Fleeing the Taliban in the night, a family’s faith in peace wavers

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban practice of “fighting while talking” has long raised questions about their commitment to peace in Afghanistan. Now, as more die and thousands flee, the U.S. is calling the tactic “very risky.”

Abdul Khaliq/AP
Afghan families leave their homes after fighting between the Afghan military and Taliban insurgents in Helmand Province, southwestern Afghanistan, Oct. 13, 2020.

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Afghanistan’s southwestern Helmand province – long a Taliban target prized for its illicit opium production – has witnessed some of the most sustained fighting in the war. The fighting hasn’t abated, even amid long-sought peace talks between the Taliban and government in Kabul.

A recent Taliban offensive to capture Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital – the boldest among a multitude of lethal Taliban attacks and advances nationwide in recent weeks – created nearly 40,000 displaced Afghans and required American airstrikes to stop it. It precipitated a warning from the U.S. peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, that “too many Afghans are dying,” and that the Taliban tactic could “undermine the peace process.”

“This recent attack, especially, has sent a gloomy feeling across Afghanistan that” the Taliban “feel that they can still settle this by war, rather than at the negotiating table,” says a veteran Kabul analyst.

“We are surprised by our situation,” says an Afghan corn farmer whose family was forced to flee the Taliban advance. “We were too optimistic. All our nation was very happy. We thought, ‘We will have a peaceful life, there will be no conflict, our people will not kill each other,’” he says. “Unfortunately ... our people are still killing each other.”

Afghan corn farmer Ehsanullah Popalzai dared to hope that peace might be possible when he saw Taliban insurgents and Afghan government negotiators finally sit down face-to-face for the first time last month to end decades of war.

He expected a cease-fire, or at least calm, while talks progressed in Doha, Qatar.

But instead, as darkness fell one night last week, Mr. Popalzai and his family experienced once again the pain of war and fled their home, caught in the path of a Taliban offensive to capture Lashkar Gah, the capital of southwestern Helmand province.

That single offensive – the boldest among a multitude of lethal Taliban attacks and advances nationwide in recent weeks, as the insurgents keep pressure on Afghan security forces despite the peace talks – created nearly 40,000 displaced Afghans and required American airstrikes to stop it.

It has also raised broader questions about whether the Taliban prefer waging war over making peace, and therefore the fragility of Afghans’ own hopes to end 40 years of conflict.

“We are surprised by our situation,” says Mr. Popalzai, noting how hope over the Doha talks has turned to despair for his family.

“We were too optimistic. All our nation was very happy. We thought, ‘We will have a peaceful life, there will be no conflict, our people will not kill each other,’” says Mr. Popalzai, contacted by phone. “Unfortunately, that belief was not true, our people are still killing each other.”

A flight in the dark

On the morning of the battle, Taliban fighters had infiltrated fields and villages in Mr. Popalzai’s district east of Lashkar Gah. The fighters gave prayers – even calling from the loudspeakers of the local mosque for divine help in delivering victory, which Mr. Popalzai says he heard – and then surrounded a nearby military outpost, attacked, and in a two-hour battle “killed most of the soldiers,” before burning the base.

Surviving troops took up defensive positions along the road, and also broke through the high wall of Mr. Popalzai’s family compound with their armored vehicles – despite family protests that it was full of women and children. After dark, the Taliban attacked again, prompting an immediate exodus of the family and a night of heavy American airstrikes.

“Too many families left the area at the same time; we suffered too many problems ... and don’t know about our future,” says Mr. Popalzai. What “damaged my soul,” he says, was losing track of his 8-year-old daughter for a day and a half, until she was found with another family.

The Afghan farmer is angry that war has once again upended his life, while the intra-Afghan talks stall over procedural issues. He is angry that his entire family of 16 must now shelter in an empty, one-room shop in town.

And he is angry that it finally required American airstrikes – the first of consequence since the United States and Taliban signed a withdrawal deal last February – to stop the Taliban advance.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“This recent attack, especially, has sent a gloomy feeling across Afghanistan that probably peace will not be as easy as we dreamed,” says a veteran Kabul analyst from an organization that facilitates peace efforts, who asked not to be named.

“The image that has gone [out] to the Afghan population is that, given the Taliban are in the stronger position, they feel that they can still settle this by war, rather than at the negotiating table,” says the analyst. “For the Taliban, to show militarily they remain quite a formidable force is one of the key tools in their hand to demonstrate why making peace with them is necessary.”

