A year of peace in one of Afghanistan’s deadliest provinces
MUSA QALA, Afghanistan — Taliban rule brought an end last August to America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, but for the many here who suffered unimaginable loss during those decades, peace has neither brought prosperity nor healed old wounds.
While a degree of normality has returned to daily life, the year since has exposed the depths of Afghanistan’s trauma and laid bare the shortcomings of the Taliban government.
A recent trip by Washington Post journalists to the southern region’s markets, schools, courts and health clinics offered a chance to talk to people about their experiences during the war and, now, under the new Taliban regime. It revealed changes — and continuing heartbreak.
Health care, education and the legal system are increasingly accessible, a welcome development for those long cut off from even the most basic services. But the clinics run short on medicine and basic supplies, many schools teach only Quranic recitation or allow only boys, justice is arbitrated by sharia law, and there is little Taliban aid to help individuals rebuild.
At the height of the final battles between government forces and the Taliban, hundreds of civilians in Helmand were being killed monthly. When the guns fell silent, markets and neighborhoods that had recently been deadly front lines were suddenly alive with returning families, hopeful for a future without violence.
Those crowds have now thinned and the optimism faded. The province remains gutted: Heavy use of air power supporting intense ground operations left many homes and businesses in ruins, with thousands of families grieving lost loved ones or caring for the injured.
A man named Sayedgul, who has only one name, buried nine relatives after a 2017 U.S. airstrike and remains haunted by the war. He walks through the garden gates to the mound of rubble that was once his home, recalling his previous life as he scans the broken murals that framed the house’s windows and the yard’s overgrown fruit trees.
“My family was punished in the most severe way,” he says, “and still I don’t know the reason for it.”
The cost of peace in Afghanistan
In Helmand province, the news of Taliban victory ending two decades of war and U.S. occupation, was met with joy and relief. This region was home to some of the most gruesome fighting during the war. Kabul bureau chief Susannah George reports on what life is like there now, where a year of peace hasn’t healed old wounds or brought new opportunities.
‘We all need to start our new lives’
The war consumed nearly all of Muhammad Nabi Qanooni’s life. The 25-year-old shopkeeper from Musa Qala remembers times when there were some 50 funerals a day. The roar of planes and helicopters was incessant.
“Now I feel like I know what real life is like,” he said.
When the skies went quiet last August after the Taliban swept to power, he remembers the town erupting in celebration. Locals flooded the narrow streets outside his shop. The atmosphere was charged but relaxed. Many in the town stayed up until dawn, sharing their hopes for the future. Relatives long separated by war were reunited. For days, it felt like a holiday.
Their elation was short-lived. The United States suspended aid payments to Afghanistan and later froze the government’s foreign funds, sending the country into a spiraling economic crisis.
Business has steadily declined for Qanooni, though he admits he is among the lucky ones. His wholesale shop was never damaged, even as fighting raged around him.
A hundred miles south in Marja, mechanic Haji Trojan Musafir had to rebuild his storefront three times over the course of the war. Metal filings littered the floor inside the shop’s single room, its walls stained black by soot and grease.
“Every time I started from scratch,” he said, “and each time I had less money, so the shop has gotten smaller and smaller.” It’s now about half its original size, he estimates, and fewer customers than ever come in to ask for help repairing their motorcycles.
Musafir, who thinks he is around 53, never considered asking the Taliban for help. He doesn’t believe the group has enough money to rebuild the country and doesn’t feel entitled to government aid. “Even with the bad economy, we prefer peace. During the war, not a single bird could fly from here to there,” he said, pointing from one row of shops to another.
Yet watching his village sink deeper into poverty has dulled the joy he first felt as the war ended.
“What else can we do?” he asked. “We all need to start our new lives.”
‘Backwards, to the darkness’
Education was a central goal of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan — touted as a path to a different future, especially for women. The Taliban has put a similar emphasis on schools, but ones focused only on religion. And it has excluded millions of girls from the classroom.
In the last year, Helmand has seen a proliferation of Taliban madrassas, religious schools where students are taught to memorize the Quran and Islamic law. Afghanistan’s previous government attempted to limit such schools, fearing they were incubators for extremism.
In Musa Qala, a mother of three cried about the opportunities being lost. She is teaching her daughter Quranic recitations since girls are only allowed to attend some public madrassas until the age of nine. But she wants her to learn reading, writing and math.
“They told us after the jihad was complete, our children would receive an education,” the woman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “What [future] will she have now?”
By contrast, boys’ enrollment is soaring.
“Now there is freedom,” said Hafiz Muhibullah Mohabat, a 22-year-old student who has been attending madrassa for the past 13 years. “We hope to god, now that there is peace in Afghanistan, even more madrassas will be built.”
One school in Musa Qala has doubled in size since last August. During a morning class, a couple dozen young boys sat on the floor and read aloud from textbooks in Arabic. They rocked back and forth with each verse.
