KABUL — Just a few miles north of the Afghan capital, a sleepy village of apple and grape orchards sprang to attention last week. Old rifles were brought out from closets and several hundred men gathered excitedly on the main street, hoisting their battered weapons and raising war whoops for the news cameras.
There was no danger of imminent attack, but the villagers were caught up in the spirit of a government call to action that has sounded across the country. In less than a week, militia members and armed citizens in more than a dozen provinces have rushed to join Afghan security forces battling the Taliban.
“We have buried hundreds of young men during this war, many in uniform,” said Sayed Mahmoud Sadat, 52, an agricultural worker and longtime loyalist of the local ex-militia commander who orchestrated Wednesday’s rally in Khodaman village. Such seasoned fighters, he said, were “sidelined for a long time, but I always knew our generation would be needed sooner or later.”
Jamshid Wahdat, 32, a law school graduate who helped to arrange the event, was a child when his family returned to the village after the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. It is a community of ethnic Tajiks that fiercely opposed the takeover by the ethnic Pashtun Taliban.
“I couldn’t recognize our house. They had burned everything to ashes,” he said. The rally, he added, was “to show the armed forces that they are not alone. We need to defend our lands, our houses and ourselves.”
As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with President Biden and members of Congress last week, his country faced a dramatic surge in Taliban attacks that began in the north but rapidly spread to other regions. The defense forces have been unable to stem the offensive, and Afghan officials are concerned that the planned pullout of U.S. troops by September could leave the country dangerously vulnerable to a Taliban takeover.
At the same time, the Kabul government’s call for able-bodied Afghans to join in the fight — an extraordinary appeal to former armed rivals and local renegades that has so far met with surprising success — seems partly aimed at convincing U.S. officials that despite its failures on the battlefield, Ghani’s government and its anti-Taliban cause enjoy strong public support and deserve more help.
Some critics have warned that relying on former ethnic militia leaders and informal local fighting groups could weaken government control of the military effort and risk a revival of abusive and predatory behavior that marred past anti-Taliban campaigns, such as the suffocation of hundreds of Taliban prisoners inside shipping containers by an ethnic Uzbek warlord whose forces have now been invited to join the national campaign.
“Ghani came to power with an anti-warlord narrative and plan for disarming the people. Now his government is arming people,” said Hafiz Mansour, a legislator from the opposition Jamiat-i-Islami party that once led the anti-Taliban fight. “The government should show leadership and manage guns in a useful way. These forces should not become lawbreakers.”
But some government advisers said that many onetime militia bosses have now become invested in the country’s stability and economic success and that like other Afghans who have experienced the fruits of democracy since the Taliban regime fell in 2001, they don’t want to see it collapse or be replaced by repressive religious rule again.
“Everyone has a stake in the system now,” said one senior government security adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “Even our strongest critics have enjoyed the freedoms that came with civilian rule. Nobody wants things to go backwards. Our forces can’t be in every village, and we are counting on the people to help. They are not trying to grab power. They are defending the system.”
Despite the enthusiastic response to the government’s call to arms, however, the Taliban is still gaining ground. In the past week, fighters have reportedly seized more than 20 districts and attacked more than 80. In Kunduz province, a critical gateway to the northern border, militia fighters have swarmed the capital city to help besieged government troops, but the fighting has continued unabated and the surrounding districts are in Taliban hands.
Taliban officials, who signed a peace deal with U.S. negotiators last year, have dropped out of follow-up talks with Afghan leaders and now boast that they have triumphed on the battlefield. In a long online statement last week, a Taliban spokesman said that the group has cleared “large regions” of the country with local cooperation, and that it hopes that “recent developments” will restore peace and security to the country.
The statement said the group “reassures all citizens” that none will be mistreated and invited all members of the armed forces to “embrace the open arms” of their Islamic government and live safely in “liberated” zones under its control. It said that no markets, schools, hospitals, private property or other facilities would be harmed, and that women would be granted “due Islamic rights” and opportunities.
The Taliban statement also fiercely criticized the local fighters who have been newly encouraged by the government, referring to them as “arbakis,” or former local militia members who were notoriously abusive, and accusing them of “fanning the flames of war” to maintain a grip on power. It said such groups will receive “stern” treatment from their Islamic authorities.
But the actual picture in many parts of the country under Taliban assault and control, as reported by Afghan officials and media, is one of increasing conflict and fear. In the past week, the pattern of insurgent attacks has both widened and intensified, with frequent reports that they now involve military vehicles and weaponry that were once in the hands of U.S. or Afghan forces.
Officials and international observers have warned that more than half a dozen provincial capitals could fall into Taliban hands. Perhaps even more disturbing, the insurgents made new inroads as they moved south last week through a corridor of provinces where former ethnic Tajik militias once battled them ferociously.
The major U.S. military base is located in this region, known as the Shomali Plain, and so is the village of Khodaman. The capital lies just a half-hour drive farther south.
Mir Adil Shah, 57, a lifelong village resident, said he first fought against occupying Soviet troops when he was 17, fought the Taliban at home before they seized power in 1996, then fled north to the Panjshir Valley and fought the extremists under the command of Afghanistan’s late militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. He said he had lost “dozens of relatives” in those years at war.
“This is my motherland. I have been fighting for it since I was a kid,” Shah said Thursday. Now that they have been called to arms by the government, he said, “all our people stand ready to fight them again.”
“As long as I am alive,” he said, “I will never lay down my gun.”
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