An unlikely scene unfolded on opposite banks of an irrigation canal in southern Afghanistan this week.
On one side, a Taliban military commander, swaddled in a traditional cotton shawl, straddled an idling motorcycle. Fifty feet away, across the canal, 26-year-old Afghan National Army Captain Mohammad Wali Barakzai thumbed through a loop of prayer beads.
Boghra Canal, in Helmand Province, was built by American engineers in the 1950s to open up large tracts of desert to agriculture. It was part of a campaign to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan. But for the past four years, it has served as a kind of moat between the Taliban, who control the territory to the north, and Afghan government soldiers protecting Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, 10 miles south. Near-daily fighting since 2016 has made the boundary a no-go zone for civilians.
In recent days, Barakzai and his soldiers had been fortifying an outpost they’d built on their side of the canal; the mud walls of a new bunker were still dark and wet. But this construction project, the Talib called from across the canal, was a violation of the weeklong agreement to reduce violence between the Afghan government, U.S. forces, and the Taliban.
“If you don’t destroy your bunker,” the Talib cried, “we will destroy it.”
The exchange, blustery as it was, demonstrated a capacity for trust that many Afghans have doubted and hinted at the willingness of fighters on both sides to allow the possibility of direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The war in Afghanistan, now in its 19th year, is at a stalemate. Even the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Scott Miller, says it can’t be won militarily. After a year of formal talks between American and Taliban envoys in Doha, Qatar, this week’s so-called reduction in violence was pitched as a trust-building measure that, if successful, could pave the way for a formal peace agreement.
The agreement, which the U.S. is expected to sign with the Taliban on Saturday, would lead to a gradual reduction of U.S. forces in return for a Taliban disavowal of al Qaeda and other international terror groups. (The deal would leave in place an American counterterrorism contingent of unknown size and composition.)
“The agreement states that all the elements are interdependent,” and that if either side fails to fulfill their obligations, the process can be suspended, Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation at NYU told The Intercept. It would also compel Taliban leaders to start direct talks with the Afghan government, which they have so far refused to recognize, within 10 to 15 days. Saturday’s agreement “provides for a US-Taliban ceasefire only,” Rubin said. “But a comprehensive ceasefire will be on the table between Afghans.”
The weeklong partial ceasefire, which officially ended at midnight on Friday in Kabul, has been hailed a resounding success. Violence across the country, even in heavily contested provinces like Helmand, has declined dramatically since the experiment began on February 22. The Taliban have mounted a handful of attacks countrywide, reiterating that they never agreed to a total ceasefire. Afghan government forces have stood their ground, but they and U.S. forces have entirely halted offensive operations against the Taliban. As well as kindling trust between the two sides, the reduced toll on Afghanistan’s population as a whole is unprecedented aside from a three-day Eid ceasefire in 2018.
Peace is still far from certain. Internecine squabbling within the Afghan government, interference by Pakistan and Iran, the Taliban’s unwillingness to acknowledge basic tenets of democracy and human rights, the question of whether its leadership can rally tens of thousands of fighters toward peace, and the many challenges of disarming a highly militarized and factionalized society could still derail it.
This is, however, the closest the warring parties have come to reconciliation since U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld squandered a proposed truce by denying amnesty to Taliban leaders in December 2001.
On the Afghan army side of the canal lies the village of Loy Manda, a hamlet of mud-walled compounds amid lush farmland. Earlier this week, Rafiullah, 19, was tending to recently sown poppy and corn fields there. The fighting had stopped for the moment, but his family’s lives have been irreparably damaged by conflict.
Neither Rafiullah nor any of his siblings has ever been to school. “I have known war,” he said, “since I knew the difference between right and wrong.”
In 2017, when Loy Manda was under Taliban control, Rafiullah opened a tiny store “selling tea, sweets, simple things.” The sounds of fighting never ceased, but the battle seemed far away. By 2018, the balance had shifted, and Loy Manda was on the front line.
“This area changed hands from government to Taliban many times,” Rafiullah told The Intercept this week. In late 2018, the situation became so volatile he abandoned the shop. The Taliban would fight from within the family’s small corn and poppy fields, firing through and destroying much of their crop. Afghan army mortars did the rest.
On November 24, 2018, two Taliban fighters ran inside Rafiullah’s family compound and fired machine guns at a passing U.S. and Afghan Special Forces convoy. Rafiullah’s father begged them to leave. The fighters ran off, but soon after, a U.S. plane made two strafing runs over the house. According to the injured and witnesses who arrived shortly after, Rafiullah’s father, Obaidullah, and his 15-year-old brother Esmatullah were killed instantly. Twelve women and children and an elderly man were grievously wounded.
Another of Rafiullah’s brothers, Ehsanullah, lost his right eye in the attack. The other eye was ruptured and would be surgically removed later that day. Others had broken limbs or head wounds, and at least three children below the age of 10 required operations to remove shrapnel from their chests and stomachs. When The Intercept visited the family this week, jets roared above. It was the first time they’d heard war planes since the partial ceasefire began. Rafiullah tried to spot them in the sky. Ehsanullah sat still and silent.
