Taliban fighters had converted an old fort along the main road in the village of Say Qala into a checkpoint, forbidding women to appear 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 the government-controlled part of Ghazni for checkups. But when Afghan forces began the push to retake 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 are increasingly caught in the middle of the war’s shifting front lines: More than 2,500 were killed and 5,600 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 Defense Ministry says its forces have retaken 10 Taliban-held districts and four Taliban-contested districts over the past year. The large-scale military offensives were launched as peace talks between the United States and the Taliban gained momentum and both sides sought to use battlefield gains to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table.
The Taliban controls or contests 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 the Afghan 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, 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 the province 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 the mayor of Ghazni city 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 had 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 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 five 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.”
Lt. Col. 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 a week, but some weeks the number can be as high 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 was initially 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, a 62-year-old farmer. Farmers can again tend their crops 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.