I recently spent a month in Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province. Although it has received more attention and resources from the West than any other part of the country, Afghan Security Forces have struggled to defend it from the Taliban during the 18 months since the withdrawal of American and British infantry troops.
This was my eleventh trip to the province, and the situation is deteriorating rapidly. During my month in Helmand I spent time with four different armed groups. Each of the groups lost members to shootings or IEDs within hours or days after I left them. In total, 24 of the people I spent time with are now dead and at least 12 severely injured. Our war may have come to end, for Afghans the war is entering its bloodiest phase.
With the Afghan National Security Forces woefully undertrained and under-equipped to protect its citizens against the Taliban, local militias—adopted as a supposedly short-term solution five years ago—are still also heavily involved in the fighting. For instance, when two young fighters I met in Marjah—one just 12 years old and the other 14—were kidnapped by the Taliban, their 53-year-old commander, who also happened to be their grandmother, was forced to kidnap several Taliban family members and organize a prisoner exchange for their release. At no point was the authorities' help offered or sought.
Marjah is a small and scarcely populated farming district that served as the scene of the war's biggest operation, when, in February 2010, 30,000 US and UK forces invaded to oust the Taliban and introduce an Afghan "government in a box." The start of the operation, and the promises made, were covered by all the major networks and newspapers, but very few have been back since. The only evidence that the US was ever here are the few tarmacked roads that now connect Marjah to Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital. (At the time of writing, those roads are blocked by the Taliban.) They are some of the most expensive roads ever laid.
Before I arrived in Helmand, I spent a few days in Kabul, which used to be known as "the Kabubble," for its reputation of security, pleasure and isolation from the realities the rest of the country was facing. But during my first night, I heard screams. The next day I learned that they had come from two possible sources: In one, two suicide bombers in vehicles were shot before they could detonate their explosives. In the other, Matiullah Khan, the Police chief of Uruzgan province, was killed by a suicide bomber wearing a burqa, outside of the Kabul hotel he was staying in.
The following day a 27-year-old woman named Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death outside the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque. She had been arguing with a Mullah about his selling of charms, or folded pieces of paper with verses from the Quran on them, which some Afghans believe bring good luck. The Mullah accused Farkhunda of burning a Quran, and soon she found herself surrounded by a mob of angry men. They started beating her, those closest to her putting their arms around each other for support as they took turns stomping on her. Many onlookers, none of whom made any serious attempt to stop it, captured the attack on film. Witnesses said that between ten and 15 police officers were among the large crowd either standing by, or encouraging the beating. At one point Farkhunda, her face covered in blood, managed to climb onto a nearby roof, but she was thrown off and knocked unconscious with a thick wooden plank. Her body was then run over by a car, thrown over a wall onto the dry Helmand riverbed, and set on fire. (If the order of these events is incorrect it's because I couldn't bring myself to watch the video again.)
Several politicians were quick to come out in support of the murderers, saying the killing was justified. An investigation found no evidence that Malikzada had burned a Quran. I'd seen video of similar violence in the countryside, and had agreed with a theory that countries like Afghanistan can only reform slowly, with the liberal cities gradually, carefully dragging the conservative countryside into modernity. This attack made nonsense of that theory. The modernizing city of my imagination is more likely a small elite, and not a powerful and growing block that idealists like myself are often so keen to believe exists.
Violence is up almost everywhere in Afghanistan, amongst civilians, soldiers and policemen. Last year saw the highest casualties amongst civilians since the war began, with overall numbers topping 10,000 (3,188 deaths and 6,429 injuries, according to the UN). More than 4,600 security personnel were killed during the same year, almost 90 a week. This year will be far worse. Combine desertion and defection rates among the security forces and the numbers are simply not sustainable. They also remain entirely funded by foreign aid (most of it from the US) and there is no sign that the Afghan government will be able to foot the bill at any point in the foreseeable future.
