Dangers for civilians rise in Afghan-Taliban conflict
By SUSANNAH GEORGE | The Washington Post | Published: February 9, 2020
JAGHATU, Afghanistan — In one of Afghanistan’s most insecure provinces, government forces say they made key territorial gains during the past year, retaking three districts that had been contested by Taliban forces for years. But for many civilians in the area, the military victories upended their lives and brought ongoing clashes.
Taliban fighters had converted an old fort along the main road in the small village of Say Qala into a checkpoint, forbidding women from appearing in public unaccompanied and attacking nearby Afghan government troops. Despite the restrictions, residents say they found a way to adjust to life under insurgent rule.
Muhammad Nassim, 30, a teacher in the village, said that for months, Taliban fighters allowed his then-pregnant wife to travel with a male guardian to a hospital in government-controlled Ghazni for checkups. But when Afghan forces began the push to retake this territory in September, the road became impossible to use.
Farzona went into labor in October just as the operations to retake her village reached their peak. She was forced to deliver at home and died soon after giving birth.
“We couldn’t get to a hospital,” Nassim said quietly.
Civilians in Afghanistan increasingly are caught in the middle of the war’s shifting front lines: More than 2,500 were killed and 5,600 were injured in the first nine months of 2019, according the latest U.N. report, making it one of the deadliest years for civilians on record. Ghazni ranked as the fourth-most-dangerous province for civilians, according to the report.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense said its forces have retaken 10 Taliban-held districts and four Taliban-contested districts during the past year. The large-scale military offensives were launched as peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban gained momentum and each side sought to use battlefield gains to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table.
The Taliban control or contest nearly half of Afghanistan’s districts, according to a January 2019 government watchdog report.
Afghan and U.S. officials have hailed the territorial victories as game-changers that demonstrate their forces’ increased capabilities. But local officials and human rights groups caution that the ramped-up military campaigns are making life worse for civilians.
The top Afghan army officer in Ghazni province, Lt. Col. Tooryalai Hadi, boasted that control of the retaken districts was key because it also gave his forces control of critical highways that connect Ghazni to the rest of the country. But he acknowledged that the highways still had to be cleared of the Taliban’s roadside bombs each morning.
During a trip into Jaghatu in November to deliver aid supplies, a convoy carrying Ghazni’s mayor along with dozens of other military and government officials passed the charred wreckage of a small car ripped apart by a roadside bomb just hours before.
The blast wounded two passengers and killed another. With only one engineering team available to clear the way, it took Afghan troops hours to reach the site and to move the wounded to a hospital.
Wahidullah Kaleemzai, Ghazni’s provincial governor, said the recent installation of a surveillance balloon helped Afghan forces track where Taliban fighters were placing explosives, “but the balloon can’t see everywhere,” he said.
“We need more people; right now, we don’t have enough troops (to hold the territory),” Kaleemzai said.
Afghan officials on the ground in Ghazni said they will be able to retain the territory because of how their forces are being reorganized — small outposts are being combined to make larger checkpoints that are easier to defend. One such outpost, Baqawal, just 5 miles northwest of Ghazni city, was built in September after the surrounding area was retaken from the Taliban.
Leaning against a wall of earth-filled mesh barriers known as HESCOs,Afghan troops said they largely spend their time waiting for the Taliban’s nightly attacks.
Maj. Niaz Muhammad Shirzad, a young man stationed beside a guard post smelling of hashish smoke, described his duties as “just waiting for an enemy attack.”
Hadi pointed to a cluster of mud homes interspersed with trees just a few hundred yards from the base across an open field.
“At night, the Taliban just walk through these villages. Sometimes they lay (roadside bombs),” he said. “Other times, they launch attacks on this base.”
Hadi explained that despite the predictability of the attacks, the Taliban fighters used only small-arms fire and his men could call in for artillery or air support.
Just 10 miles away at Camp Sultan, the main military base in the province, Afghan army Capt. Abdul Hafiz Bakhman said he gets calls for fire support every night. On average, the artillery company commander said, his forces launch 80 artillery shells per week, but some weeks, it can be as many as 200.
During a recent visit, Bakhman and his team were firing at Taliban targets in the Shabaz area west of the base. “One hundred meters by 100 meters, they will be destroyed,” he said, between calculating firing data and yelling instructions to his crew.
Bakhman initially was adamant when asked about the imprecision of his weapons.
“There are no people living there,” he said, referring to the small village on his map that he was ordering a strike on. As the clashes wore on, he acknowledged that the use of artillery in populated areas risked civilian casualties.
“But there is nothing else we can use to control (the Taliban),” he said. “This is our only option.”
After about an hour, he received a call that the Taliban had stopped firing and that the base had suffered no casualties. He and his men packed away their maps, calculators and ammunition.
“We’ll be back here again tomorrow night,” he said.
The residents of Say Qala village feel “a bit safer” since government forces moved in and heavy clashes with the Taliban have subsided, said Abu Raoof, 62, a farmer. Farmers like him can tend their crops again during daylight hours, and children are allowed to play outside.
But, he said, gunshots and explosions still ring out along the main road every day after sundown.
“They retook the village,” he said, “but the fighting isn’t finished.”
Aziz Tassal contributed to this report.