World News

In an Afghan City on the Brink, Government Control Is Just an Idea

Posted May 7, 2018 10:38 p.m. EDT
Updated May 7, 2018 10:46 p.m. EDT

GHAZNI CITY, Afghanistan — What does it feel like to live in an Afghan city on the brink of falling to the Taliban?

The residents of Ghazni, a provincial capital of 280,000 people about 110 miles south of the capital, Kabul, on a main highway, can hardly tell anymore who is in charge, and fear has become an everyday companion.

With the Taliban controlling some of the road network around Ghazni, citizens have long felt vulnerable. But during a recent visit, I kept hearing an even greater sense of defenselessness. Many here fear a full-on effort by the Taliban to seize the city could come at any time.

Not content to merely control access to the city of 280,000, the insurgents have begun attacking police posts within it. The Taliban methodically extort money — they say it is taxation — from businesses in the city center, including those near the government headquarters, and an increasing number of insurgents live openly in the city. Their fighters regularly kill officials, security personnel and even traffic police officers.

A Taliban court claims jurisdiction over the city and its outskirts, and carries out floggings, and even, sometimes, stonings. I have been to several Afghan provinces influenced by the Taliban, including Kunduz province and its provincial capital before it fell to the insurgents. In those cities, the outskirts would seem dodgy but there was always some sense of reassurance of government control upon entering the city center.

Ghazni, just a two-hour drive from Kabul, felt edgier. Many residents and even officials wondered out loud what the idea of a city’s collapse even meant anymore, and whether they were not living it already. The city is not far from Khost, where 14 people were killed Sunday in a bombing as they lined up to register to vote.

Just getting to Ghazni can be a challenge.

Highway 1, the road that connects Kabul to the south of Afghanistan, has always been dangerous. When U.S. military convoys were common here, it was a frequent target for roadside bombs. Now, with the Americans mostly gone, its defense rests with Afghan troops, and the Taliban have grown bolder, often setting up surprise checkpoints not far from government outposts.

As a precaution, on a recent trip, in case we ran into an insurgent checkpoint, I left in Kabul my reporter’s badge and my smartphone, which had government and foreign contacts in it.

The road is safe to travel only during daylight, preferably 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., when soldiers patrol. On my drive back to Kabul, I took the SIM card out of my simpler cellphone — on which I had received several calls from the office during our trip — and held it in my fingers, ready to throw it away if we sensed danger.

One of my first interviews in the area was with the family of a traffic police officer, Ali Ahmad Jalali, who was killed on April 20, shot eight times. Their village, Tauhidabad, is about 6 miles from the center of Ghazni, down a bumpy dirt road. His cousin, Ishaq Bahrami, quickly ushered me, for tea and conversation, to premises where he had a property dealership.

Jalali, who had three children, had been a regular police officer, but had shifted to the traffic force. That was no protection. He was shot around 10 a.m. when leaving his wife’s family’s house.

“Where he was shot was not 100 meters away from the Afghan army check post,” Bahrami said. Bahrami said he paid about $40 to the Taliban last year, but had not yet been approached for a further payment this year.

The authorities in Ghazni province say the killings of security force personnel are usually carried out by young men on motorcycles, often using pistols with silencers. While about 50 government employees were killed in the city last year, the count for one 30-day stretch in March and April alone this year stands at 10 dead.

Mohammad Arif Noori, spokesman for the provincial governor, said that on May 1, an Afghan soldier had been shot and killed at midday in the Hada-e-Qandar neighborhood of Ghazni.

To get a better sense of the security, I drove with a senior police official into the heart of the city. The commander, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to brief the news media, climbed a hill with me to survey the area.

“The Taliban are present in the city,” he said, pointing out a particular neighborhood where they were most prevalent. “They have their homes here and can do whatever they want to.”

“Most of them have guns in their homes,” he continued, “and we can’t do anything because we do not have the ability. Even if we arrest them, they will be out of jail soon and will come after the police to seek revenge.”

The commander bluntly acknowledged that his men were outnumbered. For that Taliban-heavy area, he had four police officers, he said; a maximum of three would be on duty at any one time.

He suggested that they had reached an accommodation with the insurgents there to keep his men from being targeted. He did not specify the nature of the arrangement because of the sensitivity involved.

Across the city of Ghazni, store owners and other businesspeople said they had no choice but to pay the Taliban representatives who say they are imposing taxes. The insurgents come once a year and take the money they gather to Mongur, an area outside the city, officials said.

A private radio and television station, next to a police station, had to pay about $1,700, employees said. A small shop on a main road not far from the governor’s office paid a little less than $200, its owner, Hajji Fateh, revealed.

“The agent came and took the money,” Fateh said. “He said, ‘If you don’t pay, I will put this pistol to your head.’ So how can I not pay?”

The governor of Ghazni, Abdul Karim Matin, acknowledged the practice. “The Taliban collect money from the people, unfortunately, be it shopkeepers or anyone, in the name of tax,” he said. “This is extortion, not tax.”

Before the interview, Matin was busy with security meetings, uniformed men going in and out of his office. When he moves from one building to another inside the governor’s compound, he drives in an armored SUV, sometimes escorted by security forces in Humvees.

Things got particularly bad at the end of April, when the central government in Kabul expressed fear that the Taliban had made it a priority to overrun Ghazni. A late-night call from the authorities in the capital to the regional army commander sent forces rushing to the city.

The attacks turned out to be less severe than expected, although at least four police officers were killed in an outpost in the Khasheek neighborhood of the city. The army has been keeping more troops than usual in Ghazni, and an outright Taliban takeover has seemed unlikely.

On Sunday, though, Bahrami said by telephone that fierce fighting was underway in Ghazni and that all the police checkpoints in the Khasheek neighborhood had fallen to the Taliban. At the end of my trip to Ghazni, as we drove back to Kabul, my heart beat faster until we entered the relative safety of the capital city. I thought about the shrinking government control in the province I had just left.

When the Taliban infiltrate at will, shoot officials in broad daylight, and run a vast tax-collection system up to the gates of the governor’s compound, how strong can the central government’s authority be, even in its own backyard?

I recalled one resident of Ghazni, Mohammad Anwar, 60, who said his son, Mujtaba, a 22-year-old policeman, was gunned down on the street by a Taliban assassin this year. He despaired about how frequent open killings were becoming in the city.

“The government is very careless about the ordinary people of Ghazni,” he said.

“Losing a child is so painful,” he added, beginning to weep. “You endure a lot of hardship to raise a son, and then someone simply takes him from you.”