VOA’s Ayaz Gul contributed to this story from Islamabad. Some of the information used in this report came from Reuters
WASHINGTON, KUNAR, AFGHANISTAN — Nematullah Bakhtyar, 29, a member of the Afghan National Army (ANA), was thought to have been killed while fighting the Afghan insurgents in southern Afghanistan in mid-2018.
In July 2018, his family received a body. They were devastated by his death, leaving his parents weeping for the loss of their son. They held a funeral and buried the body.
In early 2019, less than a year later, his father received a phone call from an unknown number that left him in a state of shock. On the other side of the phone was Bakhtyar. The father, who did not want to be named, told VOA that he thought someone was pranking him.
Remembering the moment, the father said the voice on the phone said, “I am Nematullah,” referring to his son by his first name. “I asked him which Nematullah are you? He said I am your son. I told him, ‘Whoever you are, please do not bother me like this.’ After a while, I started to recognize him and his voice.”
The family was given the body of some other soldier, who is still unidentified and buried in a grave with Bakhtyar’s name on it.
Bakhtyar came home a few days after the phone call. He told VOA he had been captured by the Taliban in 2018, when the insurgents attacked his post, killing and wounding some of his fellow comrades and capturing alive others, including Bakhtyar.
“We were in Uruzgan, we put up a fight with the enemy. We ran out of ammunition and the enemy captured us alive,” Bakhtyar said.
This week, Bakhtyar got married, an event for which his family has been planning for weeks.
His family prepared food for hundreds of guests, this time rejoicing, not mourning, as they did at his funeral.
“A year ago from now, we buried his body that was a mourning day for us and today we are celebrating his wedding and it is a joyful day,” Bakhtyar’s father said. “It is God’s grace where we had sorrow on one end and happiness on the other.”
Bakhtyar’s story is a rare happy ending in the Afghan war, which continues to generate countless stories of death and injuries of both civilians and security forces in large numbers.
Earlier this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, revealed that more than 45,000 members of the Afghan national security and defense forces have been killed since he became president in September 2014.
“Since I’ve become president … over 45,000 Afghan security personnel have paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Ghani said while making a case that his country’s security forces have largely taken on the burden of the war in Afghanistan and possess the will to defend their country.
That can be seen in the resolve of soldiers like Bakhtyar, who said he wants to return to the front line to defend his country after his wedding ceremony.
“God willing after my wedding ceremony, I would return to my duty and serve my country as a solider,” Bakhtyar said.
His younger brother is a member of the Afghan Special Forces, and was not able to attend his brother’s wedding ceremony because he could not get approval in time. Bakhtyar did not want to give more details about his brother for security reasons.
The Afghan war is often referred to as the longest U.S. military engagement in America’s history.
In recent years, there seems to be a recognition on all sides that the conflict cannot be resolved by military means alone.
Led by Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. has been holding direct talks with the Taliban in Qatar’s capital, Doha, since mid-2018. There have been seven rounds of direct talks in an effort to reach a deal to end the war.
Ambassador Khalilzad, who traveled to the region again late last month, said this week that if the Taliban do their part, a deal could be reached during this round of discussions.
“I’m off to Doha, with a stop in Islamabad. In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on,” Khalizad tweeted Wednesday.
Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Afghan Taliban’s negotiation team in Doha, told VOA the group is close to reaching an agreement with the U.S on troop withdrawal.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a gathering in Washington that U.S. President Donald Trump wants American troop levels reduced in Afghanistan before the 2020 presidential elections.
“That’s my directive from the president of the United States,” Pompeo told the Economic Club of Washington this week.
“He’s been unambiguous: end the endless wars, draw down, reduce. It won’t just be us,” he added, referring to Trump’s directive.
Afghan leaders, however, see the new deadline as a potential departure from the South Asia Strategy announced by Trump in 2017, in which he said that U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would not be time-bound but rather condition-based.
“The American haste to pull out foreign troops has only provided more leverage to the Taliban. Afghan forces will be soon abandoned to fight the war alone,” an Afghan official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters Tuesday.
Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy, however, Friday said that the potential deal would not be only about troop withdrawals.
“We are pursuing a peace agreement, not a withdrawal agreement; a peace agreement that enables withdrawal. Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based, and any withdrawal will be conditions-based,” he said Friday.
There is optimism about a deal. It has yet to be seen whether a political settlement could be reached between the Afghan government, the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban.
For soldiers like Bakhtyar, a deal, if successful, would mean a new beginning and an end to a war that has claimed far too many lives on all sides.
He said he sometimes goes to the same grave his family thought was his, and prays for his fallen comrade and tens of thousands of others claimed by the war.