My first trip in Helmand was with the Counter Narcotics Police, who were destroying a few poppy fields in Trek Nawa, an area not far from Marjah that was recently in the hands of the Taliban. The commander, an educated, honest, and dedicated man named Mohammad Abdali, was admirably upfront about his work, and wondered aloud what he was actually achieving. He said that in 2014, 100,007 hectares of poppy were cultivated in Helmand, but only 860 were destroyed. In 2015, between 115,000 and 120,000 were cultivated, but only 4500 were destroyed. The opium harvest in Afghanistan has gone up almost every year since the invasion, despite the US spending over eight billion dollars on eradication. If the aim had been to make the Afghan poppies bloom, this would be one of the few success stories of the entire war.
As local men employed by Abdali drove tractors back and forth, annihilating what is the only source of income for many, locals sat on the edge of their fields, looking at Abdali and his men with hatred.
Two days later, I was sitting with Abdali in his headquarters when he got a call saying his men had been struck by an IED in the same fields. We raced outside to his unarmored pickup truck and with his security detail of just two armed men, sped through the streets of Lashkar Gar, toward Trek Nawa. We arrived just in time to see two of his men being carried into the back of a truck, their faces ripped apart by shrapnel and covered in blood. The main victim, who had spotted the IED and bent down to inspect it, was killed instantly and had already been loaded onto the truck and covered with a blanket. Someone had been watching them, and detonated the IED with a mobile phone after he crouched down to look at it. "One person is dead," said Abdali as we raced back to Lashkar Gar, following the truck with the casualties on board, "he doesn't have a head."
The two survivors were taken to a hospital run by an international NGO called Emergency, illustrating that despite the billions spent, there are nowhere near enough facilities to treat wounded security force members or civilians. Nor does the government have the ability to transfer the wounded, especially from the areas that are being fought for.
A few days later, Abdali drove me to Gereshk, the second largest town in Helmand province where his friend, an Afghan National Police Commander named Hekmatullah Barakzai, had built up a reputation as a fearsome and brave Taliban killer. Hekmatullah had visited the counter narcotics police headquarters once while I was staying there. During a dinner on the roof, his right-hand man had shown me pictures of Taliban corpses they had tied to the hoods of their cars for display, smiling eagerly as he flicked through each one. One picture showed a man whose head was intact but sat on top of his skin, which was spread out beneath him like a bear rug. I asked if he had been skinned or if he was a suicide bomber, but I didn't get an answer, just a delighted laugh.
I first went to Gereshk in 2007, when British forces had been in Helmand for just over a year. They were declaring victory then, saying that the Taliban had been pushed out, that the local community was embracing them and the Afghan government, the latter of which was ready to move in and start providing services. I had even been taken to building sites, where courts, a prison, and a governor's compound were being built. Today, Gereshk appears ready to fall. White Taliban flags appear in almost every direction you look. We were driving a Humvee that had been adapted to work more like a cattle truck. The front two seats remained, but on the back was a large armored cube, which could carry roughly six men, one of whom held my knee as a gesture of affection or re-assurance. US and UK forces stopped using Humvees outside their forward operating bases in 2009, when the much better-armored and expensive MRAPs started arriving. Humvees didn't offer anywhere near enough protection from the Taliban's IEDs. The one we were traveling in was the only one the police had, and the cube we were sitting in was roofless, so if we'd hit an IED we would have been thrown into the air and almost certainly killed. The Humvee left as soon as we were dropped off, so that when we wanted to leave, we'd be traveling like the rest of the police, in a basic Toyota Corolla.
Commander Hekmatullah took us on a walking tour of three of his patrol bases, spread out just a hundred meters or so apart, on the edge of the green zone, the fertile strip of land that flanks the Helmand river. The bases are just abandoned homes, no more than two- or three-room mud huts, surrounded by head high mud walls, with small firing holes smashed into each side. Looking through those holes, I could see more white Taliban flags, often just 200 or 300 meters away. Every time I looked through a hole a policeman would grab me and pull me away, saying it was too dangerous.
One told me he had been shot three times already, and showed me the scar tissue on his chest and leg. He then pulled his fringe back. "One time, see, bullet here," he said, pointing to the right side of his forehead, where the bullet had entered, and then, "out here," pointing to the other. He was one of the few men to be wearing a uniform and said he had been injured six times. "Seventh time maybe finished," he said, laughing.
