For two days, the fighting was intense. Rockets and heavy machine gun fire pounded Imam Sahib, a key neighborhood on Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan.
When the explosions subsided and Syed Akram finally left his home earlier this week, three of his neighbor’s children were killed and a tank was burning on a nearby street corner.
Several stores and a gas station were still smoking. In the streets, the Taliban were in control.
There were maybe 300 Taliban fighters, he said. This was enough to overwhelm the government troops defending the city, which numbered less than 100.
In recent days, the Taliban, who is rejecting the elected government and seeking to establish an Islamic government, have made rapid progress in northern Afghanistan, invading several districts, some of them barely fighting.
As a result, a worried government this week launched an initiative it called “National Mobilization,” arming local volunteers, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
President Ashraf Ghani, who is currently visiting Washington, DC to meet with his US counterpart Joe Biden, endorsed the move, according to a Washington Post report earlier this week.
In a meeting Monday with influential former leaders of the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban militias, Ghani called on them to create a “united front” and support Afghan security forces to “strengthen the peace” and “safeguard the republic system, ”the Post reported on Tuesday.
The US newspaper also quoted the new acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi as saying that “patriots and people around the world (should) stand by their security and defense forces,” adding that the government is “ready to provide them with all the equipment and resources”.
But observers say the move only resuscitates militias who will be loyal to local commanders or Kabul’s powerful allied warlords, who destroyed the Afghan capital in the factional fighting of the 1990s and killed thousands of civilians.
“The fact that the government has launched the call for militias is a clear admission of the failure of the security forces … most certainly an act of desperation,” said Bill Roggio, senior researcher at the American Foundation for the Defense of Democracies . .
Roggio tracks down armed groups and is editor-in-chief of the foundation’s Long War Journal.
“The Afghan army and police have abandoned many outposts, bases and district centers, and it is hard to imagine that these hastily organized militias could outperform the organized security forces,” he said. he declared.
“Death to the Taliban! “
On Wednesday in Koh Daman, on the northern edge of Kabul, dozens of armed villagers from one of the first militias of the national mobilization gathered at a rally.
“Death to the criminals! And “Death to the Taliban!” They shouted, waving automatic rifles, The Associated Press reported. Some had rocket-propelled grenade launchers resting casually on their shoulders.
A handful of uniformed Afghan National Police officers watched. “We need them, we have no leadership, we have no help,” said Moman, one of the police officers, identifying himself only by his first name for fear of reprisals.
He criticized the defense and interior ministries, saying they were crammed with overpaid civil servants while frontline troops were poorly paid.
“I’m the one who stays here for 24 hours like this with all this gear to defend my country,” he said, pointing to his weapons and his vest stuffed with ammunition.
“But in government departments, civil servants earn thousands” of dollars, he said.
The other policeman standing nearby joined in the criticism, while others nodded in agreement. New recruits to the security forces receive 12,000 Afghanis per month, about $ 152, with higher ranks receiving the equivalent of about $ 380.
The United States and NATO have pledged $ 4 billion per year until 2024 to support the Afghan national defense and security forces.
Yet even Washington’s official spending audit watchdog says Afghan troops are disillusioned and demoralized by the corruption plaguing government-wide.
Fears of a return to the conflict of the 1990s
The call to arm the Afghan militias comes as US-led NATO forces continue their final withdrawal from Afghanistan.
By all accounts, their departure will be complete long before the 9/11 deadline set by Biden when he announced in mid-April the end of America’s “eternal war”.
With recent gains, the Taliban now control the main border crossing with Tajikistan, a main trade route. It is also home to the strategic Doshi district, critical because the only road connecting Kabul to northern Afghanistan crosses it.
As the districts fell, Ghani swept aside his ministries, appointing new rulers, including reinstating Khan as minister of defense.
Khan has already been dismissed from his post for corruption and his militias have come under fire for summary killings. They were also deeply involved in the brutal civil war that led to the Taliban takeover in 1996.
Afghan and international observers fear a similar conflict will resume. During the war of the 1990s, several warlords fought for power, almost destroying Kabul and killing at least 50,000 people – mostly civilians – in the process.
These warlords returned to power after the fall of the Taliban and have gained wealth and strength since. They are jealous of their domains, deeply suspicious of each other, and their loyalty to Ghani is fluid.
Uzbek ethnic warlord Rashid Dostum Uzbek, for example, violently suppressed the president’s choice for governor of his Uzbek-controlled Faryab province earlier this year.
A former adviser to the Afghan government, Torek Farhadi, called the national mobilization “a recipe for future generalized violence”.
He noted that the government had promised to pay the militias, even as official security forces complain that salaries are often delayed by several months.
He predicted that the same corruption would eat away at militia funds, and as a result “local commanders and warlords will quickly turn against him (Ghani) and we will have strongholds and chaos.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Associated Press on Thursday that the group had captured 104 Afghan districts since May 1, including at least 29 in recent fighting. This brought the total area under Taliban control to 165 of the country’s 471 districts.
There was no way to immediately verify his claims, and some areas change hands often. Most analysts who follow the front lines say the Taliban control or dominate about half of the country. Its control areas are mainly in rural areas.
Officials and observers say many across the country have no allegiance to either side and are deeply disillusioned with the corruption.
“There is no stability. There is no peace, ”said Abdul Khasani, an employee of a bus station not far from the Koh Daman militia gathering.
“In Afghanistan, under the Taliban, the people are suffering, and under the government, the people are suffering. “