In Herat, ex-Mujahideen commander leads efforts to resist Taliban
In western Afghanistan’s biggest city, Taliban gains are causing economic distress and forcing people to pick up arms.
Herat, Afghanistan – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spent the day before Eid trying to reassure his people, as government forces were battling the Taliban for control of districts across the country.
Ghani was seen walking on the streets of the western city of Herat on Monday, as the Taliban armed group ran a ferocious campaign to take as many territories as they could amid a vacuum created by the withdrawal of American forces. He approached eager passersby, held babies and even marvelled at the wares of a local sweet shop.
His brief trip through the streets of Herat came at a particularly important time for the people in the largest city in western Afghanistan.
Earlier last month, the armed group managed to take control of Zinda Jan, a district 43km (27 miles) from the provincial capital, Herat city. Shortly after, they captured the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, one of the most lucrative crossings that the Taliban has captured in recent weeks.
The news of both seizures sent shockwaves across the ancient city, home to 400,000 people.
Residents feared that the group could come marching into Herat by the next day’s sunrise. This fear was so great that many opted out of going to the markets and bazaars for the Eid al-Adha holiday.
Because of this, Ghani’s visit, which was followed by a visit from the acting minister of the interior on the first day of Eid, was meant to send a clear sign to the Herati people: Help is coming.
But to many people in Herat, the fear is still very real.
The uprising movements
Forogh Mohammadi, who splits his time between Kabul and Herat, recalls the evening of July 8 when the Taliban took over Zinda Jan as a turning point in his life. It was on that evening that he decided to join the uprising movements that have seen tens of thousands across the nation take up arms against an increasingly encroaching Taliban.
By the next morning, he went from a manager working in offices to carrying an AK-47 on his shoulder and heading out into the districts surrounding the city to fend off any Taliban advances.
“If you were here that night, you would know that the Taliban have every intention to take the big cities.”
Residents who spoke to Al Jazeera said the Taliban enjoy a major presence in more than a dozen districts across Herat. They used words like “trapped” and “besieged” to describe the city, which they still fear could be overrun by the armed group.
One Herat resident fled with his family to the capital Kabul, about 800km (500 miles) to the east, after receiving threats from the Taliban. “The city, the road to the airport and one or two districts [near the city] are the only truly safe places left,” he said, fearing to reveal his identity.
In the last month, journalists, rights workers and prominent women have all received threats from the Taliban. Many of those are now looking for ways out of the city, if not the country.
Taliban’s six-year rule was marred by rights abuse against ethnic and religious minorities before the Taliban’s removal in a US-led military invasion in 2001. The armed group has promised to allow girls education and protection of ethnic minorities but the group still remains unpopular among Afghans.
Herat, a major economic centre
It is not just Herat’s place on the map, located on the border with Iran, that makes it such a valuable target to the Taliban. It has a large population; at least two million people call the province home.
It is also home to an ever-increasing number of high-rises, numerous historic sites, a university, a regional hospital and government buildings.
Most importantly, as the biggest city in the western zone, Herat has always been an economic powerhouse where everything from saffron to cola and marble is produced. Part of that economic status also comes from an illicit drug economy, which the Taliban have had a hand in for years.
As such, Mohammadi says the Taliban stand to make large sums of money if they manage to take the city as well.
“There is money all over this place, and if they take over it will become a cash cow for them.”
The group already got a taste of the potential earnings when they took over Islam Qala, the largest border crossing between Afghanistan and Iran, about 120km (75 miles) from the city. That takeover, along with many large investors leaving the city, is already having an effect on the prices of consumer goods.
Business owners and residents in Herat told Al Jazeera that the prices of basic cooking ingredients like eggs, flour and oil have all gone up in the lead-up to the Eid holiday. Cooking oil went from 500 afghanis a couple of months ago to 700-800 in the last two weeks. Even shepherds and farmers selling animals for the Eid sacrifice said the cost of each animal has gone up by at least 20 percent.
But the city’s plain geography puts it at risk. The lack of mountain cover leads residents to fear that any possible attack on the city could come with high civilian casualties.
“It’s an open field. That makes it much more difficult to defend,” said Mohammadi.
So far, momentum has not been in the Taliban’s favour when it comes to taking over major cities across Afghanistan. On July 7, the group entered the capital of Badghis province, but within hours they were expelled by government forces. At the same time, they made inroads into the city of Kandahar, but have not yet been able to fully enter the city. The province has now been placed under curfew.
Taliban advances thwarted
In the weeks leading to the Eid al-Fitr holiday in May, sources in the southern province of Ghazni said the Taliban wanted to “offer their Eid prayers in Ghazni” but that too was thwarted. Two weeks after the holiday, they tried to capture the capital of Laghman province in the east but were also repelled by security forces.
Still, the people of Herat say they will not allow the Taliban to even attempt to take their city.
When Ismail Khan, a former commander who fought against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, saw that eight of the province’s 15 districts fell to the Taliban earlier this month, he immediately decided to create his own uprising movement in Herat.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Khan said that the people of Herat will rise to the occasion and help the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) defend the nation from the Taliban, especially as efforts at a political settlement continue to be stalled.
He says though all Afghans want peace, the current talks between the Taliban and government representatives in the Qatari capital Doha have been “a time waste” the armed group is using to advance its military goals.
People in Herat expressed their concerns about the Doha talks, which ended inconclusively last week. A joint statement was issued, but there was no mention of a ceasefire or reduction in violence.
Khan, the former commander, insists on letting the people themselves stand up to defend their nation. He says since he launched his movement two weeks ago, he has been approached by hundreds of men, young and old, wanting to fight the Taliban. At his lavish residence on a well-guarded street in the city of Herat, dozens of men wait in the garden, their guns in hand, to join the fight.
Now, hundreds, possibly thousands of these men have set up checkpoints in the villages and districts outside the city.
Mehrabuddin, who only gave his first name, carries a rocket launcher on a road near Injil district on the outskirts of the city. His arched black moustache stands out against all the green of his helmet, clothing and rocket launcher as he stands guard, ready to fire the rocket at a moment’s notice. He says the Taliban have made it within 10km (6 miles) of the city in recent days. He has had to fire the rockets several times since then.
Unlike the city, several of Herat’s districts are mountainous, and often that is where the Taliban take their positions, firing onto the national security and uprising forces from high positions.
Mehrabuddin says that is why he carries the rocket launcher. He says the area is calm during the days, but at night the battles begin. Most of the Taliban fighters he has encountered are from the area.
“They have houses all around, I bet those houses over there are full of them,” he says, pointing to a field in the distance. The fact that the Taliban could be among them is something that adds to the fears of the uprising forces.
“They could be at home watching right now,” Mehrabuddin says.
Though the uprising forces did say they have encountered Pakistani and Irani fighters among the Taliban, the fact that they said many of the Taliban are from the area makes the ongoing battle for Herat a microcosm of the larger conflict in the country – Afghans fighting other Afghans.
But to one of the uprising forces, he hopes that the history of the country, and particularly, Herat, will serve them in fending off the Taliban.
Mohammad Yasini, a veterinarian by trade, was first part of an Afghan resistance movement against the Soviets at the age of 12. At the time, he was fighting among hundreds of thousands of other men, including a then 27-year-old Ismail Khan, to repel a Soviet occupation.
Now, in his 60s, he is joining Khan’s men to remind the Taliban of the valour he sees in Herat.
“They will never take Herat because it’s a city of Mujahideen.”