Afghan and U.S. officials declared a decisive victory after driving out the insurgents with airstrikes and troop reinforcements, but residents and local officials say the city remains vulnerable to attack. Security forces are stretched thin across Farah province, a huge, rugged and sparsely inhabited region where Taliban fighters still move freely in many districts and enjoy support from some fellow ethnic Pashtuns.
Even as Afghan officials last week put on an impressive display of weapons confiscated during the 36-hour street battle, some complained that arms are being sold back to the insurgents, that political feuds are weakening the government’s side, and that Iran — which shares a lengthy border with the province — is backing and advising the Taliban.
The war for this remote but strategic region, some say, has become captive to domestic and foreign self-interests.
“The biggest challenge we have is that people here won’t help us,” said Gen. Noorullah Qaderi, the regional army commander. “They hide the Taliban in their homes and then we can’t go after them. They have relations with them from a long time back.” Other security officials said these ties include trading and smuggling of drugs and weapons between Afghanistan and Iran.
Qaderi said he is “100 percent certain” that Iran is supporting the Taliban directly and indirectly, largely as a foil to the Islamic State. The extremist Sunni group, known here as Daesh, has been attacking Afghan Shiite communities for several years. The attacks have included suicide bombings in Kabul and Herat, a major Shiite center near the Iranian border.
“They want to use the Taliban in the border areas against Daesh,” Qaderi said.
An intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, described the Farah attack as a meticulously planned operation involving more than 2,800 fighters who traveled from as far as Helmand province and Pakistan. He declined to discuss the possible role of Iran but said that many local police officers had fled their posts and that if U.S. Special Operations forces did not remain in the area, the insurgents would strike again.
Several other officials, including Farah’s governor, Abdul Basir Salangi, also were cautious in their comments, saying they did not have “documented proof” that Iran is aiding the insurgents. A powerful neighbor and major economic partner of Afghanistan, Iran has denied interfering in the country’s conflict and has demanded solid evidence to back up the allegations.
U.S. officials have said they would not rule out the possibility that Iran was behind the Farah attack, the most ambitious by the Taliban in months. Dana White, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said afterward that “Iran remains the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East. . . I don’t think you can ever rule out their mischief.”
U.S. relations with Iran’s Shiite regime have plummeted since early last month, when President Trump renounced the 2015 nuclear deal that the Obama administration and five other world powers had painstakingly negotiated with Tehran.
Some residents of Farah city said they had little doubt that Iranian hands were involved in the relentless insurgent push to take over Farah province, a potential gateway north to the large border city of Herat and east toward the rest of Afghanistan.
In the main market, jittery merchants pointed out fresh bullet holes and char marks on storefronts, and they described seeing bodies of Taliban fighters strewn on the streets. In the local agronomy school, the halls were lined with colorful posters illustrating tree grafting and bee pollination, but several classrooms were burned black.
“If the situation stays the same, the Taliban will be back,” said a day laborer named Rashid, 28. “It’s a complicated fight. Around here, one brother is with the Taliban, and another one is with the government. But the weapons are definitely coming from Iran.”
In some parts of Farah province, political and personal feuds among local officials have also strengthened the insurgents’ hands. Porchaman, a district once considered relatively safe, was initially reported Sunday to have fallen to the Taliban. By Monday, officials said it was under government control, but local leaders described an ongoing rivalry between current and former district officials, one of whom was threatening to join the Taliban fight.
Elsewhere, residents and officials said the construction of dams had created a second motive for Iranian interference. Iran depends heavily on water from Afghan rivers, and the two countries have been negotiating over water rights for months. Meanwhile, though, Afghanistan has completed a large dam in Herat province and is building a second in Farah.
“No matter how many soldiers they bring here to defend us, everyone agrees that Iran has the power to do this,” said one official in Anar Dara, a remote and drought-stricken district that Taliban fighters overran last month, shooting the police chief dead in his office. “They want to fight Daesh, and they want to stop the dams.”
Last week, Afghan army officials invited several journalists to visit Anar Dara, where they landed in a helicopter and were escorted to the town center by a convoy of war-battered Humvees. Local police officers lined up along the deserted highway, where the officials praised their bravery and handed each an envelope with a cash bonus worth about $12.
Later, in a meeting with local leaders, Qaderi tried hard to persuade local ex-soldiers and police officers to enlist in a new regional security force, which the central government is trying to build so national troops will not have to rush from one flare-up to the next.
“You can enlist from any village, on any mountaintop,” Qaderi said, addressing a group of elders and urging them to send their sons back into battle. “You will have the same benefits as regular forces. You will get your pay from the bank.”
The general thanked the local forces for not requesting any more weapons, saying he had none to send. Then he raised his hands in prayer and added solemnly, “I pray that God will save you and your families from violence and misfortune.”
The elders were polite but skeptical. One complained that the local schools were 70 percent short on books and that the only clinic ran out of medications far too quickly, in part because they were being sold illegally. Another said that most wealthy residents had moved to Herat for safety.
“If we don’t get better security here, everyone will leave,” he said.