Pro-government forces make fragile gains against Taliban in northeast Afghanistan
By SUSANNAH GEORGE | The Washington Post | Published: October 18, 2019
KHWAJA GHAR, Afghanistan — Victory against the Taliban in this remote northeastern province of Afghanistan is measured in distance: 20 miles of mud-brick villages and dirt roads.
That's how far Afghan Gen. Yasin Zia's motley crew — local fighters in T-shirts, Afghan Army commandos in American tactical gear, and intelligence officers in shalwar kameez — managed to push back the militants, who had come within six miles of the provincial capital of Taloqan.
"For us, this was a huge victory," Zia said from a dusty hilltop used as a makeshift base.
The advances against the Taliban here, as elsewhere, came at a price. Pro-government forces lost more than a dozen foot soldiers in the battles, both from friendly fire and Taliban counterattacks. And Zia and local leaders warn that the string of villages, long home to profitable smuggling routes, could easily slip back under insurgent control once troops leave.
Across the country, Taliban forces have expanded their reach in recent years, building strength in rural communities and from there launching attacks on urban centers. The Afghan government's control slipped to just over half the country in October 2018, the last assessment produced by the U.S.-commanded mission in Afghanistan.
The fight in Takhar province is one of a series of offensives that U.S.-backed forces have launched this year, as both the Taliban and the Afghan military have stepped up pressure to gain the upper hand in peace negotiations that suddenly collapsed last month. The violence has killed more than 1,300 civilians during the first half of 2019, according to the United Nations. The Afghan government has said casualties among its security forces are greater than the civilian toll but has not released figures.
Stepped-up operations in Afghanistan's northeast are aimed at pressuring Taliban supply networks and finances. American forces are providing intelligence and air support to Afghan ground forces, largely focusing on neighboring Kunduz and Badakhshan, which are home to larger numbers of Taliban fighters and the insurgents' elite units.
"Because the area is so remote, the Taliban have created bases here for smuggling networks and financial operations, these are very important to them," said Akram Anwari, an adviser to the local governor who predicted the insurgents would soon try to retake lost ground. He said the smuggling networks send narcotics, precious stones and metals north and bring weapons and ammunition south.
This corner of the country was also once the stronghold of revered anti-Taliban guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. In the provincial capital, his image still adorns taxi cabs and his name sits atop grand buildings with terraced gardens.
But just a few miles outside of town, images of Massoud vanish. It was in these sleepy villages where Taliban fighters slowly established footholds over the past decade as the group expanded its influence.
"When the government couldn't settle disputes, people sought the Taliban instead," said a local politician, Ghulam Sarwar Sadat.
He said the central government largely ignored the problem until last month, when the militants launched an assault on Taloqan.
"The situation had reached the stage where you could feel the gravity of the fighting," said Sayed Ashrafuddin, a local politician who was in Taloqan when the Taliban attacked.
Ashrafuddin thought the capital would fall, so he evacuated his family to a neighboring province and begged the defense minister for reinforcements.
Zia was dispatched to Takhar in late September with additional forces, but his primary task was to streamline the command structure in a part of the country thick with irregular fighters.
The difficulty of merging disorganized local fighters with a conventional military was made painfully clear early on in the fight. On Sept. 29, dozens of local fighters gathered at the home of a commander just outside the farming village of Baharak, not far from the front line.
It was night, and most of the men were in civilian clothing. Afghan forces on the ground mistook them for Taliban, called for air support and an Afghan plane targeted the house with an airstrike. Six fighters allied with the Afghan government were killed and 11 were wounded, according to the provincial governor's office. The defense ministry acknowledged the mistaken strike but said it did not have casualty data.
Ghulam Sarwar Sadat, another local politician, visited some of the wounded fighters in the hospital. He said they were screaming in agony and frustration.
"They were asking me, 'How could the government target us like this?' " he said.
Following the errant airstrike in Baharka, Afghan forces largely used ground troops as they moved north from Taloqan toward the border with Kunduz. Taliban forces launched a handful of deadly counterattacks, but in many areas they simply melted away.
During a reporter's recent visit to Khwaja Ghar and Baharka with Afghan government forces, shops were open, but the town centers were quiet. A handful of gardens and fields along the main road were dotted with freshly dug graves marked with green-and-white flags signifying martyrdom in a holy struggle.
Residents said as the military operation unfolded, thousands of people fled the area and few had returned. In one makeshift camp outside the provincial capital, more than 10,000 people arrived seeking shelter in the past two weeks alone, according to data from the provincial governor.
Once large-scale offensive operations against the Taliban are complete in Takhar, the reinforcements from Kabul will move on to the next front. Zia said he will reorganize existing local security forces to hold the territory after he leaves. He acknowledged concerns that the Taliban would simply move back in, but he said intelligence sweeps would disrupt existing networks and make that more difficult.
Afghan forces detained one such suspect outside Dashti Archi district last week. The young man's arms were crudely bound behind his back, his hair and face covered in dust as he was loaded into the back of a pickup truck. One intelligence officer at the scene said he expects a surge in such detentions in the wake of the military gains.
Back in Taloqan, after an evening meal in the garden of the governor's compound, one of Zia's commanding officers played a news clip on his phone of a rally held the day before by President Trump in Minneapolis. The U.S. president repeated his pledge to bring American troops home.
The Afghan soldiers shook their heads.
Zia was visibly disappointed, but he smiled.
He hoped "to fight a common enemy" alongside American soldiers, he said.
But either way, he said, "we need to slowly prepare for tougher days ahead."
The Washington Post's Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.