By Kathy Gannon | Associated Press
KOH DAMAN, Afghanistan – The fighting was intense for two days. Rockets and heavy machine gun fire pounded Imam Sahib, a key neighborhood on Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan.
When the explosions died down and Syed Akram finally left his home earlier this week, three of his neighbor’s children were killed and a tank was burning on a nearby street corner. Several stores and a gas station were still smoking. In the streets, the Taliban were in control.
They were maybe 300, he said. This was enough to overwhelm the government troops defending the city, which numbered less than 100. Akram saw several bodies of soldiers in the street, but many had fled the center of the district.
In recent days, the Taliban have made rapid progress in northern Afghanistan, invading several districts, some of which were reportedly barely combated, even as the United States and NATO continue their final withdrawal from Afghanistan. By all accounts, their departure will be complete long before the September 11 deadline set by President Joe Biden when he announced in mid-April the end of America’s “eternal war”.
The Taliban’s gains are significant because of the transportation routes they provide to insurgents. But just as important is that the north is the traditional stronghold of Afghanistan’s ethnic minority groups, who aided in the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban from power nearly 20 years ago and are part of it. leaders in power since.
The traditional stronghold of the Taliban, who are mostly ethnic Pashtuns, is in the south and east of the country.
With recent gains, the Taliban now controls the main border crossing with Tajikistan, a main trade route. They also hold the strategic district of Doshi, critical because the only road connecting Kabul to northern Afghanistan crosses it.
As a result, a worried government this week launched what it called the national mobilization, arming local volunteers. Observers say the move only resuscitates militias who will be loyal to local commanders or powerful allied warlords in Kabul, who destroyed the Afghan capital in the factional fighting of the 1990s and killed thousands of civilians.
“The fact that the government has launched the call for militias is a clear admission of the failure of the security forces … most certainly an act of desperation,” said Bill Roggio, senior researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of States. United, based in the United States. Democracies. Roggio follows militant groups and is editor-in-chief of the foundation’s Long War Journal.
“The Afghan army and police have abandoned many outposts, bases and district centers, and it is hard to imagine that these hastily organized militias could outperform the organized security forces,” he said. he declared.
On Wednesday in Koh Daman, on the northern edge of Kabul, dozens of armed villagers from one of the first militias of the national mobilization gathered at a rally. “Death to the criminals! And “Death to the Taliban!” They shouted, brandishing automatic rifles. Some had rocket-propelled grenade launchers resting casually on their shoulders.
A handful of uniformed Afghan National Police officers watched. “We need them, we have no leadership, we have no help,” said Moman, one of the police officers.
He criticized the defense and interior ministries, saying they were crammed with overpaid civil servants while frontline troops were poorly paid.
“I’m the one who stays here for 24 hours like this with all this gear to defend my country,” he said, indicating his weapons and his jacket full of ammunition. “But in government departments, civil servants earn thousands” of dollars. He spoke on condition that he was identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals.
The other police standing nearby joined in the criticism, others nodded in agreement. New recruits to the security forces receive 12,000 Afghans per month, about $ 152, with higher ranks receiving the equivalent of about $ 380.
The United States and NATO have pledged $ 4 billion per year until 2024 to support the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces. Yet even Washington’s official spending audit watchdog says Afghan troops are disillusioned and demoralized by the corruption plaguing government-wide.
As districts fell, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani swept his defense and interior ministries, appointing new top leaders, including reinstating Bismillah Khan as defense minister. Khan has already been dismissed from his post for corruption and his militias have come under fire for summary killings. They were also deeply involved in the brutal civil war that led to the Taliban takeover in 1996.
Afghan and international observers fear a similar conflict will resume. During the war of the 1990s, several warlords fought for power, nearly destroying Kabul and killing at least 50,000 people – mostly civilians – in the process.
These warlords returned to power after the fall of the Taliban and have gained wealth and strength since. They are jealous of their domains, deeply suspicious of each other, and their loyalty to Ghani is fluid. Uzbek ethnic warlord Rashid Dostum Uzbek, for example, violently ousted the president’s choice for governor of his Uzbek-controlled Faryab province earlier this year.
A former adviser to the Afghan government, Torek Farhadi, called the national mobilization “a recipe for future generalized violence”.
He noted that the government had promised to pay the militias, even as official security forces complain that salaries are often delayed by several months. He predicted that the same corruption would eat away at militia funds, and as a result “local commanders and warlords will quickly turn against him (Ghani) and we will have strongholds and chaos.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Associated Press on Thursday that insurgents had captured 104 districts since May 1, including at least 29 in recent fighting. This brought the Taliban’s total area of control to 165 of Afghanistan’s 471 districts nationwide.
There was no way to immediately verify his claims, and some areas change hands often. Most analysts who follow the front lines say the Taliban control or dominate about half of the country. Their areas of control are mainly in rural areas.
Officials and observers say many people across the country have no allegiance to either side and are deeply disillusioned with the corruption, which has left ordinary Afghans with little benefit from the trillions of dollars in aid. international injected into the country over the past 20 years.
“There is no stability. There is no peace, ”said Abdul Khasani, an employee of a bus station not far from the Koh Daman militia gathering.
“In Afghanistan, under the Taliban, the people are suffering and under the government, the people are suffering,” he said.