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Seesaw Conflict With Taliban Takes Toll in Fallen Afghan District

It is obvious that the commandos cannot stay in Taiwara for long, and officials openly admit that what remains of Mr. Malikzada’s informal militia, more than 100 men, is their best hope of holding the district.

There is only one problem: Ghor’s provincial security chief and Mr. Malikzada disagree over how to register his men formally with the government. The police chief wants the men to make the 180-mile trek to the provincial capital, Feroz Koh, so their fingerprints and other physical characteristics can be registered for identification and access control.

“We don’t have time for that,” Mr. Malikzada said. “The enemy will retake the areas.”

United States military data shows that the Afghan government controls about 24 percent of the country’s districts and influences an additional 36 percent. The Taliban, on the other hand, control and influence about 11 percent. Both sides contest the remainder, about 29 percent.

The government is losing a growing number of fighters in contested areas. During the first four months of 2017, about 20 Afghan fighters died each day in largely defensive efforts, a number that seems to have risen in recent weeks.

Before the recent Taliban onslaught, Ghor Province had long suffered from a lack of government attention. In large parts of the province, rule of law was almost nonexistent and serious human rights abuses were carried out with impunity. But at least the roughly 2,700 police and Army officers were able to move about the vast territory, 90 percent of it mountainous or semi-mountainous, to secure it from Taliban inroads.

The Taliban’s method of attack on Taiwara showed how confident the insurgents have become in waging violence this year.

Security officials in Ghor say about 700 heavily armed fighters from neighboring provinces made a run for the district in Humvees and trucks stolen from Afghan forces in Helmand Province. The insurgents sought to connect areas they had already seized, carving a corridor from south to north.

First to suffer heavy casualties was an Afghan commando unit of about 45 men who had set up a makeshift base on a hilltop in the center of the district. One commando officer said that 12 of his fellow fighters had been killed and their bodies disfigured with chemicals, that about 20 had been injured and that several had disappeared. One commando hid in the trees for three days, until the district was retaken, the officer said.

With the commando unit defeated, the resistance was left to fighters loyal to Mr. Malikzada, the parliamentarian. His men resisted in the hope that air power and reinforcements would arrive from the provincial capital. Neither did, and the fighters suffered heavy casualties before retreating.

Photo

Afghan government officials assessing the situation in the Taiwara District after it was recaptured from the Taliban. The government is losing a growing number of fighters in contested areas. Credit Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

“The shops collapsed, then the hospital was destroyed,” said Mohammed Sediq, a resident who was forced to flee with his family from the center of Taiwara after the district government’s compound, too, was torched.

In response to criticism that military support was not sent in time, Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of the Afghan government, who visited Taiwara recently after its recapture, said several provinces had come under attack around the same time.

“At one point, in eight or nine provinces we had districts facing first-degree threats,” Mr. Abdullah said. “In such situations, with the capabilities that we have, it comes down to where we can reach and where we cannot.”

Officials in Ghor say the presence of both the Taliban and a faction that claims allegiance to the Islamic State is facilitated by two men with long criminal histories in the province.

Qari Rahmatullah, a leader of the group that operates under the Islamic State flag, is also a longtime local commander who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s and has been affiliated with one of Afghanistan’s main political parties, Jamiat e Islami. Mr. Rahmatullah’s men rounded up and killed about 30 civilians last year, and haveyet to face justice despite operating not far from the provincial capital.

“Because of lack of enough security forces, the murderers of our people are walking freely in the mountains just north of Feroz Koh,” said Ghor’s governor, Ghulam Nasir Khaze.

The second man, Mullah Mustafa, who serves as a local facilitator of the Taliban and played a major role in the recent offensive, is known for setting up checkpoints on the main highway to extort travelers, security officials say.

Local officials are especially frustrated that, despite his clear siding with the Taliban, Mullah Mustafa is protected by senior figures in Kabul, the capital, including those in Afghanistan’s peace council assigned to negotiate with the Taliban.

The officials say Mullah Mustafa also has contacts in Iran, which is looking to strengthen its ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan and is said to have a lot of influence over them in the western part of the country. Iran has used Mullah Mustafa to disrupt the building of a major dam in Herat Province that would affect the water flow into Iran, two senior officials in Ghor said.

Gen. Mohammad Nasir Hedayat, the commander of the Afghan Army corps in the west, said his men were certain that Mullah Mustafa had aided the Taliban attack on Taiwara by hosting hundreds of their fighters from neighboring provinces “as guests” before the assault.

He said that in a telephone call he had warned Mullah Mustafa of the potential consequences.

“You raised the Taliban flag,’’ General Hedayat said he had told him. “You know that this situation won’t remain for the government and we will come after you.”

“When the Taliban left, he lowered the flags,” the general said. “And we were pressured” to leave him alone.

In searching for solutions to the province’s security problems, the government seems to be turning to militias again and perpetuating what has become a familiar Catch-22: sacrificing justice and the rule of law for the sake of relative control.

The commandos cannot hold the district indefinitely; they will be called to help elsewhere. Mr. Abdullah, the chief executive, asked provincial officials to submit a proposal requesting additional Afghan local police, essentially militia fighters with varying degrees of vetting who are paid by the government.

Much to the dismay of human rights activists, the government has often relied on such local militias in Ghor and other provinces. Most recently, to counter Qari Rahmatullah’s brutal Islamic State fighters, the government secretly enlisted the help of Mullah Saadyar, another problematic militia member with ties to the Taliban. Mullah Saadyar has also been accused of having a role in the stoning of a local woman, Rukhshana.

Mr. Abdullah warned that the new recruits must be vetted thoroughly so that, “God forbid, the people are not forced to flee from them into the mountains again.”

Source: NYT > World

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