For two days, the fighting was blistering. Rockets and heavy machine-gun fire pounded Imam Sahib, a key district on Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan.
When the explosions died down and Syed Akram finally emerged from his home earlier this week, three of his neighbour’s children had been killed, and a tank was burning on a nearby street corner.
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Several shops and a petrol station were still smouldering. In the streets, the Taliban was in control.
There were maybe 300 Taliban fighters, he said. That had been plenty to overwhelm the government troops defending the town, who had numbered fewer than 100.
In recent days, the Taliban, which rejects the elected government and seeks to install an Islamic one, has made quick gains in Afghanistan’s north, overrunning multiple districts, some of them reportedly with hardly a fight.
As a result, a worried government this week launched an initiative it called “National Mobilisation”, arming local volunteers, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
President Ashraf Ghani, who is currently visiting Washington, DC, to meet with his United States counterpart Joe Biden, has endorsed the move, according to a Washington Post report earlier this week.
In a meeting on Monday with influential former anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban militia leaders, Ghani called on them to create a “united front” and support the Afghan security forces to “strengthen peace” and “safeguard the republic system”, the Post reported on Tuesday.
The US newspaper also quoted newly appointed acting defence minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi as saying that “patriots and people everywhere (should) stand alongside their security and defense forces”, adding that the government is “ready to provide them with all equipment and resources”.
But observers say the move only resurrects militias that will be loyal to local commanders or powerful Kabul-allied warlords, who wrecked the Afghan capital during the inter-factional fighting of the 1990s and killed thousands of civilians.
“The fact that the government has put out the call for the militias is a clear admission of the failure of the security forces … most certainly an act of desperation,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the US-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Roggio tracks armed groups and is editor of the foundation’s Long War Journal.
“The Afghan military and police have abandoned numerous outposts, bases and district centres, and it is difficult to imagine that these hastily organised militias can perform better than organised security forces,” he said.
‘Death to Taliban!’
On Wednesday at Koh Daman on Kabul’s northern edge, dozens of armed villagers in one of the first National Mobilisation militias gathered at a rally.
“Death to criminals!” and “Death to 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 policemen, identifying himself only by his first name for fear of reprisals.
He criticised the defence and interior ministries, saying they were stuffed with overpaid officials while the front-line troops receive little pay.
“I am the one standing here for 24 hours like this with all this equipment to defend my country,” he said, indicating his weapons and vest jammed with ammunition.
“But in the ministries, officials earn thousands” of dollars, he said.
The other policeman standing nearby joined in with the criticism, while others nodded in agreement. New recruits in the security forces get 12,000 afghanis a month, about $152, with higher ranks getting the equivalent of about $380.
The US and NATO have committed to paying $4bn annually until 2024 to support the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces.
Still, even Washington’s official watchdog auditing spending says Afghan troops are disillusioned and demoralised with corruption rife throughout the government.
Fears of 1990s conflict returning
The call to arm Afghan militia groups comes as the US-led NATO forces press forward with their final withdrawal from Afghanistan.
By all accounts their departure will be complete long before the September 11 deadline set by Biden when he announced in mid-April an end to America’s “forever war”.
With the recent gains, the Taliban now controls the main border crossing with Tajikistan, a main trade route. It also holds the strategic district of Doshi, critical because the one road linking Kabul to northern Afghanistan runs through it.
As the districts fell, Ghani swept through his ministries, appointing new leadership, including reinstating Khan as defence minister.
Khan was previously removed over corruption charges, and his militias have been criticised for summary killings. They were also deeply involved in the brutal civil war that led to the Taliban’s takeover in 1996.
Afghan and international observers fear a similar conflict could erupt once more. During the 1990s war, multiple warlords battled for power, nearly destroying Kabul and killing at least 50,000 people – mostly civilians – in the process.
Those warlords returned to power after the Taliban’s fall and have gained wealth and strength since. They are jealous of their domains, deeply distrustful of each other, and their loyalties to Ghani are fluid.
Ethnic Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum Uzbek, for example, violently removed the president’s choice for governor of his Uzbek-controlled province of Faryab earlier this year.
A former adviser to the Afghan government, Torek Farhadi, called the national mobilisation “a recipe for future generalised violence”.
He noted the government has promised to pay the militias, even as official security forces complain salaries are often delayed for months.
He predicted the same corruption would eat away at the funds meant for militias, and as a result “local commanders and warlords will quickly turn against him (Ghani) and we will have fiefdoms and chaos”.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Associated Press on Thursday the group had captured 104 Afghan districts since May 1, including at least 29 in recent fighting. That brought the total area of Taliban control to 165 of the country’s 471 districts.
There was no way to immediately verify his statements, and some areas often change hands back and forth. Most analysts tracking the front lines say the Taliban controls or holds sway in roughly half the country. Its areas of control are mostly in rural areas.
Officials and observers say many across the country have allegiance to neither side and are deeply disillusioned by corruption.
“There is no stability. There is no peace,” said Abdul Khasani, an employee at a bus station not far from the Koh Daman militia gathering.
“In Afghanistan, under the Taliban people are suffering, and under the government, people are suffering.”