BALKH AAB, Afghanistan — 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.
We visited the rebels in Sar-i-Pul in June, getting a rare glimpse into one of these armed groups that, though limited and relatively small, has defied Taliban rule. Interviews with Mahdi, his fighters and villagers paint a portrait of a resistance driven by the grievances of minorities living under an authoritarian government, and by the tortured mind-set of Afghan men who have known only war and are determined to fight.
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