‘We can’t win’: former Taliban heartland Kandahar at risk of falling to the militants

The fall of the city would be a devastating loss for the government, officials say

Security forces take part in an ongoing operation against Taliban militants in Sarkari Bagh in Arghandad district of Kandahar province on November 2, 2020. (Photo by JAVED TANVEER / AFP)
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Forty-year-old Bismillah woke up last week to find Taliban fighters patrolling the streets of his village in Arghandab district of Kandahar province in Afghanistan.

"We don't know how they captured the checkpoints but the Taliban were blocking the roads to our farms and orchards one morning last week," he told The National.

Bismillah, who like many Afghans only goes by one name, said that they did not witness any gunfights between the Afghan forces and Taliban, but the paths leading to their farms had been planted with landmines.

“There was no place safe left in the village. We packed some of our belongings and left the district for safety,” he said, speaking from a makeshift settlement on the outskirts of Kandahar city that housed families escaping a similar fate in different parts of the southern province.

Bismillah’s account was corroborated by Syed Mohammad, 50, who also hails from Arghandab and had been displaced by a Taliban siege of his village.

“We didn’t hear even one shot of the bullet, but woke up in the morning to find Afghan forces had left two checkpoints in our village. We don’t know why they did that, but the Taliban captured them without a fight.” Mr Mohammed said that every family in his village had left their homes in fear of an impending fight between the Taliban and Afghan forces who might try to retake the abandoned posts.

Afghan policemen search people at a checkpoint at the Chawk-e-Shahidan in Kandahar on December 13, 2020. - Dozens of Taliban fighters were killed in fierce overnight fighting between Afghan forces and militants who attacked multiple checkpoints in the insurgent bastion of Kandahar, officials said on December 13. (Photo by JAVED TANVEER / AFP)
Afghan policemen search people at a checkpoint at the Chawk-e-Shahidan in Kandahar on December 13, 2020. AFP

Kandahar governor Hayatullah Hayat said last week that Afghan security forces had abandoned 193 checkpoints in the Zharai, Maiwand, Arghandab and Panjwai districts of the province. Hashim Alkozai, head of the Afghan Senate's defence committee, also confirmed reports of government forces losing nearly 200 checkpoints.

The Afghan Ministry of Defence denied the claims and Mr Hayat was removed from his post on Sunday, along with the provincial chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's intelligence agency.

However, a local police official, speaking to The National on condition of anonymity, confirmed the loss of checkpoints and small bases in Maiwand, Panjwai and Arghandab districts.

“I can confirm that the government lost forward bases, along with at least 15 other checkpoints that belonged to the police and army. A lot of weapons and ammunition were also left behind,” the officer said.

Through accounts from Kandahar residents, local policemen and government officials, The National was able to verify that nearly 40 police checkpoints and small bases  fell into the Taliban's hands in the past two weeks. "Taliban took over some and burned down others," the police officer said.

Kandahar is not only a strategically important province, but also carries political and historical significance for both the government and the Taliban. The province is the birthplace of the insurgent group, and was the seat of the Taliban regime when they ruled the country in the late 1990s.

Rahmatullah Nabil, a former head of the NDS, said the government losses in Kandahar do not necessarily illustrate the Taliban’s strengths in the region, but rather were rooted in tribal rivalries.

“Kandahar is controlled by nearly 280 native tribes, and controlling the province is equally important to both. However, under President [Ashraf] Ghani’s rule, many of the Kandahari leaders have felt deprived from the central power, with key positions being given away to leaders from other provinces,” he said.

According to Mr Nabil, the assassination in October 2018 of General Abdul Raziq, the former police chief of Kandahar, paved the ground for Taliban to infiltrate and influence the tribal chiefs. Raziq wielded considerable influence in the province, and was widely credited with neutralising the Taliban's power in the province until his death.

Losing Kandahar would mean losing the south, and losing the south means losing control of the political centre of Afghanistan
Rahmatullah Nabil, former Afghan intelligence chief

“Losing Kandahar would mean losing the south, and losing the south means losing control of the political centre of Afghanistan, particularly among Pashtuns,” he said, referring to the ethnic group that comprises the majority Afghan population.

“The mistakes of President Ghani and his team and their lack of understanding of local politics, could sway the hearts and minds of Kandahar towards the Taliban more than the republic.”

A senior Afghan official also attributed the government's recent losses to tribal disputes. "Some tribal disputes and individual political interests led to the abandonment of those checkpoints," the official told The National, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There are changes under way and things are calmer now," he said, referring to the leadership reshuffle that followed the incidents.

The government has doubled its efforts to retake the lost positions, the situation on ground remains grim. “We can’t win because the enemies are using the heavy equipment that they took from us – including rockets, rangers, tanks and many other weapons – against us,” the police official said.

A similar situation was described by the displaced civilians now living in camps near Kandahar city that are quickly filling up.

“We can’t go back because of the Taliban and we can’t live here. It is winter time and we have children with us," Bismillah said. "I request both sides to please stop fighting and make peace and let us go back to our village.”