Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Between rural Afghanistan and Kabul, civilians are caught in the middle of a war nobody is winning

While the army tries to defend its cities and the Taliban advances in some rural areas, the people trapped in between are trying to survive

A boy stands inside an old tank in Qala-e-Naw, Badghis. Stefanie Glinski / The National
A boy stands inside an old tank in Qala-e-Naw, Badghis. Stefanie Glinski / The National

At a large checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul connecting the capital to the eastern city of Jalalabad, Abdul Hasrat and his platoon keep watch. Their job, they say, is to defend the city from the Taliban.

The uniformed 38-year-old army lieutenant, clad with a matching camouflage baseball cap, and his soldiers are heavily armoured with tanks, machine guns and sandbag carriers. They are trying to prevent militants from entering the city, and hoping not to be attacked themselves. The lieutenant seemed cheerful regardless of what might be at stake.

“The Taliban is about 20 kilometres away,” the lieutenant said.

It is a gloomy day in the eastern Kabul suburb of Pul-e-Charkhi, with the onset of a heavy thunderstorm brewing over the soldiers. In the evenings, when most traffic has passed, it becomes a lonely place. “I lost a good friend last year,” Lt Hasrat said. “It can be a dangerous job.”

His 28-year-old colleague, officer Safi Ullah, said that he feels safe in Kabul, but hesitated when asked about his family. “They are in my village in Kapisa Province because the situation is not good here.”

Both men are part of a special division responsible to ensure that Kabul – and its citizens – are kept safe. “We check cars, licenses and weapons and if there’s any doubt, we won’t allow people to proceed into the city,” the officer said.

In Afghanistan’s war, Kabul is just one of the cities that is surrounded by rural areas held by the Taliban.

The checkpoint in Pul-e-Charkhi outside Kabul is one of the entry points into the capital. Stefanie Glinski / The National
The checkpoint in Pul-e-Charkhi outside Kabul is one of the entry points into the capital. Stefanie Glinski / The National

Whether in urban centres or rural provinces, it is the army’s job to ensure no place falls to “the enemy,” as the Ministry of Defence spokesperson Zubair Arif referred to them.

“It’s no easy task,” he said, because “they are a master of disguise. But whether it’s in Badghis [referring to the northwestern Afghan province] or Kabul, it is our job to save our country and people”.

As a Taliban delegation and Afghan opposition figures meet in Moscow this week for another round of talks with Russian politicians, the group has appeared to gain more ground, surrounding cities and posing an increased threat to both soldiers and civilians. The US military announced in May that it has stopped counting how much of Afghanistan the group controls.

In Badghis, a province that dipped into severe drought last year, two things have visibly changed. Its rolling hills are once again green, but it is not only crop production that has increased. At a closer look, Badghis has become gun-land. Weapons and guns have multiplied throughout its towns and villages, with armed boys protecting the odd remote checkpoint. Here, reminders of an old war are still present. Rusty Soviet tanks are scattered throughout the hills, but new remnants have been added.

The Taliban says it now controls up to 70 per cent of the province, a ten per cent increase from last year, a statement the government is refuting. In his office in Qala-e-Naw – Newcastle in English – Dr Abdul Malekzay, the governor of Badghis’s state-controlled provincial capital, says the Taliban is weak but its operations remain mobile, without a specific base.

“I am not afraid of them,” he said, sat on a thick-cushioned chair. He now wants at least another 1,000 soldiers deployed to his province, estimating that there are around 4,000 troops stationed there at present.

But to the Taliban, which largely surrounds Qala-e-Naw, this mobility might come at an advantage.

Miles away, in the rural district of Bala Murghab, a Taliban spokesperson in the province said that the group is “looking to take Badghis”, He explained that recruitment in recent months has gone well. “We encourage both the Afghan military and local communities to join us,” he said. Yet according to Ministry of Defence spokesperson Zubair Arif, the situation in Bala Murghab is “back to normal, with lots of Taliban killed and the area cleared”.

Regardless of the discrepancies between the two parties, it is civilians who often come under crossfire or attacks, and protecting a province like Badghis – or further, a capital like Kabul – is no easy task.

The United Nations says that 37 per cent of civilian casualties can be attributed to the Taliban, while pro-government forces caused another 24 per cent, including six per cent by the international military forces in the country. In numbers, this means that at least 32,000 people lost their lives to the war in the last decade.

Gul Hassiba now lives in camp in Qala-e-Naw after fleeing violence in Ab Kamari. Stefanie Glinski / The National
Gul Hassiba now lives in camp in Qala-e-Naw after fleeing violence in Ab Kamari. Stefanie Glinski / The National

After two of her children were killed by gunfire, Gul Hassiba, a 45-year-old widowed mother decided to move to Qala-e-Naw, packing just a few clothes and kitchen supplies. Living in a camp with thousands of other displaced people – both due to drought and war –she is still afraid because the Taliban is just “at the doorstep”. She is originally from nearby Ab Kamari district – a few hours walk away – and now lives in a small tent on top of a hill with her four children, overlooking a sea of white tents.

“We were caught between [government] air strikes and gunfire from both sides,” Ms Hassiba said. “We don’t want this war, but we find ourselves in the middle of it.” The Afghan mother is not necessarily afraid of the Taliban as a group, she said, but of becoming an accidental casualty when in close proximity to the fighting.

With tens of thousands of soldiers and police deployed, the threat throughout the country of Taliban attacks is still ever-present. The group’s assaults have increased since April, when it proclaimed the start of its annual fighting season. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan has been especially bloody in the capital, with daylight murders, an attack on a police iftar dinner, magnetic car bombs and a complex attack on US-funded aid agency Counterpart International that left nine people dead.

The building of Counterpart International two weeks after its attack in Kabul. The outside wall has already been rebuilt, the building is destroyed. Stefanie Glinski / The National
The building of Counterpart International two weeks after its attack in Kabul. The outside wall has already been rebuilt, the building is destroyed. Stefanie Glinski / The National

While the Taliban is part of the local community in some parts of Badghis, leaving civilians largely out and determined to fight the government, the threat in Kabul is different, with civilians bearing the brunt of the conflict.

Sitting in his taxi during Kabul’s heavily-polluted rush-hour, Ramin Ali, in his early 40s, admitted that not a day goes by when he is not scared.

“Every morning when I leave my house, I realise that I might not be coming back,” he said hesitantly, trying to navigate through the narrow traffic-jammed roads. Earlier that day, a minibus bombing wounded ten people on a road that Ali said he takes daily.

“I’m afraid of these terrorists,” he said, explaining that most of his family have already left Afghanistan to seek refuge overseas.

“We can’t win either way and I don’t see much improvement. If I could, I’d leave, too.”

Updated: May 28, 2019 10:02 PM

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