In the southern province that has borne more violence and death than any other since the war began, the Taliban knows Hakim as the man who can retrieve insurgents’ bodies from American and Afghan authorities and return them to their families and comrades.
In the past six years, he has done it 127 times, carrying letters of permission from both the Afghan government and the Taliban as he weaves through Kandahar in a beat-up yellow taxicab, with dead insurgents in the trunk. Black bags for those killed in firefights. Small wooden boxes for what’s left of suicide bombers.
“It doesn’t matter who the dead are or who they belong to,” Hakim said. “They deserve a proper Islamic burial.”
The U.S. military follows a regimented procedure for retrieving and repatriating its war dead, one that is exacting in detail and rich with ceremony. In this most asymmetric of wars, the Taliban has constructed a parallel process, as shadowy and unpolished as it is effective.
Taliban militants are known to fight ferociously to recover their fallen, and efforts to bury their own do not fade after insurgents leave the battlefield. When militants’ bodies are recovered by foreign troops, a choreography unfolds: Several times a month, a NATO helicopter deposits insurgents’ bodies at a mortuary next to Kandahar Airfield, where they are checked for unexploded bombs and placed in the same room as U.S. war dead. A flag-wrapped coffin for the Americans and a plywood box for the insurgents sit side by side.
The International Committee of the Red Cross then takes the remains of the insurgents, along with a file of information about them — photographs, a description of how each was killed — to Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar city. In the morgue’s register, they are identified by their job title, written simply as “Talib.”
The insurgents often share space in the Mirwais morgue with their victims, also transported by the ICRC. The grim toll emerges in the morgue’s register: President Hamid Karzai’s brother, the mayor of Kandahar and dozens of civilians, police officers and insurgents have been kept in the white refrigerated trailer, imported from Denmark, over the past seven months. A pile of clothes, stripped from the dead, lies nearby.
On a single day earlier this year, according to the register, four police officers were killed in an explosion, a shopkeeper was shot dead and a district governor was assassinated. About 150 bodies come through the Mirwais morgue each month.
On the register, next to the names of the dead, family members have scrawled their signatures or, in the case of the illiterate, left blue thumbprints as a record of who took the remains for burial. But next to the names of Talibs, the same man has signed dozens of times: Abdul Hakim.