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‘It’s all Taliban country now’: New militant checkpoints on key roadways choke off parts of Afghanistan

As Afghan Forces Crumble, an Air of Unreality Grips the Capital

Thursday 8 July 2021, by siawi3

4 July

Washington Post, May 2, 2021

‘It’s all Taliban country now’: New militant checkpoints on key roadways choke off parts of Afghanistan

By Susannah George, Aziz Tassal and Sharif Hassan

KABUL — Taliban checkpoints have proliferated across key parts of Afghanistan as U.S. forces have withdrawn over the past year, leaving Afghan towns and cities increasingly isolated and impeding the Afghan government’s ability to function.

Dozens of temporary Taliban checkpoints now dot the main highways leading into and out of the Afghan capital, according to eight local officials, and more than 10 permanent outposts have been established by the militants along the country’s main north-south highway. Many of the new permanent outposts are checkpoints abandoned by government forces stretched thin by the U.S. drawdown, pushed out by expanding Taliban influence, or both.

Taliban checkpoints are both a symbolic show of force and a real blow to Afghanistan’s already fragile elected government. The outposts — both temporary and permanent — along major highways frustrate military resupply efforts, stifle the provision of government services and undercut confidence in the country’s elected officials.

The new checkpoints have emerged as Afghanistan enters a pivotal period. NATO troops began drawing down Thursday, according to media reports and an Afghan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. U.S. forces are set to reach zero by Sept. 11, a deadline originally scheduled for May 1. The Taliban’s encroachment on critical roadways is one of many signs that the group is undiminished after 20 years of war and appears to be pressing for a military victory as foreign military support for Afghan security forces is cut back.

“It is like we are on an island,” said Mohammad Yousuf Ayoubi, the head of Kunduz’s provincial council, describing the province’s capital city. “I can’t drive more than four kilometers in any direction without hitting a Taliban checkpoint.”

A little over a year ago, Ayoubi would drive himself the nearly eight hours south from Kunduz to Kabul for meetings. Today, that is impossible. Government officials are largely forced to make the journey by air, and if they do travel by road, they do so in armored convoys with heavy security.

The Afghan government has struggled to maintain control of its highways since the beginning of the Taliban resurgence in 2005, but the situation has steadily deteriorated as the number of U.S. troops in the country has dropped.

When U.S. military bases began closing across the country after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, Afghan forces suddenly found themselves stretched thin. With less U.S. support, Afghan police and soldiers could not hold the same amount of territory. They moved inward to protect population centers, leaving large swaths of Afghanistan’s rural territory — and the roadways that crisscross it — largely unguarded.

At the same time, the Taliban doubled down on territory under its control, moved into unsecured areas and actively pushed to expand its areas of influence. With the cessation of offensive U.S. military airstrikes, the Taliban was able to set up permanent checkpoints where highways crossed long-held districts and send out hundreds of fighters to patrol, according to local officials.

Restricting the movement of government officials, Ayoubi said, makes it almost impossible for them to do their jobs. “We used to drive out to the villages to every district and talk to the people,” he said. “Now that we cannot speak to the people, how can we know what their problems are?”

Kunduz has been one of the least stable provinces in Afghanistan for years, and its capital fell to the Taliban in 2015, but it has never been as isolated as it is now, Ayoubi said.

“Day by day, the government [controlled] area is getting smaller and smaller,” he said.

Taliban forces have also launched a series of military offensives aimed at encircling government-held territory in many parts of the country. To prevent increased violence, U.S. negotiators are scrambling to secure a peace deal between the militants and the Afghan government ahead of the withdrawal, but have not announced any progress.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Aryan said the country’s “highways are important for us, and we have taken serious measures to suppress the enemy on them completely.”

He said some government checkpoints that were deemed “not effective” have been removed in recent months and the forces transferred to larger, nearby bases for “strategic” reasons. He acknowledged that the Taliban has a presence on Afghanistan’s roadways, but he said the militants are “scattered,” aiming only to intimidate and extort travelers.

The United States prioritized Afghanistan’s highways as key to both security and economic stability after the 2001 invasion and spent nearly $3 billion repairing them. Now they are some of the most dangerous parts of the country for many Afghans.

“It’s all Taliban country now,” said Muhamadi, a 24-year-old taxi driver who has been shuttling passengers almost every day between Kunduz and Kabul for the past three years. Muhamadi, who like many Afghans and others in this report goes by a single name, works at one of the main stations in Kabul for passengers looking to head north.

Most Taliban checkpoints along highways in Afghanistan are no more than one or two fighters and a flag, but more than a dozen drivers say it is enough to scare away customers. Revenue has dropped by about half over the past year, they say, as most Afghans choose not to travel or those with the means opt to fly.