But the Taliban strategy of fighting while also talking peace is wearing thin, especially due to the disruption of civilian lives by, for example, cutting off the road between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar to the east, on the long road to Kabul.

“It’s proving counterproductive [for the Taliban],” says the analyst. “Roads cut off mean difficulty for commuters, difficulty for businesses. Hospitals are full. So I definitely think this is not great PR for the Taliban.”

The U.S.-Taliban deal signed Feb. 29 commits to a full troop withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops, who number at least 4,500, and 6,100 other NATO soldiers by May 2021 – which would end America’s longest war after 19 1/2 years. But it is conditional on counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, and a reduction in violence that the U.S. says was meant to be “as much as 80%.”

Since February the Taliban have halted attacks against U.S. and other NATO troops, in line with the deal. But they have barely eased attacks against Afghan security forces.

“Too many Afghans are dying”

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, met the Taliban several times last week and agreed on a “reset” to reduce attacks.

“At present too many Afghans are dying,” Ambassador Khalilzad tweeted Oct. 15. The Taliban tactic of fighting while talking is “very risky,” he later warned, because it can “undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculations by Afghan leaders.”

“We are blaming the Taliban because there is no reason for conflict and violence,” says Mr. Popalzai, whose Helmand province – long a Taliban target prized for its illicit opium production – has witnessed some of the most sustained fighting in the war.

“Before, the Taliban said there is jihad against Americans, but now America is leaving the country and most of them have already left, so there is no reason for violence,” says the farmer. “[Now] it is only Muslims and Afghans killing each other.”

Indeed, the U.S.-Taliban deal changed the pattern of conflict in favor of the insurgents, such that “the Taliban have little incentive to reduce violence,” according to an in-depth report last week by Andrew Quilty for the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).

“With the threat of being targeted by government or U.S. forces now low, morale among [Taliban] fighters has soared” due to “the prospect of ultimate victory – whether by political or military means,” notes the report, based on dozens of interviews across three provinces.

Hussein Sayed/AP
Taliban negotiator Abbas Stanikzai (center front) and his delegation attend the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020. The Taliban on Oct. 8, 2020, welcomed a tweet from President Donald Trump in which he promised to have the last of the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Christmas.

In contrast, Afghan security forces spoke of frustration over the government’s “sudden passivity” toward the Taliban. “The current defensive posture” makes them “vulnerable to attack, has meant a rise in casualty rates and depressed morale,” AAN concludes. “This is not sustainable.”

Even as the U.S. draws down its troops, it is trying to “prevent any negative outcomes” that lead to civil war in Afghanistan “or even less stability than it has now,” General Miller told the BBC this week.

Humanitarian crisis

That may not be easy, says a lawyer in Lashkar Gah who works for Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, and asked not to be named.

The latest attack on his city is further proof, the Afghan lawyer says, that peace talks are a “waste of time, because the Taliban want to play for time,” until U.S. and coalition forces withdraw, so they can “focus on fighting.”

Yet the Taliban attacks’ biggest impact is on the ground, where a new humanitarian crisis has grown, beyond the tide of displaced civilians.

The medical charity Emergency said Lashkar Gah’s main surgical center, which it operates, was “saturated” with 132 war-wounded.

The gap between “the raised hopes” of the Doha peace talks and the “harrowing daily reality of those who have seen their lives destroyed by fighting is abysmal,” the charity said.

At the Boost provincial hospital, which takes overflow cases and is supported by the French charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 52 war-wounded patients arrived in the first days of the fight, “all with stories as devastating as their injuries,” wrote hospital coordinator Marianna Cortesi on the MSF website.

In one case, a pregnant woman called Safia – just two months before her due date – was struck with a stray bullet that killed her unborn child. Another woman, Zina, was breastfeeding when a stray bullet hit her in the chest, narrowly missing her 8-month-old baby.

Such casualties are no surprise to Mr. Popalzai, the corn farmer. His family also fled a similar Taliban attack in 2016, but not before the Taliban targeted his house with a shoulder-fired rocket. The explosion killed his younger brother and sister.

“The first clause for ending the war in Afghanistan is a long-term cease-fire,” he says. “For this, America should bring pressure on both sides to tolerate each other.”

Hidayatullah Noorzai contributed reporting for this story from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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