‘It’s all Taliban country now’: Militant checkpoints are choking off parts of Afghanistan

The Taliban’s encroachment on critical roadways is one of many signs that the group is undiminished after 20 years of war and appears to be pressing for a military victory, writes Susannah George, Aziz Tassal and Sharif Hassan

Saturday 08 May 2021 00:00
<p>Buses leave the Campani area of Kabul for the south </p>

Buses leave the Campani area of Kabul for the south

Taliban checkpoints have proliferated across key parts of Afghanistan as US forces have withdrawn over the past year, leaving towns and cities increasingly isolated and impeding the government’s ability to function.

Dozens of such temporary checkpoints now dot the main highways leading into and out of the Afghan capital, according to eight local officials, and more than 10 permanent outposts have been established by the militants along the main north-south highway. Many of the new permanent outposts are checkpoints abandoned by government forces stretched thin by the US drawdown, pushed out by expanding Taliban influence, or both.

Taliban checkpoints are both a symbolic show of force and a real blow to Afghanistan’s already fragile elected government. The outposts – both temporary and permanent – along major highways frustrate military resupply efforts, stifle the provision of government services and undercut confidence in elected officials.

The new checkpoints have emerged as Afghanistan enters a pivotal period. Nato troops began drawing down last month and US forces are set to be zero by 11 September, a deadline originally scheduled for 1 May. The Taliban’s encroachment on critical roadways is one of many signs that the group is undiminished after 20 years of war and appears to be pressing for a military victory as foreign military support for Afghan security forces is cut back.

“It is like we are on an island,” says Mahmad Yusef Ayobi, the head of Kunduz provincial council, describing the province’s capital city. “I can’t drive more than four kilometres in any direction without hitting a Taliban checkpoint.”

A little over a year ago, Ayobi would drive himself the nearly eight hours south from Kunduz to Kabul for meetings. Today, that is impossible. Government officials are largely forced to make the journey by air and if they do travel by road they do so in armoured convoys with heavy security.

The Afghan government has struggled to maintain control of its highways since the beginning of the Taliban resurgence in 2005 but the situation has steadily deteriorated as the number of US troops in the country has dropped.

The inability of government employees to use major roadways in Afghanistan is preventing more Afghans from receiving government services

When US military bases began closing after the US-Taliban deal, Afghan forces suddenly found themselves stretched thin. With less US support, Afghan police and soldiers could not hold the same amount of territory. They moved inward to protect population centres, leaving large swaths of rural territory – and the roadways that cross it – largely unguarded.

At the same time, the Taliban doubled down on territory under its control, moved into unsecured areas and actively pushed to expand its areas of influence. With the cessation of offensive US airstrikes, the Taliban was able to set up permanent checkpoints where highways crossed long-held districts and send out hundreds of fighters to patrol, according to officials.

Restricting the movement of government officials, Ayobi says, makes it almost impossible for them to do their jobs. “We used to drive out to the villages to every district and talk to the people,” he says. “Now that we cannot speak to the people, how can we know what their problems are?”

Kunduz has been one of the least stable provinces in Afghanistan for years and its capital fell to the Taliban in 2015 but it has never been as isolated as it is now, Ayobi says. “Day by day the government [controlled] area is getting smaller and smaller.”

Taliban forces have also launched a series of military offensives aimed at encircling government-held territory. US negotiators are scrambling to secure a peace deal between the militants and the Afghan government prior to the withdrawal to prevent increased violence but have not announced any progress.

Afghan interior ministry spokesman, Tariq Aryan, says, “Highways are important for us and we have taken serious measures to suppress the enemy on them completely.”

Highway 1, the main road connecting Kabul to the southern and western provinces

He says some government checkpoints that were considered “not effective” have been removed in recent months and the forces transferred to larger, nearby bases for “strategic” reasons. He acknowledges that the Taliban has a presence on roads, but he says the militants are “scattered”, aiming only to intimidate and extort travellers.

The US prioritised Afghanistan's highways as key to both security and economic stability after the 2001 invasion and spent nearly $3bn (£2.16bn) repairing them. Now they are some of the most dangerous parts of the country for many.

“It’s all Taliban country now,” says taxi driver Muhamadi, 24. who has been shuttling passengers almost every day between Kunduz and Kabul for the past three years. Muhamadi, who like many Afghans and others in this report goes by a single name, works at one of the main stations in Kabul for passengers looking to head north.

Most Taliban checkpoints along highways in Afghanistan are no more than one or two fighters and a flag but more than a dozen drivers say it is enough to scare away customers. Revenue has dropped by about half over the last year, they say, as most Afghans choose not to travel or those with the means opt to fly.

At a taxi station collecting passengers for the ride south of Kabul, drivers described a similar phenomenon: Taliban outposts sprouting up along roadways over the past year where government checkpoints once stood.

Driver Nafi Pashton, 31, says the Afghan troops stationed at the few bases that remain along the southern highway refuse to leave their fortifications out of fear of Taliban attacks. He says they often wave down taxis to pass provisions along to the next government outpost just a few kilometres away.

I remember before I didn’t want to sleep for any part of the drive, it was so beautiful

“They give me food, oil, meat,” Pashton says. “It happens a lot.” Sometimes, he says, militants stop him and confiscate supplies; other times he manages to deliver the goods to the government forces.

The taxi drivers says they and most of their passengers are not hassled by the Taliban. “They are only looking for government employees and security forces,” says Wahid, 43, who has been a taxi driver in the provinces for over 20 years.

“The Taliban has very good intelligence,” he says, explaining one of the times the fighters pulled a man out of his car. “They stopped the car, and just say, ‘You! Get out!’, pointing to a single man seated in the middle of the car without offering any explanation. After they took him, the fighters let Wahid and the rest of the car go.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid says the checkpoints are intended to keep “the enemy”, referring to Afghan government employees and security forces, out of Taliban territory and improve security along main roads.

All the highways out of Kabul, “were unsecured, so we have posted our mujahideen [Taliban fighters] to ensure security day and night”, Mujahid says. “We are not restricting common people but are keeping watch of the movements of the enemies and their military.”

Government soldiers take position against a Taliban attack near the outer gate of Mazar-e Sharif in December

The inability of government employees to use major roadways in Afghanistan is preventing more Afghans from receiving government services. School principals in Helmand and Kandahar say more Taliban checkpoints there mean fewer teachers – who often live in urban areas – can reach school houses outside provincial capitals. In Baghlan, a doctor says the checkpoints make it more difficult for him and his patients to get to his hospital.

A provincial council member in the same province, Mahbubullah Ghafari, says the increasing presence of Taliban fighters on the roads is encouraging his constituents to arm themselves. He estimates about 1,000 have done so already, many selling their livestock to purchase weaponry.

“What can our government do for us if no one is safe on the roads?” asks Mujtaba, a shopkeeper in Helmand who once drove the southern portion of the highway from Kabul every few months to replenish his stocks.

“I remember before I didn't want to sleep for any part of the drive, it was so beautiful,” he says, recalling that he would request a seat in the front of the taxi for the best view, but the last time he made the journey by road six months ago, he purposefully sat in the middle of the vehicle and crouched down to avoid catching the attention of a Taliban fighter.

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Even though Mujtada has no ties to the security forces or the government that would make him a Taliban target, he says the fighters’ checkpoints terrify him. He has vowed never to make the trip by road again.

“During that last entire drive,” he says, “I was just thinking, ‘I’m already dead’.”

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