The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Outgunned in urban centers, Taliban wages fierce fight in remote western Afghanistan

A woman in a blue burqa passes by a mine-resistant vehicle parked outside the house of the governor of Farah province in Afghanistan Feb. 12. (Sharif Hassan/The Washington Post)

BELANDI, AFGHANISTAN — A convoy of armored vehicles moved toward this mud-walled village in Farah province, gunners firing nonstop.

From a nearby command post, an Afghan army colonel trained his binoculars and called out enemy positions. Outside, soldiers and police officers milled impatiently in ankle-deep dust, waiting for orders to move in.

Taliban fighters had captured a village police post several weeks before. Now, about 250 Afghan soldiers and police were here to take it back.

“A hundred meters further,” Col. Abdul Jalal Jalal yelled, after a 122-millimeter howitzer shell hit a mud compound and a cloud of smoke rose. Beside him, Gen. Fazel Ahmad Sherzad, the provincial police chief, was on his cellphone, listing coordinates for a possible U.S. airstrike.

Amid the deafening sounds of crossfire, a bomb planted in a cracked mud wall exploded.

Two police officers fell back, slightly wounded, and were soon on their way to a hospital in Farah City, the provincial capital eight miles south.

For everyone else, the battle that mid-February morning was just beginning.

As the Taliban continues an aggressive campaign to control territory across Afghanistan — skipping its traditional winter fighting break while thousands of new U.S. forces arrive to train and strengthen the Afghan security forces — one of the group’s more surprising and successful targets has been Farah province, a remote western region that shares a border with Iran.

The insurgents hold pieces of strategic border provinces such as Kunduz and Helmand but have failed to take permanent control of their capitals despite repeated attempts.

Now they are turning to more far-flung, less well-defended provinces, including Farah and Badakhshan. An isolated farming region, Farah has fewer than 1 million inhabitants and is rarely visited by journalists.

The Post's Sharif Hassan traveled to Farah, a remote region in western Afghanistan, where Afghan security forces are waging a fierce battle against the Taliban. (Video: Sharif Hassan/TWP)

The Taliban has been active in Farah for several years, but the current intense assault began two months ago.

In January, the group blocked highways to Farah City, seized large portions of neighboring Posht-e-Rod district and overran several security outposts, killing at least 43 policemen and wounding more than 50. Emboldened, the Taliban crossed the dried Farah Rud River, a natural barrier to the city, and attacked a suburban outpost.

The deputy provincial police chief, leading a reinforcement unit to defend the besieged men, was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee.

In other cases, outposts fell before help could arrive.

“The Taliban reached the city’s gates,” said Amir Mohammad Ayobi, an elder in the capital. “For a week or two, they overran police posts every night.”

He said local forces were not motivated to fight, and that robbery and theft surged in the capital as the conflict neared. Families fled to neighboring provinces amid the chaos, and angry protests broke out.

The official reaction was swift. The provincial governor resigned, and the police chief was fired. President Ashraf Ghani appointed replacements, and hundreds of reinforcements were sent to prevent the city from falling, including elite Afghan army commandos and U.S. and Italian advisory troops.

In the past few weeks, Afghan ground forces backed by airstrikes have fought to retake lost territory and reopen key roads. But the Taliban has long been entrenched in the province, operating freely in remote and unpoliced areas.

By some estimates, the insurgents now control 60 percent of Farah, while the government controls only the capital and 10 district centers, some of which are too dangerous for district officials to visit.

Nationwide, the insurgents control at least 13 percent of the country’s 407 districts and are contesting up to one-third.

Authorities in Farah refused to provide casualty statistics, but documents provided at a hospital showed that in the past 10 months, the bodies of 225 policemen, 52 soldiers and 39 civilians were sent there, along with dozens more policemen and soldiers who were treated for wounds.

Despite the heavy deployment of reinforcements, clashes continue in some districts.

Farah City has largely returned to normal. Earlier this month, during a visit by a Washington Post reporter, the streets were crowded and shops open. Army and police vehicles patrolled regularly, and attack helicopters circled periodically overhead.

Nighttime patrols were also visible, and late one evening the new governor’s chief bodyguard, Maiwand Alozai, took a spin around the capital in his white Toyota Hilux truck, music blaring loudly from the speakers, and stopped to chat at police check posts and late-night groceries.

“How’s everything?” he asked one officer, who carried a Kalashnikov rifle on his shoulder. “Everything’s fine,” the man answered. But residents were still on guard, with insurgents still active nearby.

“Security is good for now in the city,” said Abdullah Safi, 60, a fruit and vegetable seller there. “But we have two governments — one on the other side of the river, and one on this side.”

Officials and residents said that Taliban aggression is not the only cause of persistent insecurity, however. There are only about 6,000 security forces to protect the large province — less than half the number in next-door Helmand, which is not much bigger but has been a major conflict center for years.

Local political leaders also said that corruption and rivalries among local pro-government strongmen have undermined security, and that the police force is filled with “ghost” positions — fake names of low-ranking men whose salaries and other payments are pocketed by higher officers. 

“Believe me, 60 percent of the police are ghost officers,” said Abdul Saboor Khedmat, a member of parliament from Farah. He said most Taliban fighters are local villagers and that the government does not have enough forces to build permanent bases. When the troops leave an area, he said, the insurgents come back.

Gen. Sherzad, the new police chief, said he was trying to restructure his department, stopping salary payments for 160 host officers and recalling 255 officers to duty who were protecting local politicians. He also criticized the previous police leadership for failing to prevent the high number of casualties on the force.

One slain policeman, Mohammed Ismail Hasrat, 27, was killed last month when Taliban fighters ambushed his reinforcement unit outside the city.

Earlier this month, his father, Abdul Ghafar, came to the provincial police compound, where the walls were decorated with the photos of fallen policemen, to collect his official condolence payment, but he blamed the government for his son’s death.

“A shepherd looks after a missing sheep in the herd,” he said.

Other residents, including the provincial council head, complained of widespread corruption and said local Taliban leaders were dispensing justice and settling disputes faster.

On the other hand, they said, Taliban forces are profiting from drug production and smuggling in Farah, where opium poppy cultivation shot up by 40 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Some officials also said that bombs and weapons made in Iran had been seized recently, but provincial officials said there was no concrete evidence of a link between Iran and the insurgents.

They said the Taliban is openly benefiting from Iran’s proximity, using a highway checkpoint in an area in Qala-i-Kah district to tax truckers who bring goods across the border.

Nooruddin Jamali, a trader who imports cement and fertilizer from Iran, said his truck drivers had been forced to pay about $4,000 in the past month alone.

 The greatest threat to Farah remains the insurgents’ determination and strength on the battlefield. On Saturday, an overnight Taliban attack left 18 troops dead in their camps in western Farah province. And last week­, officials said, the Taliban staged two separate attacks on security posts, one of them just outside Farah City.

In that attack, officials said, at least 20 policemen were killed, along with 13 Taliban fighters. Some police were taken hostage, and weapons and a Humvee were stolen. 

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