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With US troops gone, Taliban expands influence in one Afghan province

Outposts like this one, on the road leading to the Taliban-controlled Zurmat district, often come under attack, especially during the night.

LORENZO TUGNOLI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By SUSANNAH GEORGE AND AZIZ TASSAL | The Washington Post | Published: October 10, 2020

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — Months after the Americans withdrew from this province in southeast Afghanistan, what little they left behind still lies scattered across the small military base: rations packaging for chicken pesto pasta, Rice Krispies cereal boxes, instant chocolate milk packets. Inside trailers, the floors are littered with Christmas decorations and letters from schoolchildren addressed "Dear soldier."

The U.S. military vacated Forward Operating Base Lightning in March, less than a month after American and Taliban leaders signed a peace deal that set in motion a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.

On a recent day this month, only trash, splintered plywood, crushed metal trailers and mounds of twisted wire remained where hundreds of American troops once trained Afghan forces, launched joint operations and conducted surveillance missions.

But outside the base, Afghan officials say, the U.S. withdrawal has had an outsized impact. Targeted killings are on the rise, school attendance is down, and Taliban fighters are expanding their areas of influence, according to residents and officials.

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What has happened in Paktia province, just a few hours' drive from Kabul, in the months since the departure of U.S. forces in March provides a glimpse into what might await other parts of the country as the Trump administration looks to pull out thousands more troops in the coming weeks - and possibly to withdraw completely by Christmas.

The U.S. facility in Gardez was part of a larger Afghan base that is still in operation. Afghan security forces stationed here said they began to suspect something was changing when helicopters began carrying away containers full of equipment from the installation, at times making five trips a day, Afghan Army Maj. Jan Aga Safi said.

"All they left for us was garbage," he said, walking through the debris. "This is their legacy."

Resolute Support, the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, said in a statement that the decision to close the base was part of the "U.S.-Taliban agreement."

"The 203rd Corps [the Afghan army unit in Paktia] has demonstrated they are fully capable of executing operations independent of U.S./coalition forces," said the statement from the U.S. military command's media office.

The Afghan unit's "professionalism and ability to provide security for the Afghan people allowed us" to hand over the base, the statement added.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement inked in Doha in February called for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces and a halt to U.S. offensive operations if certain conditions were met. In keeping with the agreement, U.S. troop numbers dropped from 12,000 in February to 8,600 in July - including the base closure in Paktia province - and further reductions would come if the Taliban abided by its commitment to cut ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

 

The future of the counterterrorism fight in Afghanistan has been a chief concern of U.S. officials for years as diplomats struggled to hammer out a peace deal with the Taliban. Al-Qaida used Afghanistan as a base to plan and execute the Sept. 11 attacks that ultimately drew the United States into nearly two decades of war. Now, many current and former U.S. officials fear a complete U.S. withdrawal could create a power vacuum, allowing similar groups to use Afghan territory to carry out terrorism abroad.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to undercut the "conditions-based" aspect of the deal. He tweeted that the "small remaining number" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be home by Christmas, generating confusion among U.S. officials who said no such orders had been given. Trump's tweet contradicted White House national security adviser Robert C. O'Brien, who said earlier Wednesday that troops levels are "under 5,000" and will drop to 2,500 by early next year.

In Paktia, the absence of U.S. presence has meant intelligence sharing with local security forces is slower and less frequent, air support for surveillance is in shorter supply, and morale is low, according to provincial Gov. Halim Fidai. The Afghan forces left at the base just southeast of the city center say they feel abandoned and more exposed.

The province is not heavily contested by the Taliban, and while the militants have stepped up the number of low-level attacks in the months since the U.S. base closure, they have not attempted to push into urban areas. Instead, the fighters have consolidated the territory they have held for years and broadened intimidation campaigns into rural areas both contested and government-held, Fidai said. Taliban forces control or contest roughly half of Afghanistan.

