The U.S. is rushing to the exit in Afghanistan. The Taliban is filling the gaps

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- NOVEMBER 3, 2020: A man stands in the classroom and hangs his head low, in the aftermath of an attack on Kabul University, AfghanistanOs largest university, where three gunmen fired weapons and detonated explosives, concentrating their attacks in the the law faculty building, the National Legal Training Center building that was equipped with the financial support of the Government of the United States of America, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday Nov. 3, 2020. Kabul University had just lifted its coronavirus restrictions in recent months and students were returning to normal life on campus. At least 20 were killed in the massacre, and dozens more were wounded, according to government officials. Afghan security force and American troops took hours neutralize the attackers and end the siege. The morning after the attack, the carnage and the terror caused by this unthinkable violence could still be felt and seen in the classrooms. There was blood and broken glass everywhere, including a soiled Taliban flag on the window frame. The smell of flesh and blood still lingered in the air. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A soiled Taliban flag is in the window of a classroom at Kabul University, where at least 20 people were killed Nov. 3 when gunmen fired weapons and detonated explosives. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

When Taliban insurgents attacked Sangsar village in late October, they were fighting for lost ground again within their reach.

Fighters besieged the mud-walled town, ringed by corn and cannabis fields. They gunned down six police officers who had run out of ammunition after three days of fighting.

“It was the first time in many years they were that strong,” said Raqya Aslam, a 30-year-old villager.

It was in Sangsar, 25 miles outside the southern city of Kandahar, that the Taliban movement was founded in 1994 by a one-eyed local cleric. A decade ago, Taliban fighters waged a hit-and-run insurgency against U.S. and Afghan troops on the town’s unpaved streets and winding paths.

The Americans are gone. So is the cleric, Mullah Omar, who died of natural causes in hiding in 2013. But the Taliban is back in force — and not just in Sangsar.

People gather around a grave.
The anguished face of a woman lying in a hospital-type bed is seen as a woman whose head is covered touches her face.
Nahida Muhradi, a 22-year-old law student, weeps as she is reunited with family members while recovering from gunshot wounds sustained in the Nov. 3 attack on Kabul University. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Nineteen years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to punish Osama bin Laden for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the 4,500 remaining American troops are rushing to the exits as the insurgency they never managed to defeat is regaining ground across much of the country.

“Every day we make a plan for fighting,” Rafiullah Haqqani, 24, a Taliban commander from Sangsar who leads 20 fighters, said in an interview. “Every day we try to capture more area.”

Since the Trump administration and the Taliban signed a deal in February promising Americans' complete withdrawal by next spring, the U.S. has halted almost all combat operations, freeing the insurgents to step up attacks against Afghan government troops.

U.S. warplanes still carry out emergency airstrikes when Taliban fighters threaten to overrun Afghan troops. But at the handful of remaining bases, the U.S. and its allies are packing up and leaving, along with the contractors who have been training Afghans and keeping its military supplied.

“We have been in a condition of strategic stalemate where the government of Afghanistan was never going to militarily defeat the Taliban,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said last week at a Washington think tank, “and the Taliban, as long as we were supporting the government of Afghanistan, is never going to militarily defeat the regime.”

A police officer patrols a patch of land next to a shepherd and sheep.
An Afghan National Police officer patrols the road heading toward Panjwai district outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
An Afghan boy holds the handlebars of a motorcycle next to boxes of fruit.
A boy tries out a motorcycle at a fresh-produce stand in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

But that support is shrinking.

At Kandahar Airfield, a U.S. installation once so vast it had its own TGI Fridays restaurant, flag football league and Tim Hortons doughnut shop, the U.S. footprint has shrunk to a few hundred service members. Romanian soldiers guard the perimeter but rarely venture far.

At Camp Scorpion, a sprawling encampment outside Kabul, the U.S. special forces who once used it as a staging area for operations around the country pulled out in September, leaving a stripped-down base to Afghan commandos.

Days later, the pickup trucks and other vehicles left behind at the facility for Afghans were already missing, apparently sold off or stolen, said a senior Afghan officer familiar with the incident, an example of the corruption that has severely impaired the country’s security forces.

President Trump accelerated the U.S. pullout last month, ordering a drawdown to 2,500 troops by next month when Biden takes office. U.S.-brokered peace talks between the government and the Taliban underway in Qatar since September have made little progress.

Taliban leaders have rebuffed calls from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government for a ceasefire, seemingly convinced they can make gains on the battlefield without substantial concessions at the negotiating table.

