One man spent his childhood in the foothills of northeastern Afghanistan dreaming of being a soldier for the U.S.-backed government. The other secretly applied to a military academy — against his parents’ wishes — determined to prove himself on the battlefield.
Both went on to have storied careers during the war and fled their country alongside other commandos when the Taliban seized power in August 2021. But last spring they returned, making their way to a safe house in the mountains of northern Afghanistan.
“We must stand up and defend our freedom, even in front of anything,” one of the men, Akmal Amir, said in a video he recorded this spring from their hide-out.
The two men — Mr. Amir, 33, and Basir Andarabi, 35 — had bonded in exile over a shared resolve to retake their homeland. They knew it was probably impossible. But the Taliban takeover was so sudden, so shocking, they could not accept defeat; it felt more like a chapter in the war than its epilogue.
So, clinging to the last glimmers of hope for a dream they shared, they embarked on a mission that was practically suicide: to overthrow the Taliban.
Speaking out against corruption
Mr. Amir and Mr. Andarabi were both raised in the high peaks and river valleys of neighboring provinces of northeastern Afghanistan, and came of age around the time the U.S. invaded the country in 2001.
Mr. Andarabi’s family was among the poorest in their district, friends and relatives said, and he was known for stealing apples and cherries from his primary school’s garden at lunchtime. Even as a young boy, he dreamed of becoming a soldier, his friends recalled. To him, the military was a great equalizer in a highly unequal society, a profession where, if he worked hard and mustered his courage, he could make something of himself.
He went on to lead a platoon of elite commandos, quickly earning a reputation for his unwavering dedication to his men. Even when he was meant to be on leave, he often volunteered instead to participate in military operations and frequently told his men that if they could not bring peace to their homeland, no one could, former colleagues said.
In 2020, a video of him reprimanding an official who delivered less food than promised to his men went viral on social media. Food “is the right of the soldier who fights in the dust in the far-flung districts, but here you are stealing” it, he said in the video. That moment made him a face for speaking out against the corruption that riddled the Western-backed government and hobbled its military’s efforts.
Like Mr. Andarabi, Mr. Amir was determined to join the military. After he graduated from high school and was accepted into a university engineering program, the strong-headed teenager kept it a secret from his parents and applied to a military academy in Kabul instead. When he was offered a spot there, there was no talking him out of it, his relatives said.
He graduated as a sergeant and became known for inspiring his men with his humility and eloquence, and for making the locals where his soldiers served feel at ease, former soldiers said.
“He gave a sense of morale to his men and never considered himself above his soldiers,” said a former colleague who preferred to go by his first name, Nabard, because his family still lives in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban made a lightning advance across the country in the summer of 2021, both men strengthened their resolve, even as the military they fought for crumbled and the Afghan officials they served under fled.
When Mr. Andarabi heard that Taliban forces were inching closer to his hometown in Baghlan Province, he rushed there to lead its defense. He rallied hundreds of people to take up arms in another speech that made the rounds on social media. In the course of the fighting, he was severely injured in the eye and sent to India for medical treatment.
While he lay partially blinded in a hospital bed, he received messages from people in his hometown begging him to save them from the Taliban.
“Andarabi was asking: What should I tell them? Day and night, he was thinking about returning to Afghanistan,” his former colleague, Shamal, said, also preferring to go by only his last name, because his family remains in Afghanistan.
Around that time, Mr. Amir volunteered to leave his station in Kabul to fight in Helmand Province, where there were fierce clashes between Taliban forces and government soldiers. After a week in Helmand, he headed to his hometown in Kapisa Province to lead the defense there and then to Panjshir Province — the final holdout against the Taliban.
When Panjshir fell, he sneaked into a mountainside hide-out, determined to keep the fight alive. But with supplies dwindling, he fled to neighboring Iran four months later, where Mr. Andarabi had also sought refuge after being discharged from the hospital in India.
The two men connected in Iran as part of a community of former Afghan commandos. By then, Mr. Andarabi’s once-warm demeanor was gone — a casualty of the Taliban takeover, his friends in Iran said. All he talked about was retaking the country. When other former commandos floated the possibility of starting a new life in the United States, he chastised them.
“When you go to those countries, who will protect your sister, your mother?” a friend of Mr. Andarabi, Bashir Akbari, 32, recalled him saying. “What will happen to your honor?”
Mr. Amir and Mr. Andarabi bonded over their shared determination to liberate their homeland and agreed to link up with one of a smattering of armed resistance groups pledging to overthrow the Taliban.
The most prominent was the National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Massoud — the son of a renowned mujahedeen fighter — and several former government officials. But the group was struggling to make ground.
Its few hundred rebels had trouble getting weapons and other supplies to their hide-outs in northern Afghanistan, resistance fighters said. Many complained that they were rarely paid or not paid enough to sustain their families. Soon, accusations swirled that the leaders around Mr. Massoud were siphoning funds for themselves.
But perhaps the biggest blow to morale was that Mr. Massoud had fled Afghanistan soon after the Taliban seized power.
“When someone raises the voice of resistance, he must sacrifice his life and property and be willing to sacrifice his life,” said Major Sediqullah Shuja, who fought with the group for one year.
Hearing such stories, Mr. Andarabi and Mr. Amir opted to join the only other well-established resistance group,the Afghan Freedom Front. While the group’s leadership was also outside of Afghanistan, the rebels in the country were well equipped and earned around $100 a month. It seemed, the men told their friends, that they had a fighting chance.
The last stand
When the men returned to Afghanistan this spring, they disguised themselves, growing out their beards and hair so it fell near their shoulders. Mr. Amir told relatives he was going to Turkey, confiding his true plans only to his brother.
“Before going, he told me there was a 20 percent chance of survival,” said Mr. Amir’s brother, Mohammad Hares Ajmal. “But he said, ‘There is no other way, and I have to go and free the people from the oppression of the Taliban.’”
The two made their way to a snowy hide-out near the Salang Pass, a critical mountain road that connects Kabul to northern Afghanistan. There, they linked up with around nine other rebels with orders to build an operations center and coordinate a spring offensive between small teams of other rebels.
But weeks later, the Taliban’s expansive intelligence unit arrested two men from a local village who had been supporting the team with food and ammunition, according to resistance fighters. The men later revealed that they had confessed the location of the hide-out, the fighters said.
When the supply of food stopped, Mr. Amir and Mr. Andarabi realized something was amiss. They moved to another hide-out nearby, but once the Taliban military had been tipped off to their initial whereabouts, it seemed the team’s fate was sealed.
Around 11 p.m. one night soon after, around 35 Taliban vehicles and hundreds of soldiers opened fire on their second hide-out — overwhelming the team. The firefight lasted until dawn and killed both Mr. Andarabi and Mr. Amir.
Their deaths marked the end of a spring offensive that never really began at all. The fight was over. After 20 years, and a failed war, the men had lost again.