Spring on the Afghan front lines

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Danielle Moy­lan — Courtesy: The New York Times

SPRING be­comes Babaji, a ru ral sub­urb of Lashkar Gah, the cap­i­tal of the south­ern province of Hel­mand. Light- green wheat fields grow waist- high, and nar­row ir­ri­ga­tion canals run al­most clear. “It’s beau­ti­ful,” I told Mohammad Sahi, 21, an of­fi­cer in the Afghan na­tional police, as we stood on a sag­ging thatched roof in the af­ter­noon sun. Mr. Sahi smiled, lean­ing on a sand­bagged look­out. With his fin­ger he drew a semi­cir­cle across the fields ahead. “No man’s land,” he said. Point­ing to a clus­ter of aban­doned houses a mile to the north­west, he said, “Tal­iban.” To an­other mass of houses north: “Tal­iban.” Then east, to­ward a dense tree line. He shrugged. “Maybe Tal­iban.”

Babaji, a string of mud vil­lages and shops now largely aban­doned by civil­ians, has been a bat­tle­field for months. I vis­ited a cou­ple of weeks ago, at the end of the poppy har­vest, a ma­jor source of in­come for the Tal­iban. It was also the time of year when spring fight­ing usu­ally re­sumes. But this win­ter the Tal­iban gave lit­tle pause. In Oc­to­ber the United Na­tions es­ti­mated that the in­sur­gency had spread to more ter­ri­tory na­tion­wide than at any time since 2001. To­day, the Tal­iban con­trol or con­test all but three of Hel­mand’s 14 dis­tricts.

Some Afghan of­fi­cials pre­tend that the gov­ern­ment has a han­dle on the sit­u­a­tion. Maj. Gen. M. Moein Faqir, the top army com­man­der in Hel­mand, re­cently de­scribed some of these losses as “unim­por­tant.” In a speech at the At­lantic Council, in Wash­ing­ton, in March, the coun­try’s first lady, Rula Ghani, chal­lenged the no­tion that the “Tal­iban are win­ning.” “Re­ally?” she said. “Then why is it that we keep hear­ing about the same 100 me­ters be­ing lost and re­gained in Hel­mand ev­ery other week or month?”

They shouldn’t be so dis­mis­sive. Afghanistan’s na­tional se­cu­rity forces, com­pris­ing pri­mar­ily sol­diers and na­tional po­lice­men, num­ber about 320,000, of­ten young and un­e­d­u­cated men who were drawn in by the dearth of other jobs and the difficulty of imag­in­ing a life that doesn’t in­volve fight­ing. Since the end of NATO’s com­bat mis­sion in late 2014, it is they who have been lead­ing the war against the Tal­iban.

The abil­ity of these men to sub­due the in­sur­gency is in­te­gral to main­tain­ing Afghanistan’s sta­bil­ity and to keep­ing Afghans from em­i­grat­ing. Their suc­cess is also crit­i­cal for the United States — which has spent more than $ 60 bil­lion to train and equip them — if it hopes to claim some mea­sure of ac­com­plish­ment when it with­draws its last 9,800 troops from Afghanistan.

As of last Septem­ber, about 30 per­cent of Afghanistan’s sol­diers and more than half of its police of­fi­cers were sta­tioned at hun­dreds of out­posts and check­points in re­mote ar­eas through­out the coun­try. As in Babaji, these sites of­ten con­sist of lit­tle more than a build­ing and a few sand­bags. United States mil­i­tary of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that 5,500 Afghan se­cu­rity force mem­bers were killed in 2015, far more than the num­ber of for­eign troops who have died in Afghanistan since 2001. More than 36,000 police of­fi­cers, who of­ten have to fight like sol­diers but with less train­ing and for in­fe­rior pay, are be­lieved to have de­serted last year. That’s al­most one- quar­ter of the en­tire police force.

The next day we set out a few miles west of Babaji, to a police base in Chah- e An­jir, a clus­ter of filthy build­ings around a small gar­den. Its com­man­der, First Lieu­tenant Haji Mah­boub, a hulk­ing man with a Fred­die Mer­cury mus­tache, greeted us with tea and dishes of peeled cu­cum­ber. We talked about a re­cent sui­cide at­tack in Kabul that killed more than 60 peo­ple. Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani tweeted that the at­tack “clearly shows the enemy’s de­feat,” and Gen. John W. Ni­chol­son Jr., the United States com­man­der in Afghanistan, called it ev­i­dence of the Tal­iban’s “weak­ness.” “What do they know about fight­ing?” First Lieu­tenant Mah­boub scoffed. “They sit in Kabul.”

He of­fered to take us to the front line. Soon we were trudg­ing a nar­row path and snaking through over­grown fields, past un­smil­ing chil­dren. Af­ter 10 min­utes we reached an out­post: an aban­doned house pro­tected by a wall that crum­bled to the touch. “I haven’t seen my fam­ily in six years” were the first words out of the out­post’s com­man­der, Ab­dul Ma­lik — thin, with sunken eyes, clothed in a grubby dark- green shal­war kameez. In the past month, the Tal­iban had killed three of his 18 men and wounded seven. If noth­ing was done, the base would be over­run in a mat­ter of weeks, he said. Stronger tow­ers, bet­ter equip­ment and more men were needed. But re­ally, he said, the post should be aban­doned.

First Lieu­tenant Ma­lik took me to a sniper room, where a bi­cy­cle wheel partly plugged a gap­ing hole in the ceil­ing. Two weeks ear­lier, the Tal­iban had fired a rocket. The force blew one of First Lieu­tenant Ma­lik’s men a clear 16 feet into the court­yard, tak­ing part of the roof with him. A few of us sat in a cir­cle. The of­fi­cers had no tea, no fresh wa­ter. They eyed the two un­opened boxes of dates the pho­tog­ra­pher An­drew Quilty and I had brought with us. I asked if there were any med­i­cal sup­plies. Only back at the base, they said. When a man was wounded at night, the oth­ers waited un­til morn­ing to trans­port him, to min­imise the risks of be­ing am­bushed. “I know how to do a tourni­quet,” said one of­fi­cer.

Later that day, we vis­ited an­other out­post nearby. In­side one build­ing, mouldy bread was stacked in a cor­ner. Out­side, in a gar­den with fruit trees, a few sol­diers were play­ing the dice game ludo in the fad­ing late af­ter­noon light. One hopped up to show off a fresh bul­let wound on his lower back. A Tal­iban sniper had struck him as he was cross­ing the road ahead. Now we were to cross that road our­selves. Run, some­one sug­gested, don’t walk. One by one, we skit­tered across it, the Afghan of­fi­cers paus­ing to spray bul­lets in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of the Tal­iban po­si­tions. We went through a field and en­tered the court­yard of an aban­doned school. About 20 sol­diers sud­denly spilled out of the main build­ing.

Among them was Gho­lam Nadi, who mo­tioned to me to look through a sniper hole in a wall. About 50 me­ters away, hoisted up high, two large white Tal­iban flags flapped in the af­ter­noon breeze. “We want to at­tack them,” Mr. Nadi said. But hold­ing up his ma­chine gun, he shook his head. “Look at this,” he com­plained. “It’s not even good enough to be fired at a wed­ding party.” The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.