Their resurgence is forcing the Afghan army and police to rush reinforcements from province to province.

Afghan police officers in sneakers and camouflage talk to two people on a three-wheel vehicle.
Afghan National Police officers man a checkpoint to search travelers crossing the dry riverbed from Zhari district into Panjwai. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Two people are seen, dark against the sun's glare, as military vehicles kick up clouds of dust on a rocky road.
Afghan National Police patrol a road that leads into Panjwai district outside Kandahar. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

But with ever-shrinking support from the U.S. — and no sign that President-elect Biden will reverse the American pullout — commanders say they are overstretched.

Since 2001, more than 2,400 U.S. military personnel have died in Afghanistan — including four so far in 2020 — and Congress has appropriated about $141 billion for reconstruction and for training and equipping Afghan security forces.

Even many Afghans who want the U.S. forces to stay acknowledge their own troops must fight better.

“The Americans made our lives very easy,” said a senior Afghan officer who dealt directly with U.S. commanders and spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “Now it’s our responsibility, and it’s very hard.”

Afghan National Police commander Sarda Wali speaks to his men, standing in an area of bare dirt hills.
Afghan National Police Cmdr. Sarda Wali, left, speaks to his men at an outpost serving as the last stronghold against the Taliban on the Kabul-Kandahar highway. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Sarda Wali, in Afghan garb, stands amid potted green plants; overhead is wire mesh held up by long tree limbs.
Police Cmdr. Sarda Wali, 22, stands in a greenhouse, a place where his officers can get away from the stress of guarding their outpost, he says. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In Wardak province, a 30-minute drive from Kabul, a half dozen police and army bases have fallen in recent months along the highway to the capital, some without a fight, says Sarda Wali, a 22-year-old police commander.

Sometimes Taliban commanders send text messages to government troops, advising them to flee before an impending attack, he said. Many soldiers comply, fearing the Taliban will surround them without food, water or ammunition.

“The soldiers from the other provinces. They usually surrender when the Taliban asks them to,” said Wali, a native of Wardak who sports a gold watch and a large pearl ring.

One nearby police outpost is surrounded by Taliban, but it hasn’t given up and has been resupplied by helicopters, he said.

Wali has been the commander since he joined up two years ago after the Taliban attacked his village, killing two of his uncles and a cousin. Inside the three-room hut that serves as his command post and living quarters, his Kalashnikov hangs on the wall near photographs of his father.

The outpost sits behind concrete blast walls overlooking the highway. A neighboring fort sits on adjacent rocky hilltop. The green valley below is in Taliban hands.

American airstrikes pushed the Taliban back, helping to keep the provincial capital, Maiden Shah, in government hands. But Wali's men are barely hanging on.

A security person stands guard at night.
Security forces guard the perimeter after an attack on Kabul University killed at least 20 people and injuring many more. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Soldiers inspect and clean their weapons.
Soldiers from the Afghan National Army's quick reaction force inspect and clean their weapons at their base on the outskirts of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan, on Nov. 7, 2020. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Generators at the base are without fuel to power high-wattage flood lights, their best defense when insurgents, some equipped with night vision goggles, advance on their position in the dark, he said.

“It’s like we are blindfolded right now,” he said. "They can see us, but we cannot see them.”

Many Afghans feel desperate or angry at their government, whose widespread corruption has siphoned off international aid intended to help curb the insurgency. Others feel bitter at American forces, who they fault for pulling out before the country is secure.

“The Americans promised us many things,” says Azim Khan, a police commander in Panjwai, a farming district 20 miles outside of Kandahar. “They never carried out a single promise they made to the Afghan people.”

Khan signed up with the U.S. military a decade ago, when the Obama administration sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, hoping to turn around the losing war. A tribal elder, he was given money, uniforms and weapons to create a local militia, known as Afghan Local Police.

Hundreds of U.S. troops also moved in, taking over from Canadian forces who had been in the district since 2002. The American forces established three large bases along the two-lane highway down the center of the district and small outposts in nearby villages.

A Taliban commander looks over mountains.
Jumah Gul, 40, a Taliban commander, looks over the mountains on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Facing overwhelming U.S. firepower, Taliban fighters planted mines along the highway and the footpaths where U.S. troops patrolled and snuck close enough at night to lob mortar shells inside the bases.

But American troops departed Panjwai six years ago, leaving it in the hands of the Afghan army and police, including Khan’s militia.

