As Afghanistan struggles to start peace talks, violence fills the void

In one of the most heavily contested provinces in Afghanistan, the government’s control ends just two miles from the governor’s residence. Beyond that point, Taliban influence reigns.

The balance of power in Wardak province held relatively steady for years. But since the signing of a U.S.-Taliban peace deal in February, Taliban influence has grown here and in other key parts of the country. An uptick in violence, aimed at giving the militant group leverage in upcoming talks with the Afghan government, has caused hundreds of civilian and combatant casualties and is undermining local government officials.

“It’s created a great distance between us and the people,” said Esmatullah Azim, a local politician in the province. He said fewer civilians are approaching him for help with compensation or for an explanation of the violence. Instead, they’re turning to the Taliban.

“The people blame the government for the delay in peace talks. They are hungry for peace and want it any way and anyhow. Instead, day by day, the Taliban are getting stronger.”

Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Afghan-Taliban peace talks were slated to begin in March. But they were delayed for months by a presidential power crisis in Kabul, increased violence and a controversial prisoner exchange that was finalized only Sunday. The talks are now expected to launch this month in Doha. U.S. officials have said they will bring a decrease in violence.

Washington Post reporters traveled to Maidan Shahr this month during the three-day cease-fire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Wardak lies along one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous highways, but during the cease-fire, the road was free from clashes, and Taliban fighters temporarily disbanded their checkpoints.

The cease-fire was a brief reprieve during an intensely violent period. Police at the security outposts that mark the end of government control and the beginning of Taliban influence have reported increased assaults by the militants. And in districts beyond the government’s reach, civilians report heavier use of government artillery.

More than 3,400 civilians have been killed or wounded since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, according to Afghan government figures. The casualties are comparable to those in the months leading up to the agreement, when the numbers were among the highest on record.

Local officials warn that the persistent violence is helping the Taliban. They fear that the militants are now in a stronger position as they enter delicate negotiations with Kabul to redistribute power across the country and shape the government that will rule postwar Afghanistan.

Naimatullah Naimat, the head of the emergency room at Maidan Shahr’s main hospital, said he’s seen the number of wounded coming for treatment increase.

“It wasn’t only me — all Afghans had the same expectation, that there would be a decrease in the violence,” he said. “But unfortunately that hasn’t been the case.”

Naimat said patients from rural parts of the province blame the government for their injuries and the deaths of loved ones. “If there is an operation in a village [that causes casualties], people think it’s the government who is killing them,” he said.

Data collected by the United Nations suggests otherwise. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan attributed more civilian casualties in the first half of the year to anti-government armed groups than to government forces. Taliban militants were responsible for 43 percent of all civilian casualties, the mission said in its most recent U.N. report; government forces were responsible for 23 percent.

The U.S.-Taliban deal did not require a reduction in violence, but U.S. officials said violence was “expected” to remain low after the signing. The week before the signing saw a drop in violence of more than 70 percent. But within days, it surged again, the only relief being two temporary cease-fires for holidays.

Officials in other contested provinces echoed Azim, saying rising violence after the deal has undermined local governance.

“The people have lost trust in the government,” said Hamidullah Nawroz, the head of Ghazni’s provincial council. “Instead, their trust in the Taliban has increased.”

Nawroz clarified that he doesn’t believe that most Afghans in his province trust the Taliban to be just rulers. But the deal with the United States has given the militants legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghans and has made them appear to be a more reliable source of security than the government.

Before the deal was made public, Nawroz said, people in his province had hoped that some form of a power-sharing government would rule postwar Afghanistan. “Now people think it’s inevitable the Taliban will take complete control.”

Hundreds of Afghan troops and police officers have been killed or wounded over the past five months. At the height of the violence in June, 291 security forces were killed and 550 wounded in a single week, according to Afghanistan’s national security council.

In Wardak on a recent afternoon, half a dozen police officers were stationed at a dusty checkpoint just beyond the governor’s compound, atop a mound of discarded concrete and mesh barriers that delineate the end of government-controlled territory.

“There’s fighting every night,” said Jamshed Afghan, a 19-year-old officer. “And every day we hear that the Taliban overran another checkpoint.”

He said he believes that clashes with Afghan forces have increased since the U.S. deal because the Taliban no longer devotes resources and fighters to U.S. targets. And with fewer U.S. airstrikes, the militants are under less military pressure.

Jamshed Afghan pointed to a handful of places along the outpost’s perimeter where recent Taliban attacks killed members of his unit. A small gap in a line of concrete barrier walls, he said, was “where they shot our friend.” Muhammed Azim, 27, was killed just days before the Eid cease-fire. He left three small children.

“Of course it brings our morale down,” Afghan said. “The Taliban are becoming stronger, and without the Americans they can turn their faces to us completely.”