“Now I can’t even find my way,” said Ehsanullah, whose blindness overrides any positive feelings about the prospect of peace. “I don’t care about peace talks,” he said. “I want eyes.”
Ehsanullah’s uncle Haji Lal Jan was a bit more sanguine but also weary. “Everybody is fed up,” he said. “I will forgive the Taliban for this — that they brought the American bombers to us — but put the guns down.”
In Helmand, where 962 foreign soldiers and marines and an untold number of Afghans have died, people worry primarily about bringing an end to the violence on their doorstep, rather than what the Taliban taking a share of power might mean. Concerns over issues like women’s rights are more pragmatic than ideological.
“I think if peace comes, security will come, but [the Taliban] will stop girls going to school and women working,” said Haji Lal Jan. “In my opinion they shouldn’t. Where will a midwife come from? Where will a female doctor come from?”
In his view, which is widely shared, Pakistan is to blame for Afghanistan’s recent troubles. “All the bad things are coming from Pakistan,” he said, and “if the U.S. doesn’t put pressure on Pakistan, peace won’t come for a long time.” They “are giving safe haven, training and managing their fighters. … Sheep can’t do anything without a shepherd.”
Andrew Watkins, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan, agreed that Pakistan has long influenced elements of the war, and that, if its leaders chose to, they “could create real obstacles to the peace process.” But Watkins stressed there is little evidence of spoiler tactics to date. In fact, “certain steps taken by Pakistan, such as the release of Mullah Baradar [from prison], now appear instrumental in nudging the Taliban’s side to the point we’ve reached today.”
Among the patients admitted to Emergency Hospital in Lashkar Gah this week was a young man who was wheeled in on Wednesday with a splintered fibula protruding from ragged flesh where his right foot should have been. He had stepped on a mine while attending a funeral in the Taliban-controlled district of Marjah.
Nevertheless, admissions were way down among war-wounded: The hospital had admitted just 10 patients between February 22 and 28. The numbers were so low that “unofficially, we’ve taken the liberty … to change the criteria for admissions,” from solely the war-wounded to those injured in car wrecks, industrial accidents, or domestic falls, said Alberto Zanin, the hospital’s medical coordinator. Now, he said, it looks more like a pediatric hospital. Zanin expects the total number of admissions for the whole of February to be around 150, and that only 20 percent of those will have been war-wounded.
By comparison, 171 patients were admitted in February 2019, and most of their injuries were war-related.
Barakzai, the captain who commands the frontline outpost by the canal, said the Taliban have continued firing on his checkposts from across the water this week, as if to remind him they’re still there, “but not like normal.”
“Peace is the order of God” and the “voice of the people,” said Lt. Gen. Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, commander of southern Afghanistan’s 215th Corps and Barakzai’s superior. But the general, who fought the Soviets in the 1980s, admits that he “can’t sleep without the sound of fighting.”
Barakzai concedes that to forget, to forgive, would require compromise. “I’m ready to sacrifice this for the sake of the people.” It is “the people,” too, he said, who look forward to seeing the back of the Americans — but not before peace. If the Americans leave before then, he said, “it will be the same as the ’90s after the Soviet Union left: a civil war.”
Abdul Wadoud is hunched, wiry, and likely somewhere in his 60s, but in his job as the local water manager, he wrestles great spindles that open and close irrigation gates with the vigor of someone a third of his age. On Monday afternoon, he told The Intercept how the constant fighting in recent years rarely allowed him to perform his duties, let alone leave his house. Even worse, he said, was the suspicion he aroused traveling from one side of Boghra Canal — the front line — to the other.
“Neither side trusted me,” he said. “Even an Afghan National Army commander told me he’d tie me to [his] humvee, but since Captain [Barakzai] came, everything is fine. He sees I’m an old man.”
On the canal, a narrow concrete structure holding the irrigation gates in place doubles as a walkway connecting the two banks. At times, civilians walking, bicycling, and riding motorcycles formed short queues to get across.
Abdul Malik motored across the 3-foot-wide span from the Taliban side, with his wife and baby riding pillion. “Before the ceasefire,” he said, “I wasn’t allowed to cross the front line. Now everyone is crossing. If no one disrupts the peace, it can be like this.”
Barakzai estimated that previously, only two or three motorcyclists would pass the outpost each day. Now, “people are happy. My soldiers are walking by the canal. The Taliban can see us, but they aren’t firing.”
But it didn’t last. On Friday, one of Barakzai’s soldiers, a young man named Ajmal, sat on a steel bed frame at the Loy Manda outpost. His head was wrapped in a scarf that concealed a bandaged wound. Two days earlier, while he was talking with another soldier about how quiet things were during the ceasefire, a Taliban sniper’s bullet had struck him from across the canal. The bullet exited without damaging his brain. “I didn’t tell my family,” Ajmal said. “It would make them worry.”
“We are preparing” for the week’s end, Barakzai said, referring to the bunker he’d asked his soldiers to rebuild and that his commander had ordered him to leave standing. When the week is finished, he said, “it will be the same as before.”