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By Joshua Partlow

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The moat that had once surrounded the castle walls had disappeared, and razor wire and gun emplacements had replaced the cannon mounts for protection, but many of the old structures remained inside. More than one thousand people worked within the grounds—cooks, gardeners, tea boys, clerks, advisers, accountants, doctors, a palace poet—and another thousand were devoted to guarding it. There were stately houses for visitors and great ceremonial halls, separate stone buildings for the National Security Council, for the office of administrative affairs, for the Presidential Protection Service guards.

Soldiers and Marines in outposts across the south. You could find among American soldiers and civilians those who considered him our country’s best friend or its worst enemy, the only man preventing a Taliban takeover or the reason America was losing the war. President Hamid Karzai was even more of a puzzle. He was the pacifist commander in chief for the duration of the longest war in the history of the United States. On the spectrum of Afghan politics, he held liberal, pro-Western beliefs but had become the scourge of America.

The month of Ahmed Wali’s burial, there were more than three thousand Taliban attacks across the country. During the five years I lived in or was visiting Afghanistan, over the course of that second term, 2009 to 2014, the Taliban were largely nameless, faceless adversaries. No one could say for certain much about Mullah Omar—where he lived, how he spent his time, whether he actively led and guided his troops or whether he was merely a rallying symbol. Hundreds of news stories about the war quoted Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, about the day’s events.

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A Kingdom of Their Own by Joshua Partlow

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