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A Desperate Battle, and a Victory for Now, at a Remote Afghan Outpost

CHAKARAN, Afghanistan — In one of the most remote places in Afghanistan, government forces this month managed to achieve something vanishingly rare these days: They clawed back not one but three districts from the Taliban’s grip.

But the cost was high, and the victory was tenuous. Even as the Afghan forces turned their attention toward defending their gains against fierce Taliban counterattacks in Badakhshan Province, paramilitary fighters were swamped by grief: One of their most revered commanders, Najmullah, was among the dead.

His men washed and wrapped his body carefully in white cloth, then loaded it onto a police pickup. They followed behind with heads bowed, weapons strapped across their backs and the morning sun glinting off their ammunition bandoleers.

A visit by New York Times journalists to Badakhshan, a far-northern spit of Afghanistan sandwiched by Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, showed the desperate nature of a fight in a place cut off from the rest of the country for months every year by winter storms and rugged terrain.

Even the insurgency looks different here: Al Qaeda and Islamic State loyalists are mashed together with the Taliban in fighting the Afghan government, officials say, in a tenacious insurgent force bolstered by a few hundred foreign fighters from Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China and Turkmenistan.

Badakhshan’s natural resources and strategic location fuels and finances much of the fighting. Its hillsides are carved by lapis lazuli and gold mines, and its road networks are vital drug trafficking routes that link the trade in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

The government operation to regain the three districts here, with the heaviest fighting falling on Sept. 7, cleared sections of an important roadway leading to Tajikistan and drove insurgents into a retreat to the mountains.

The offensive cobbled together every resource the besieged military could muster — the local police, the national police, the Afghan Army, the national intelligence service and most importantly, United States warplanes. Airstrikes destroyed Taliban heavy weapon emplacements dug into the mountains, local commanders said, turning the tide of battle.

“Our men fought hard, but without air support from the Americans we could not have taken this district,” said Habibullah Rahman Sharifi, a local commander.

The government intelligence commander in Badakhshan, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hanif Nuristani, said the government hoped to push forward and take more districts. When asked whether that would be possible without more American airstrikes, the general pursed his lips and shook his head no — a particularly sobering assessment given that the Afghan security forces all know of American efforts to negotiate a final troop withdrawal.

A few days after the government’s initial victory, the Taliban counterattacked from three surrounding mountains, sending mortar rounds and rockets crashing down on the government fighters holding the center of Wardoj District, in an eight-hour battle.

Commander Najmullah went down, and four paramilitary police officers also were killed. They, too, were later taken to a cemetery in police trucks, shrouded in green cloth as martyrs of war.

Several soldiers and police officers in Wardoj said the Taliban nearly succeeded in retaking the district. The insurgents had maneuvered so close to government positions that airstrikes were too risky — the military term is “danger close.”

The morning after the battle, an Afghan Army unit was dug in along the rutted dirt roadway just east of the village. Soldiers said at least 50 rocket-propelled grenades had slammed into their positions the night before, killing one soldier and wounding two others.

This was the front line. The morning silence was shattered by the whump-whump of Taliban heavy machine gun fire from the mountains above.

The deputy commander, Lt. Col. Khizer Mohammad Darwazi, leisurely sought cover behind a Humvee. He pointed to the rocky gray mountains surrounding his men’s positions.

“The enemy is right there — they’re watching us,” he said. “They are bringing every weapon they have against us because this area is strategic for them.”

First Lt. Zia Ahmad said the Taliban had strong support from local residents. On the other hand, he said, his troops have rising morale and momentum — and the security of American airstrikes.

“The Taliban run when they hear the aircraft,” the lieutenant said.

But the district center in Chakaran is held by just 250 to 300 local and national police officers, commanders said. They said they do not have enough men to drive the Taliban off the mountains and then hold those positions.

The district governor, Mohammad Emran Payam, stood in the shade of an apple orchard at the district center as the funeral possession passed by. He complained that the central government had not provided enough men and matériel to hold the district, much less push forward to take other districts.

The government had not even provided him with a vehicle, he said. He paid for a rented car.

“We need more help,” Mr. Payam said. “The Taliban are willing to die to take this district back — it’s crucial for their strategy.”

The Taliban seized the district from the government four years ago, driving out security forces and their families. “This is the first time I’ve seen my house in four years,” said one police officer, Zahidullah, who goes by one name.

Displaced residents are still afraid to return, wary that the Taliban will crush the police contingent. At least 2,400 families had been displaced, living the past four years in camps and rented homes, said Abdullah Najdi, head of a council of displaced people who was displaced himself.

Mr. Najdi said foreign fighters looted homes and stole crops and livestock. In the village of Bashund in Wardoj District, 120 foreign fighters still lived in houses they had commandeered four years ago.

“Everyone is still afraid to come back,” Mr. Najdi said. “The future of this district is not clear to us at all.”

After the battle, Mir Ahmad, 38, cautiously reopened his tiny restaurant in Chakaran, inside a dusty shanty on the dirt roadway that bisects the village. For four years, foreign fighters who did not speak the local Persian language dined there.

“And they paid me — I had no problem with them,” Mr. Ahmad said.

Nor did he have a problem with the government troops he hoped would now patronize his little establishment. But he said he had no idea how long they might be able to hold the village and district.

Abdullah Naji Nazari, a member of the provincial council, said the fight to retake the province was personal for him. The village of his birth was still under Taliban control.

Mr. Nazari said he worried that Badakhshan could become an international terrorism stronghold with the presence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. He said the Taliban had clashed with the foreign jihadists, but had since aligned with them to fight a government they consider an American puppet.

“This isn’t just an Afghan problem,” Mr. Nazari said. “It’s an international problem.”

General Nuristani, the intelligence commander in Badakhshan, said that at least 400 foreign fighters had joined the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the province. He said his men captured four black Islamic State flags during the fighting in Wardoj District.

Mr. Nazari said the government had retaken areas containing a massive lapis lazuli mine that the Taliban had taxed. But he said local warlords and power brokers were now fighting over the mine, with no government plan to control and tax the prized blue gemstone.

“Everybody wants a piece of the mines,” he said of the 30 lapis lazuli, gold and other mines in the province.

Even with the collapse this month of a proposed peace deal between the United States and the Taliban for a phased American troop withdrawal, Mr. Nazari said he was concerned that President Trump might precipitously pull the troops out anyway.

“This whole operation would not have been possible without American airpower,” he said. “We couldn’t succeed without it.”

In Chakaran, a man with a pickax tore at the hard clay earth of the local cemetery to carve out a narrow grave for their fallen commander, Najmullah. Among the many mourners were police officers, still bearing their weapons. They braced for another possible Taliban counterattack.

The mourners held out their hands, palms up, and prayed. The body was lowered gently into the earth, with four more to follow.

Source: NYT > World News

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