We walked quickly between each base because we were exposed to snipers whenever we weren't behind the high mud walls. At the last patrol base I finally managed to get Commander Hekmatullah to stop and answer a few questions. He shuffled from leg to leg, looking in every direction except mine, almost never making eye contact. He was unable to remain still, or relax, even for a second. "The Taliban have surrounded the area," he said. "This is the last police post." I asked how much support he was getting from the Americans. "There is none," he said, bluntly. "In the past year and a half, there has been no help." He said that the Taliban had much better weapons than he did. Sometimes he exhaled loudly and looked away, as if there were no point even discussing how bad things were. "The Taliban are much stronger. They shoot at us and we have nothing." As we spoke, a nearby patrol base came under heavy fire from a Taliban Dushka gun. Hekmatullah listened to the Taliban on his radio, communicated briefly with the men being attacked and then said that we had to go. When the Taliban attacked one base, they usually attacked them all. This happened two or three times every week.
We all walked quickly back to the main patrol base and sat down to eat some lunch. Hekmatullah was telling me how strategically important the area was for the Taliban when a sniper's bullet cracked through the building, probably just six or so feet behind our heads. He didn't even seem to notice, and kept talking like nothing had happened. When he paused, I asked, "That was a sniper shot to this building?"
"Yes, it was a sniper shot," he said, as if I had just pointed out that his hair is brown. "This is a very common thing, we are used to this."
After saying our goodbyes we walked outside and climbed into one of the Toyota Corollas. There was a fresh bullet hole just behind the rear passenger window.
A few days after our visit, another of the patrol bases came under attack. Hekmatullah rushed to help, but on his way there drove over a buried cache of explosives the Taliban had planted. He and 21 other men were killed in the blast. Commander Abdali attended his funeral, and is still posting pictures of the two of them working together on his Facebook page. Not long after that, Abdali was inexplicably fired from his job. He was very diplomatic, saying that after Hekmatullah's death, he had lost the ability to focus. But I also heard rumors he was fired because he had ignored politician's demands to free some convicted opium traffickers.
The quickest way out of Helmand is a hazardous drive to Kandahar, the neighboring province. Abdali arranged for us to be picked up at the border by a team of men belonging to the infamous police chief General Abdul Raziq. The list of accusations against him is long, and includes torture, murder and involvement in the opium trade, but that gave me the feeling that he'd at least be able to provide us with some serious security. Which was good, because we'd be traveling through a vast border area largely controlled by the Taliban.
When we pulled up at the meeting point I saw another of those roofless Humvees waiting for us. The front two seats were already taken, and as we loaded our bags into the back, three men appeared, wearing a few pieces of uniform, but with all kinds of additions that made them look more like circus performers than the fighters I had expected. One had a haircut exactly like the Monkees: a perfect, shiny bowl. He was wearing a brown leather flying jacket and a bright yellow scarf. Another had emptied several bags of Cheetohs into his pockets, which spilled out whenever he moved. He would scoop out handfuls at a time and offer them to me.
It was 10 AM on a Sunday morning, and the men passed around several joints, and a bottle of the worst homemade liquor I have ever tasted. They smelt as if they hadn't washed in months, and their teeth were rotting. Everything was hilarious to them. They posed for pictures, pulled things out of my bag, urged me to sip from their bottle, and pretended to fire maniacally at the buildings we passed, most of which had white Taliban flags flapping above them. This went on for hours. If I ran out of things to do to amuse them, which I often did, they just went through everything we had already done again. They were clearly men who knew they could die at any moment, and had stopped worrying about it.
I was relieved when we finally made it to a police base on the outskirts of Kandahar City. I hugged the men goodbye, which also made them cackle loudly, and we loaded our bags into the cars that would take us to the airport. The men drove straight back to the border where we had met them. When they arrived, their colleagues were being ambushed, and when they jumped out of the cube on the back of the Humvee to try and help, two of them were shot in the chest. The last I heard, they were both in comas.
For more on the security situation in Afghanistan after American troop withdrawal, watch Ben's full report, "Afghanistan After Us," tonight on VICE on HBO at 11 PM. Watch the trailer below.