Brig. Gen. Gada Muhammad Dust, the deputy Afghan army commander of the country's southeast region, downplayed the impact of the U.S. base closing. But he acknowledged that for his forces to return to the offensive, they would need close U.S. support.

Following the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, Afghan security forces halted most offensive operations, taking up an "active defense" posture that the Afghan president describes as a gesture of goodwill.

Without U.S. troops alongside his men in Gardez, Dust said joint patrols have been suspended, and ground operations against militant groups other than the Taliban have nearly come to a halt. Paktia is home to several local armed groups that are not formally aligned with the Taliban or any other large militant organization, such as the Islamic State.

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"One hundred percent it is more difficult now," he said of maintaining security in Paktia.

For the residents of Paktia, targeted killings - small attacks carried out on specific individuals or groups - have sown the most unease in the months following the U.S. base closure. The trend is not specific to this province; in the months since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, such killings have increased nationwide in Afghanistan.

In districts under Taliban control, the militants' checkpoints have multiplied. No longer under constant threat of air and drone strikes, many of those checkpoints have become permanent, and their bases are being visibly fortified, according to local security officials.

At the edge of one Taliban-controlled district, Zurmat, just outside Gardez, a commander of a local militia allied with the government said the increase in Taliban activity has been shocking. Adil, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used to speak to the press, said his outpost receives gunfire from the direction of Zurmat to the west, but also from inside a small cluster of shops within government-held territory just northeast of him.

His post had previously been held by the Afghan police, but once close U.S. support was withdrawn in Paktia, the government's regular forces were increasingly stretched thin in Gardez. Police and army units were moved in closer to the center of the provincial capital, leaving less well-trained men like Adil stationed at checkpoints along the periphery.

As he spoke, a battered Humvee pulled up to the outpost. It had rolled over a roadside bomb just moments before. One Afghan army soldier had been killed in the blast, and another was wounded. Both were whisked away by an ambulance as their fellow soldiers, dazed with grief, poured water onto the vehicle's smoking engine, damaged in the blast.

No one wanted to speak about the incident, but one young soldier complained incoherently to a senior local interior ministry official, Ahmad Hamid, who was at the scene.

Hamid shook his head as he walked away. "Attacks like these happen every day now," he said. Over the past six months, there have been over 450 attacks in Paktia province alone, more than twice as many as a normal six-month period before the signing of the peace deal, according to data from the governor's office.

On the provincial capital's northeastern edge, dozens of children attend a modest government school. The building was overflowing. Older children are taught indoors, while classes for younger students are held outside on the ground in an adjacent dirt lot.

Abdullah Ahmedzai, the school's acting director, said these are only a fraction of the students who normally attend. Government-run education has only recently resumed in Afghanistan after being closed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ahmedzai said while few Afghan families fear the spread of coronavirus, it has been a struggle to convince parents that their students will be safe from violence.

Just days before, one of the school's teachers was targeted while walking to work by gunmen on a motorbike. Ahmedzai inhaled deeply and closed his eyes when recounting the story.

"Not a single person is safe from these attacks," he said, holding back tears. He explained the man had been shot several times but survived. And just days before that, Ahmedzai said, he received an anonymous phone call of a man's voice threatening to kill him if he didn't cease working for a government school.

Taj Muhammad Mangal, a provincial council member from Paktia, said Taliban threats against schools are on the rise across the province. He said a number of schools have been forcibly closed by hard-line Taliban fighters who object to any education that doesn't follow the model of a madrassa, a school that primarily teaches the Koran and Islamic law.

"Everyone is just fighting for themselves, no one cares for this country," Ahmedzai, the school director, said, his face contorted with stress and grief. "I'm exhausted by this situation. I don't want to live here anymore. I want to go somewhere where I don't know anyone."
 

Forward Operating Base Lightning was a U.S. military base in southeast Afghanistan. The military vacated the base in March after the signing of a peace deal that set in motion a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
LORENZO TUGNOLI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST