rebel against a movement that persecuted them for decades. Now Taliban forces were amassing around the district he controlled — and Mahdi and his men were readying to fight.
“If the Taliban do not want an inclusive government, if they do not give rights to Shiites and to women, then we will never be able to have peace in Afghanistan,” said one fighter, Sayed Qasim, 70. “As long as we have blood in our body, we will fight.”
The clashes in Sar-i-Pul province in June were the latest in a conflict brewing across northern Afghanistan in which a smattering of armed factions have been challenging the heavy hand of the Taliban government — a harsh reminder that Afghanistan has not yet escaped the cycles of violence and bloodshed that defined the country for the past 40 years.
Taliban officials have sought to play down any uprising in order to maintain an image of popular support and of providing peace and security to the country. And it is unlikely that any of the eight or so resistance groups that have emerged so far can pose a legitimate threat to the Taliban’s control of the country. The ragtag militias are ill-equipped, underfunded and have been unable to attract backing from any major foreign power.
Still, the Taliban, intent on stamping out any vestige of dissent, have been consistently brutal. The new government has flooded resistance strongholds with thousands of soldiers who have committed summary executions of captured fighters and tortured residents they believe support the armed opposition, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Early one morning in June, Mahdi gathered a handful of advisers in his home in the center of Balkh Aab. Two weeks earlier, Mahdi had seized control of this untamed slice of northern Afghanistan — prompting Taliban forces to amass along its borders. Now a Taliban offensive seemed imminent. Most of the district’s 40,000 residents were Hazaras, an ethnic minority of predominantly Shiite Muslims whom the Taliban consider heretics and massacred by the thousands during their first rule.
The 33-year-old rebel leader had grown up in a village not far from here and joined the Taliban after a stint in prison where he found brotherhood among the Talib prisoners who railed against the corruption of the former government. A rare Hazara member of the southern Pashtun movement, the Taliban showcased Mahdi in propaganda videos as proof of the movement’s inclusivity — a move most saw as little more than a publicity stunt.
But after the Taliban seized power, Mahdi fell out with the new rulers. Most locals say he defected because of a dispute with the Taliban over revenue from Balkh Aab’s lucrative coal mines. By his own telling, Mahdi left the movement in protest, disillusioned with how the insurgents-turned-rulers treated Hazaras.
“After the Islamic Emirate came to power, the Hazaras have suffered the most,” he said in an interview in Balkh Aab. Hazaras “cannot spend their entire lives like this, whether or not they want to now, one day the people will stand against the Islamic Emirate,” he added.
For many residents, Mahdi’s motives did not seem to matter. Hundreds of Shiite men eager to take up arms against the Taliban flocked to his new resistance militia in the spring. They were a mix of former policemen, soldiers and veterans of the Fatemiyoun forces, an Iranian-backed militia that fought in Iraq and Syria. To them, his defection offered a rallying cry — proof that no Hazara, even one who had fought on the Taliban’s behalf, would ever be accepted in a country under their control.
For all of his impassioned talk of Shiite rights and an enduring stronghold of resistance, Mahdi’s opponent was a weathered insurgent group that would soon apply the full brunt of their decades fighting a global superpower on Mahdi’s ragtag team of men — with gruesome results.
The Taliban launched their offensive in late June, sending thousands of troops through the knee-high snow and jagged peaks to Mahdi’s stronghold on the Qom Kotal mountain at the district’s northern flank. As they opened fire on their positions across the escarpment, helicopters repurposed from the Western-backed government and packed with armed Taliban soldiers orbited overhead.
Despite being outgunned and outmanned, the rebels thought their knowledge of their district’s terrain would give them the upper hand. The area is a labyrinth of mountains and canyons.
But the Taliban found two residents to help them navigate the little-known footpaths into the center of the district, outflanking Mahdi’s forces as he concentrated his ragtag group of fighters at Qom Kotal, according to rebel fighters, residents and a Taliban official.
As dawn broke the following morning, Mahdi’s men found the farms and riverbeds surrounding the district center crawling with Taliban soldiers. They opened fire on the unsuspecting rebels who had destroyed the main roads into the town days earlier — a futile attempt to keep the Taliban forces at bay.
For two days, the town was engulfed in running gunbattles between the Taliban and Mahid’s men. As the fighting raged, the Taliban repaired the destroyed roads and sent a convoy of armored vehicles to hold the territory they seized.
In the twilight hours of the Battle for Balkh Aab, the Taliban turned to one of their tried-and-true weapons — a suicide bomber — to try to flush the last remaining rebel holdouts from the town.
The rebels had taken position in one of the homes along the main drag.
In a lull between bursts of fire, the suicide bomber approached the rebels on foot. But before he could reach their position, Mahdi’s men opened fire, and he detonated. The only casualty was the bomber and a donkey who had wandered into the front line.
Still, the last of Mahdi’s men were surrounded by Taliban soldiers. No rebel reinforcements were on the way. Their only options were to surrender and face what felt like certain death, or retreat. Either way, the uprising was over.
After the fighting ended, Mahdi and dozens of his men escaped into the mountains, eluding the Taliban’s helicopters, Humvees and troops. Twenty-five of his men were killed in the fighting, while hundreds of others hid their weapons and melted back into their villages.
This week, Taliban security forces recognised Mahdi — his face clean-shaven in an attempted disguise — trying to flee across the border into Iran, according to Inayatullah Khwarazmi, the spokesperson for the Taliban’s Ministry of Defense, and one of Mahdi’s advisers.
The spokesperson said the Taliban killed him. The adviser said the remaining rebels were on the run.