Afghans say recent Taliban advances forced them to take up arms
At least 500 residents in Parwan province pick up guns as the September 11 withdrawal deadline of US forces creeps closer.
Ghorband Valley, Afghanistan – Zahir Salangi, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament from the northern province of Parwan, had hoped to settle down on a “doshak” (cushion) to catch a quick nap when the sound of gunfire came pouring through the already damaged house he had set up as a base.
“I haven’t slept in four days,” he told Al Jazeera last week as he sat up to give orders to the nearly two dozen volunteer fighters he had recruited in the fight against the Taliban.
The volunteers say Taliban fighters routinely fire on them from the mountains surrounding the lush valley.
As Salangi rose to his feet, one of the fighters started to shout commands into the walkie-talkie. Piles of glass shards from previous gunfights broke into smaller pieces under the weight of his boots as he paced from one side of the room to the other.
“Respond! Don’t stop firing! Don’t leave them without an answer,” he said while the sounds of gunfire echoed from the mountaintops.
The men are among at least 500 local residents who have picked up guns in recent weeks as the September 11 withdrawal deadline of the United States’ forces creeps closer.
On Monday, Abdul Quayom Rahimi, governor of Logar province, gathered hundreds of men carrying guns and Afghanistan’s tricolour flag in the provincial capital, Pol-e Alam.
While anti-Taliban volunteers had begun to appear in Logar earlier this year, Rahimi said he has had hundreds of men asking to join his force in recent weeks.
Rahimi said Monday’s gathering was a “deliberate, public show of strength”.
“The people know what is at stake and they want to show the Taliban that even if no one else is around to help, the people of Logar and every province themselves will take the fight directly to them,” he told Al Jazeera,
‘They spared no one’
Though the Ghorband Valley, 120km (74 miles) north of capital Kabul, has long been one of the most insecure districts of Parwan, the volunteers say recent events have compelled them to take up arms and defend their people against the Taliban.
In recent weeks, dozens of districts, including in Parwan, fell into Taliban hands. Many of those districts were retaken by Afghan forces within days.
But these men, most of them from Salang district, 95km (59 miles) to the east, say the stories they had heard of the Taliban’s actions in the days they held sway over the areas were too much to handle.
“They shot directly at houses. They burned people’s homes, their fields, their stores. They spared no one and nothing,” Daoud, a volunteer fighter in his 50s who arrived in Ghorband more than two weeks ago, told Al Jazeera.
To prove his point, Daoud mentioned two recent incidents in which Taliban fighters and Afghan troops were killed.
“We gave the Taliban’s body back, they covered him with garlands and called him a martyr,” he said, standing near a military check post on the outskirts of the valley.
But Afghan forces were not accorded the same respect, said Daoud.
“A couple of days ago, Afghan soldiers were killed by one of their (Taliban) mines. We asked for what was left of the bodies back. They refused.”
Politicians such as Salangi and officials in Kabul are also trying to ease fears of discord between the fighter groups and the Afghan security forces.
Khan Agha Rezayee, a legislator from Kabul who has been in contact with the volunteer groups taking up arms in the northern provinces, said it is not uncommon to see them working with the traditional security forces.
“When you go to these areas, you will see that the volunteers are there to assist the army and police in their operations,” he told Al Jazeera.
In the twenty years of US-led invasion, the Afghan security forces have also struggled with funding and supply shortfalls. The uprising forces are meant to act as a way of mitigating these shortfalls.
Amir Amiri, an Afghan soldier originally from the neighbouring province of Panjshir, commended the commitment of the volunteer forces.
“They are putting their lives at risk with no pay to protect their homeland,” he said, standing next to a white-bearded man in his late 60s.
“Look at him, he is so old and he is still willing to defend the nation against the enemy.”
Legislator Salangi said the admiration goes both ways. “It boosts the morale of our troops to see people leave their lives and families to come and support them in their fight.”
The idea of volunteer groups providing a morale boost to troops came up several times during conversations with civilian fighters who spoke to Al Jazeera.
The volunteers said the brazenness of recent Taliban attacks compelled them to join the fight.
Defence ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said the fact that Afghans are willing to pick up guns and fight alongside their security forces is a clear sign of the “hate and disgust” the Afghan people have for the Taliban and their practices.
Aman said the common people are ready to fight alongside the security forces because the forces are willing to make the “ultimate sacrifice” against the Taliban’s “unholy war”.
Many Afghans back a recent wave of nearly 30,000 people taking up arms across the country, while others question the wisdom of arming so many people in a country where millions of dollars were poured into disarmament and reintegration programmes.
Both Salangi and Rezayee say people should not fear the volunteer groups. “These people are just protecting what’s theirs,” said Rezayee.
Rezayee added that the Taliban’s efforts to take major cities was another driving factor that led to the rise of armed volunteer groups.
He said volunteer forces are nothing new in the country and simply an extension of previous efforts such as the Afghan Local Police, which saw the establishment of US- and UK-funded forces who were responsible for repelling Taliban attacks at the village level.
There have also been other people’s movements to remove armed opposition groups from the country. In 2017, residents in several districts of the eastern province of Nangarhar took up arms against forces claiming to belong to the so-called Islamic State.
Back in Ghorband, the yellow house continues to shake from the constant sounds of gunfire. The fighting, which began at about 10 in the morning, continued into the afternoon.
But to the volunteer forces, no fear or fatigue could keep them from their job.
“We are here to protect the people,” said Salangi as he placed his pakol hat on his head and walked out of the door to command his fighters to retaliate.