Afghan forces keep anxious watch for Taliban at Kabul’s gates

Between the Hesco blocks and makeshift barricades at a checkpoint near the village of Arghandeh, Afghan police and soldiers keep watch for Taliban activity.

About 100,000 vehicles pass through the roadblock every day, the police said. It is one of six gates controlling the major roads leading to the Afghan capital and often comes under attack.

Security forces and civilians alike say the Taliban have encircled Kabul and have already begun infiltrating the outer suburbs of the Afghan capital as the withdrawal of US forces approaches.

Most people agree that the withdrawal on September 11 could lead to Taliban political dominance, and with many of the old warlords still vying for power and the longevity of the current government uncertain, some fear that Afghanistan could collapse into chaos or even a civil war.

On the day The National visited, thick storm clouds had rolled over Arghandeh, in the Paghman district on Kabul’s south-western edge, as security personnel checked dozens of cars for explosives and weapons at the checkpoint.

The road through the checkpoint becomes a dusty and uneven track shortly after passing the city’s boundaries, and leads out towards Wardak province and, eventually, to Kandahar – once the Taliban’s heartland.

Cars and trucks arrive from as far away as Spin Boldak on the border with Pakistan, where explosives and weapons are regularly smuggled into Afghanistan.

Kabul’s 6 million residents, who have witnessed a surge in violence in recent months, depend on the checkpoints for security.

The Arghandeh valley stretches far into the mountains that form a ring around Kabul.

The lower part of Arghandeh is still secure, but the upper part, in the hills, is “full of Taliban,” said Nurullah Wafa, 21, a soldier with the Afghan National Army (ANA), adding that he and his fellow soldiers were involved in frequent firefights.

Beside the checkpoint is a small base where the soldiers are stationed.

Its parking space was filled with Humvees, an ambulance and several dozen soldiers who either patrol the area or guard the outpost.

“The Taliban has snipers in this area too,” Mr Wafa said as he crouched while walking around the base’s highest point.

Further along the road towards Wardak’s capital Maidan Shah, some army posts sit deserted.

The Taliban forces operating in the area often set up their own checkpoints and plant bombs. Even further down the road, the militants have blown up several bridges.

The army and police stationed at the Kabul gates say the Taliban is at the doorstep.

But while the soldiers don’t feel safe, neither do civilians in Paghman district.

In Bektuk village, a picturesque cluster of green gardens and mud-walled houses, a group of teenage girls are on their way home from school in their black uniforms and white scarves,.

Shekiba Kadir, 18, said she was due to finish high school in a few weeks but no longer felt safe in the village.

“A few days ago, two IEDs were planted on the road I take to school,” she said, adding that they were later defused by the army, who were the apparent targets of the bombs.

“Since that day, I don’t feel safe anymore even going to school. It’s a short walk, maybe about 10 minutes, and now I keep checking the sides of the road and walk carefully.”

Shekiba’s village is not controlled by the Taliban. A village elder who oversees 20 communities in Paghman, including Bektut, told The National that six of them had been fully taken over by the Taliban, while four others were controlled by them at night.

“Refer to me as Ajmal in your story,” he instructed, fearing that revealing his real name would put him in trouble as he regularly has to negotiate with the militants.

Bektut is being kept safe by a small checkpoint, manned by 12 soldiers who were previously part of the Afghan local police. Once a US-funded unit, the local police forces were dismantled last year and the majority of their members integrated into the army.

The soldiers in Bektut said the Taliban were pushing forward with greater force than in previous years. They recently dug a small trench next to their outpost to help them repel militant attacks.

A neighbouring post on a hilltop was attacked within the last two weeks, they said, leaving one soldier dead and three injured.

Even with Taliban attacks increasing, they still want the US to leave.

“In 20 years, they didn’t do anything good for us,” said Javeed Ahmad, 25, one of the soldiers.

“Not the US, nor the Taliban, the warlords or the current government will bring change and peace to Afghanistan. We need to start from scratch, with the new generation. That’s why I am here, doing my job.”

On the eastern side of Kabul, at the Kabul-Jalalabad highway entrance gate, police officers check vehicles and people entering mostly from the eastern Nangarhar and Laghman provinces, as well as from Pakistan through the Torkham border.

“I’m looking at people’s faces – whether their colour changes when they approach the checkpoint or if they behave suspiciously,” said police officer Esrar Abas, 25. “We search for explosives, military uniforms, pistols and other weapons, as well as for drugs and alcohol.”

How many explosives make it through checkpoints is a question neither he or his commanders wanted to answer.

According to the UN, at least 8,800 civilians were killed or injured in Afghanistan’s conflict last year alone.

A surge in unclaimed targeted attacks has killed government employees, activists and media workers, sending waves of fear into an already mourning nation.

No agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government has been forged, and plans for a peace conference to be held by Turkey fell through when the Taliban leadership backed out.

The Council on Foreign Relations estimates the Taliban held 19 per cent of districts throughout Afghanistan in early 2021, with the government holding 33 per cent.

The rest, including Paghman district where the Arghandeh checkpoint is located, are contested.

“They essentially surround Kabul,” a security official contracted by the US said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “The gates have been set up to monitor movement and control who comes in and out of the city, but they are poorly equipped. There are neither guard towers nor scanners or proper search areas. The army and police manning these posts have been attacked many times.”

US President Joe Biden’s announcement of the troop withdrawal has raised fears about what will happen when they leave.

In Bektut, once a popular picnic spot and a good place for a weekend getaway from Kabul, Mr Wafa and the other young soldiers considered a brighter future for Afghanistan.

Standing near one of the trenches with his AK-47 in hand and the spring trees in the distance, he said: “If peace comes, we’ll transform this base into a beautiful garden.”