Dispatch

A ‘Life and Death Fight’ Against the Taliban in Central Afghanistan

Bamiyan, home to the Taliban-wrecked Buddhas, might be the start of Afghanistan’s pushback against the insurgents.

Soldiers in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province
Soldiers pose for a picture in Du Ab village of Shebar district in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on July 18. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

Leaving Afghanistan

Soldiers pose for a picture in Du Ab village of Shebar district in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on July 18. Soldiers pose for a picture in Du Ab village of Shebar district in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on July 18.

Soldiers pose for a picture in Du Ab village of Shibar district in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on July 18.

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan—The fight back against a vicious Taliban advance appears to be taking hold in the country’s remote central highlands, where armed residents have joined security forces to defend themselves and their property against insurgent assaults.

Soldiers pose for a picture in Du Ab village of Shebar district in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on July 18.

Soldiers pose for a picture in Du Ab village of Shibar district in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on July 18.

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan—The fight back against a vicious Taliban advance appears to be taking hold in the country’s remote central highlands, where armed residents have joined security forces to defend themselves and their property against insurgent assaults.

Most of the early successes in resisting and repelling the insurgents have been in districts in the region known as Hazarajat, the part of Afghanistan to the west and southwest of Kabul where the minority Hazara people predominate, including Bamiyan province. Bamiyan is known for the 1,500-year-old Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban months before the 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S. invasion. Districts taken over by Taliban fighters in the neighboring provinces of Ghor, Samangan, Daikundi, and Ghazni have been returned to government control in the past week, said Bamiyan’s provincial governor, Mohammad Tahir Zohair. Two districts in Bamiyan—Saighan and Kahmard—have also been retaken, he said.

A cooperative effort by police and local militias has pushed back the insurgents more than 60 miles from the districts around Bamiyan city, the provincial capital, according to Zohair and militia and police leaders on the front lines. The wins could provide a much-needed morale boost at a crucial time in the battle to turn back a Taliban tsunami that has traumatized the country. In recent months, the insurgents have overrun districts and border points, surrounded cities, disrupted fuel and food supplies, cut off military logistical support, and forced numerous Afghan army and police units into retreat and surrender.

Hazara tribal women wash their clothes in Bamiyan city on July 18 in a river close to the site where 6th-century Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001.

Hazara tribal women wash their clothes in Bamiyan city on July 18, in a river close to the site where 6th-century Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. 

A big key has been the rise of well-armed local militias. Frustrated and feeling vulnerable as the national armed forces appeared to melt away in the heat of the Taliban onslaught, citizens across the country have resorted to self-defense. Seeing the value of the additional firepower, the state secret service, the National Directorate of Security, has funded and armed what are being called “uprising” forces. The Ministry of Defense may also be playing a low-key role.

The successes in Bamiyan and surrounding areas—coupled with change at the top of the Ministry of Defense with the appointment as minister of Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a former Northern Alliance commander with experience fighting the Taliban—are now being viewed as a possible turnaround point in the war.

“In most places, the uprising forces don’t fight for the government, they fight for themselves, because Kabul has failed them due to poor governance over the years,” said Enayat Najafizada, founder of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think tank.

“Everyone has a gun for self-defense. As soon as the Ministry of Defense called them up, they were ready to fight. They all fight the Taliban. In places where Afghan forces have fought with the uprising forces, there is no victory for the Taliban.”

Bamiyan police pose at their post atop a hill in Ghandak village of Shebar district in Bamiyan on July 18.

Bamiyan police pose at their post atop a hill in Ghandak village of Shibar district in Bamiyan on July 18.

But without an army presence in Bamiyan, the citizen militias became vital. By the time the Taliban assault on the Hazarajat region began in the first week of July, several thousand families had fled Bamiyan city. Fearing a repeat of past mass killings by the Taliban, Hazaras here packed up and drove to the mountains.

In Ghandak village, more than an hour’s drive from Bamiyan, police officers sit outside the ruins of their base as they recall being ordered to retreat from a Taliban assault as the insurgents surrounded nearby militia positions, cutting off supplies and forcing them, after a four-day battle, to surrender. 

According to the base commander, Bismillah Shahidani, his 18-strong force pulled back to nearby Du Ab village for three days. They rested and rearmed before returning to Ghandak to repel the insurgents, who numbered about 50. Their hilltop post was hit by rocket-propelled grenades and set on fire, killing one officer, Shahidani said. The Taliban gunmen looted and destroyed the base down below. The concrete buildings were ransacked of all furniture and stores, including body armor, ammunition, food, and beds. In one room, there are signs the insurgents made improvised explosive devices, using gravel for shrapnel.

Shahidani said that the return a week ago of Zohair as governor, after spending a year in Kabul as culture and information minister, had provided much-needed leadership where before there was no strategy but retreat.

 

The Taliban’s advance across the country gained speed after May 1, the deadline for withdrawal of American and international forces pledged by former U.S. President Donald Trump in a deal with the insurgents intended to end America’s so-called forever war in Afghanistan after 20 years. Now U.S. President Joe Biden stuck to the deal, though has said the American military presence will end on Aug. 31. Since then, a poorly led Afghan army has allowed the Taliban to raise their white flag over about one-third of the country’s 400 districts. 

The return of the Taliban is especially harrowing for the Hazaras, who make up about 15 percent of the Afghan population. Many believe that as Shiites in a mostly Sunni country they are marginalized economically. They suffer regular and brutal mass attacks—including ones that killed 10 mine-clearance workers in June, scores of school girls in May, pregnant women and babies at a maternity hospital a year earlier, and demonstrators against discrimination in 2016.

In Bamiyan and neighboring Maydan Wardak province, both Hazaras and Tajiks say a victorious Taliban would roll back civil, human, and women’s rights; force girls out of school and women into their homes; and generally halt progress made in the past 20 years.

A Bamiyan soldier shows a room looted by Taliban forces at a police base in Ghandak

A Bamiyan soldier shows a room looted by Taliban forces at a police base in Ghandak on July 18. 

“The motivation for the uprising here comes from a very real fear,” Zohair, the provincial governor, said. “People here know what they have gained in the past 20 years, and they cannot forget the attacks on Hazara people in recent years and months. It is difficult to think of what would happen if the Taliban came to control this region again, the extent of human rights violations. It is 100 percent true to say that for Hazara people, this is, literally, a life and death fight.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and First Vice President Amrullah Saleh praised the Bamiyan approach as “a good example of where the defeat of the Taliban starts,” Zohair said.

The Bamiyan approach, given the lack of army presence, relies on militias who work with militarized police to patrol the borders with neighboring provinces, said the head of operations for the provincial police, Mohammad Ibrahim Nazari. So far, they’ve been successful, pushing back Taliban gunmen and allowing families to start returning to Bamiyan city, their cars and vans laden with bedding and other household items, believing they are now safe.

“There is a 180-degree turnaround that begins here,” Zohair said. 

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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