At a taxi station collecting passengers for the ride south of Kabul, drivers described a similar phenomenon: Taliban outposts sprouting up along roadways over the past year where government checkpoints once stood.

Nafi Pashton, a 31-year-old driver, said the Afghan troops stationed at the few bases that remain along the southern highway refuse to leave their fortifications out of fear of Taliban attacks. He said they often wave down taxis to pass provisions along to the next government outpost just a few kilometers away on the road.

“They give me food, oil, meat,” Pashton said. “It happens a lot.” Sometimes, he said, militants stop him and confiscate supplies; other times he manages to deliver the goods to the government forces.

The taxi drivers said they and most of their passengers are not hassled by the Taliban. “They are only looking for government employees and security forces,” said Wahid, 43, who has been a taxi driver in the provinces for over 20 years.

“The Taliban has very good intelligence,” he said, describing one of the times the fighters pulled a man out of his car. “They stopped the car, and just said, ‘You! Get out!’” pointing to a single man seated in the middle of the car without offering any explanation. After they took him, the fighters let Wahid and the rest of the car go.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the checkpoints are intended to keep “the enemy” — referring to Afghan government employees and security forces — out of Taliban territory and improve security along main roads.

All the highways out of Kabul “were unsecured, so we have posted our mujahideen [Taliban fighters] to ensure security day and night,” Mujahid said. “We are not restricting common people but are keeping watch of the movements of the enemies and their military.”

The inability of government employees to use major roadways in Afghanistan is preventing more Afghans from receiving government services. School principals in Helmand and Kandahar say more Taliban checkpoints there mean fewer teachers — who often live in urban areas — can reach schoolhouses outside provincial capitals. In Baghlan, a doctor said the checkpoints make it more difficult for him and his patients to get to his hospital.

A provincial council member in the same province, Mahbubullah Ghafari, said the increasing presence of Taliban fighters on the roads is encouraging his constituents to arm themselves. He estimates around 1,000 have done so already, many selling their livestock to purchase weaponry.

“What can our government do for us if no one is safe on the roads?” asked Mujtaba, a shopkeeper in Helmand who once drove the southern portion of the highway from Kabul every few months to replenish his stocks.

“I remember before I didn’t want to sleep for any part of the drive, it was so beautiful,” he said, recalling that he would request a seat in the front of the taxi for the best view. But the last time he made the journey by road six months ago, he purposefully sat in the middle of the vehicle and crouched down to avoid catching the attention of a Taliban fighter.

Even though Mujtaba has no ties to the security forces or the government that would make him a Taliban target, he said the fighters’ checkpoints terrify him. He has vowed never to make the trip by road again.

“During that last entire drive,” he said, “I was just thinking, ‘I’m already dead.’”

o o o

New York Times, July 2, 2021

As Afghan Forces Crumble, an Air of Unreality Grips the Capital

With the Taliban advancing and U.S. troops leaving, President Ashraf Ghani and his aides have become increasingly insular, and Kabul is slipping into shock.

By Adam Nossiter

KABUL, Afghanistan — With his military crumbling, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan fired a crucial part of his command structure and brought in a new one. He created a nebulous “supreme state council,” announced months ago, that has hardly met. And as districts fall to the Taliban across the country, he has installed a giant picture of himself outside the airport’s domestic terminal.

On Friday, U.S. officials announced the definitive closure of Bagram Air Base, the nerve center of 20 years of American military operations in Afghanistan, in the functional end of the American war here. As the last troops and equipment trickle out of Afghanistan, an atmosphere of unreality has settled over the government and Kabul, the capital.

Americans have not been a visible presence in the city for years, so the U.S. departure has not affected surface normality: Markets bustle and streets are jammed with homeward-bound civil servants by mid-afternoon. At night, the corner bakeries continue to be illuminated by a single bulb as vendors sell late into the evening.

But beneath the surface there is unease as the Taliban creep steadily toward Kabul.

“There’s no hope for the future,” said Zubair Ahmad, 23, who runs a grocery store on one of the Khair Khana neighborhood’s main boulevards. “Afghans are leaving the country. I don’t know whether I am going to be safe 10 minutes from now.”

The government passport office has been jam-packed in recent days, filled with a jostling mob, even though visa options for Afghans are severely limited. Some of the humanitarian organizations on which the beleaguered citizenry depend said they would begin limiting the number of expatriate employees kept in the country, anticipating a worsening of the security climate.

The security blanket that the United States provided for two decades haunts the Afghan government’s actions, inactions and policies, fostering an atrophying of any proactive planning, in the view of some analysts. If there is a plan to counter the Taliban advance, it is not evident as the government’s hold on the countryside shrinks.

Some intelligence assessments have said that the Afghan government could fall under pressure from the Taliban in from six months to two years. If that happens, the outlook is likely to be grim for Mr. Ghani and his circle, as recent Afghan history demonstrates. Several of his predecessors in the country’s top job have met violent ends.