“We are learning reading, writing, grammar and the Arabic pronunciation of the Quran,” one student after another replied when asked what they were being taught. It’s unclear if they knew the meaning of the words they recited. Arabic is foreign to most Afghans and most students do not understand what they are asked to memorize.
“They are learning to become good Muslims, to study the Quran, to pray, so one day they can teach other students at other madrassas,” said their teacher, Mullawi Abdulhaq Hammas.
Religious schools are also attracting students that were once skeptical of them. In Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, they include a former civil society activist in his mid-30s who came of age during the American occupation. He earned a degree from a secular university, but hopes studying at a madrassa will improve his chances of finding work.
“For 90 percent of people in Helmand, the Taliban victory has made them more conservative,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the Taliban. The future fills him with dread.
“This is what will take us backwards, to the darkness,” he said. “In the end, everyone in Helmand will just be a mullah.”
‘My rights are from God’
The Taliban’s sharia courts have long been key to the group’s support among many Afghans. Though they are run according to its strict interpretation of Islamic law, their rulings are swift and decisive.
This summer, a 55-year-old woman named Sherbano traveled to Marja from rural Helmand and entered a courtroom for the first time in decades. The half-hour drive had been too dangerous during the war. Trying also seemed futile: Under Afghanistan’s previous government, the justice system was wracked with graft. Navigating its bureaucracy required money and connections.
Three judges, papers stacked in front of them, listened as Sherbano and her brother explained their dispute over who should inherit their father’s land. They all sat on the floor in the cramped room. A fan in the corner whirred helplessly in the stifling heat. The judges told her that she would have to come back with more documents before they could make a ruling.
Human rights groups have criticized the Taliban’s courts for insufficient due process and use of corporal punishment. But, Sherbano, who does not have a last name, believes the system is fair.
“Under the previous government, all courts were controlled by bribes,” she said. “Here I know they will respect my rights because my rights are from God — they are written in the Quran.”
Dozens of petitioners lined a nearby hallway. Other rooms in the sprawling complex were packed with men waiting for legal documents to be stamped or drafted. Behind a row of stark, bureaucratic desks, rifles and ammunition belts hung from otherwise bare walls.
Judges say there are far more cases than they can handle. Many Afghans have waited years to be heard. And some still don’t get the chance.
Outside the building, a woman with two young children begged to be let in. She told the Taliban guards that she was entitled to compensation because her husband had been killed in an airstrike. They blocked her way. “No assistance is being given by the district office,” one informed her.
The woman pleaded: “I have nothing to feed [the children]. They just cry for food. I don’t have a single piece of bread to feed them in the morning or evening. All of my relatives have been martyred.”
The guard again refused her entry, telling her to go home and wait for aid to be delivered.
“The aid distributions never come to my home,” she responded, before covering her face with a dark shawl and turning to go. Her children followed, clutching at her dress.
‘This destruction is nothing’
Helmand’s war wounds are deep and complex, physical and psychological, too numerous for an overwhelmed health care system that has fewer doctors and nurses now than at any point in the last decade.
In the town of Sangin, roughly halfway between Musa Qala and Marja, a clinic was packed with families in urgent need of medical care. In a narrow area behind a curtain, women holding children jostled for space and attention. Most said they were grateful to be there, despite the facility having too few staff and not enough basic supplies or medicines.
“Before, when the infidels were here, we couldn’t even leave our homes,” Ridi Gul said as she waited for a doctor.
A widow who estimates her age to be around 45, Gul said she’s suffered for years from “mental problems” and described symptoms akin to a panic attack. They started after her son was arrested by foreign forces and held for nearly 10 years. “I lost my mind when my son was detained,” she said. When he was finally released, she added, there was no explanation or apology.
Gul also lost her husband to the war. He was killed in 2017 when their house was hit by a mortar as Taliban fighters overran Sangin.
The same fighters who were part of that battle now guard the town’s devastated streets.
The mud-brick buildings that once made up the heart of the main bazaar — stalls where men sold vegetables, soft drinks and home goods — are reduced to piles of dirt. The concrete structures still standing bear the scars of artillery blasts and roadside bombs.
“Compared to achieving an Islamic government, this destruction is nothing,” said 31-year-old Abdul Karim Zarkawi, a Taliban foot soldier during the takeover of Sangin. “We would fight this way over and over again if the infidels returned.”
Along Helmand’s main highways, wrecked police outposts now serve as Taliban checkpoints. The group’s white and black flag flies over the rubble.
Yet in Marja, there’s little evidence left of one of the province’s deadliest conflicts, a direct confrontation between the militants and U.S.-trained Afghan forces in 2015.
“The helicopters landed over here,” recounted Taliban commander Niaz Muhammed Naqibullah, pointing to the far side of a field as he retraced his steps. The area is now a busy village intersection.
Naqibullah said he’s happy to see people returning to their daily lives. He would have been happier, however, had American forces stayed. He misses the fight. Martyrdom, he explained, is more important than improving the lives of his fellow Afghans.
“For the mujahideen, we prefer the afterlife to this life.”