The future looks bleak. They are running short of ammunition and have lost 14 men in the past three months. The Afghan government recently informed Khan that they are disbanding his force for budget reasons, even as Taliban fighters launch attacks every night against police checkpoints and army outposts.

Khan said that he and his men have been offered jobs in the army. But Khan is reluctant, fearing they will be ordered to combat in another part of Afghanistan and that their homes and relatives in Panjwai will be left unprotected.

“We are obligated to go” to the army, “but we don’t want to,” Khan said, munching on ruby red pomegranates at the two-pump gas station along the highway to Kandahar that serves as his headquarters. “In all these villages there are still Taliban.”

Police officers patrol a road.
Afghan National Police officers including Hazrat Bilal, 24, center, patrol the road heading toward Panjwai district outside Kandahar. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A boy with a weapon patrols an outpost.
A boy accompanies Afghan National Police at their defensive outpost in Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The insurgents say their morale is high, with foreign troops finally withdrawing. “The Taliban defeated America,” said Haqqani, the Taliban commander from Sangsar. “It’s a victory for us.”

His fighters had just returned from clashes in neighboring Helmand province, where they nearly captured Lashkar Gah, the provincial center, before being pushed back by Afghan troops. They had returned to their home province, determined to push closer to Kandahar.

Residents are still adjusting to the return of the Taliban to Sangsar. After capturing the town, the insurgents ordered residents inside their home and planted mines along the streets, said the villager Aslam.

When the Afghan army counterattacked with helicopters and ground troops, the Taliban hid their weapons in a nearby cornfield, posing as farmers until the soldiers left and the insurgents reclaimed the village, she said.

Aslam remembers when American troops patrolled their streets and irrigated fields from 2010 to 2016 as a time of comparative safety, though Taliban ambushes and buried mines killed and wounded dozens of U.S. soldiers.

A girl outside a makeshift shelter.
Islamya, 5, and her siblings live in a makeshift shelter near Kandahar with their belongings piled in a courtyard. The family fled their village of Sangsar after fighting erupted in October. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A man in a shelter
Mohammad Aslam and his family fled their home in Sangsar after a three-day battle in October. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“They came to our area and they did patrols,“ she recalls. “In our village, it was peaceful.”

Aslam fled with her husband, his second wife and the family’s 16 children after the three-day battle in October. They now squat in a filthy three-room shelter near Kandahar city, 25 miles to the west, their aluminum pots, bedrolls and other meager belongings piled in a courtyard open to the sky. Their pet bird chirped in its metal cage.

At Mirwais Hospital, the region’s largest, the staff was preparing for more casualties on a recent morning as the fighting continued in Panjwai and other districts surrounding Kandahar. Workers were setting up tents in the courtyard outside the surgery ward to house another 115 beds.

A soldier, 30-year-old Muhammad Sabiz, was recovering in the intensive care unit, a bandage around his stomach. He had been shot by two assailants on a motorbike two weeks earlier as he was returning to the army base outside the city where he was stationed.

Hospital workers prepare beds and tents outdoors.
As the fighting continues nearby, hospital workers prepare beds and tents in preparation for mass casualty outside the surgery ward at Mirwais Hospital. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“People are very much afraid,” he said, while several army comrades in camouflage fatigues and carrying rifles stood around his bed. “When they leave the base, they do not believe they will be alive.”

Yet exhausted troops fight on, as they have for years.

One recent afternoon in Panjwai, hours after returning from a battle, 21-year-old Agha Wali and four fellow police officers loaded into the back of a battered green pickup and headed for the front once again.

A man smokes in the back of a truck.
Agha Wali smokes as he and fellow Afghan National Police officers patrol the road heading toward Panjwai district outside Kandahar. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Two men ride in a moving vehicle, smiling and singing.
On patrol, Hazrat Bilal, 24, right, and another Afghan police officer smile despite the somber melody they sing. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

As they roared through villages, past shoulder-high cannabis stalks filling the air with a sweet fragrance, Wali remembered a somber melody.

“We’re going to war,” he sang as his wild-haired buddies in camouflage fatigues laughed and joined in, rifles in one hand, cigarettes in the other. “We are going to join the fight.”

At the frontline, Taliban fighters were 600 yards away, across a rocky, dry riverbed. They had taken a village on the far bank earlier that morning in a sudden thrust. A trickle of motorbikes and cars crammed with families and livestock were fleeing the village.

Nightfall was coming as the young soldier and his squad climbed down from the truck. More fighting was expected.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.