“The environment is extremely tense,” said Omar Zakhilwal, a former finance minister, noting what he called an atmosphere of “semi-panic” in the government.

“It’s beyond a crisis,” he said, adding: “The mismanagement has led us to where we are today.”

The roots of the current breakdown within Mr. Ghani’s administration are threefold, officials and security experts say: the delusion of security provided by the Americans, whose determination to leave was never fully believed by civilian or military leadership; the tactical disconnect between conventional Afghan forces and the more nimble guerrilla Taliban; and the reduction of the government to the person of Mr. Ghani himself and a handful of aides, foreign-educated, some with families safely abroad.

The first fatal weakness has been festering for years. With American might always ready to push the Taliban back, the inclination toward an aggressive self-defense posture withered.

“They didn’t have a strategic plan for when the Americans leave,” said Gen. Hilaluddin Hilal, a former deputy defense minister.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, acknowledged as much at a recent meeting: “We were not ready for the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan,” he said.

More than a quarter of the country’s 421 districts have been seized by the insurgents since early May, in a sweeping campaign that has largely targeted Afghanistan’s north and even seen some provincial capitals besieged by Taliban fighters.

In some places, government forces are surrendering without a fight, often because they have run out of ammunition and the government doesn’t send more supplies or reinforcements.

The tactical mismanagement of the Afghan military and police forces is a rerun on a smaller scale of losing battles fought against insurgent groups for 40 years.

“You have a highly centralized military fighting a war against a highly decentralized insurgency, fighting an irregular war,” said Tamim Asey, a former deputy minister of defense who now leads a think tank in Kabul. “That is a recipe for disaster.”

It is a lesson painfully inflicted, but barely learned, in over two centuries of warfare in Afghanistan. “We see history repeating itself in this country: A proxy insurgency is coming from rural areas to take power,” Mr. Asey said.

“It’s not about one person. It’s about the leadership,” said Hadi Khalid, a retired lieutenant general. “Our security leadership didn’t think it was its job to prepare a self-defense.”

Mr. Ghani’s newly appointed acting defense minister, Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a grizzled veteran of previous wars, declined an interview request, saying through a spokesman that he did not want to speak to the news media until he had a record of accomplishment. Junior army officers expressed guarded confidence while noting that they had no choice but to fight.

Recent days have seen government forces regain control of key districts in the northern city of Kunduz. But since the new cabinet appointments, more than a dozen additional districts have fallen.

Humvees, weapons and piles of ammunition have fallen into Taliban hands, much of it paraded triumphantly on videos released on social media by the group’s propagandists. The insurgents have even made easy inroads in northern provinces far from their homelands in southern Afghanistan, areas they struggled to capture in their mid-1990s takeover.

Yet the government seems detached from the onslaught on its soldiers and citizens. In the wealthier neighborhoods of Kabul, a frequent high-stakes poker game, with as much as $120,000 on the table, includes government officials, several people who have observed the game told The New York Times. At least one observer said he had seen people in positions of responsibility at the game, which he deplored as misguided at a time of national crisis.

Not a single official showed up last month to a memorial for the nearly 70 schoolgirls who were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Kabul in May. Grieving mothers wept quietly into their black robes; the government sent a bare handful of police officers to protect the mourners, vulnerable members of the Hazara ethnic minority, like the victims.

Accordingly, citizen militias are on the rise again in Afghanistan, with various ethnic and regional factions stirring up a volunteer effort to defend themselves against the Taliban’s advance.

On one level, the militia movement could inspire some hope that a large-scale collapse will not be immediate. But for many Afghans, the mustering is so evocative of the country’s devastating civil-war era that many fear it is a harbinger of greater chaos to come, with the war of insurgency fracturing into a multi-sided conflict with no central command against the Taliban.

Officials inside the government, along with those who have left it, describe an atmosphere of improvisation, a bureaucracy caught off guard despite weeks of warning signs — even before the latest advance, the Taliban were slowly picking off districts — and the absence of a coherent plan.

Midlevel officials in the presidential palace expressed concern that they hadn’t been made aware of any plan to counter the Taliban amid their assault. Some officials insisted that there was a plan in place, though they couldn’t articulate what it was. A Western diplomat who was not authorized to speak publicly said he had detected signs that a sort of strategy was finally being implemented: abandoning nonstrategic rural districts to better consolidate remaining troops in places of value to the government.

Public pronouncements are largely limited to ringing denunciations of the Taliban and vows to defeat them, with no hint as to how the government intends to do so. As a result, Afghanistan’s citizens are in the dark, worried, and rapidly losing whatever confidence they may once have had in Mr. Ghani

“There is no response. They don’t have a counteroffensive strategy,” said Mr. Asey, the former deputy defense minister. “Nobody knows what it is.”