Striking Photos from Afghanistan's Most Violent Province
All photos by Frederick Paxton


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Striking Photos from Afghanistan's Most Violent Province

Almost half the country is controlled by the Taliban right now.

This story appears in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Some of the names are probably familiar: Sangin, Gereshk, Kajaki, Garmsir, Nawzad. They are the most violent districts in Afghanistan's most violent province, Helmand, and the battles that British and American soldiers fought there have already become military folklore, although what's happened since is rarely mentioned: All of them are now back under Taliban control, and the insurgents now control more territory than they have at any point since being overthrown in 2001.


When I visited Helmand last November, only Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, had yet to fall, but it was under constant attack from all sides. Suicide bombs and IED strikes were common, and morale among the Afghan National Security Forces was low. Casualties, desertions, and defections are unsustainably high. Only an increased number of US airstrikes and Special Forces operations, conducted almost entirely in secret, are preventing absolute catastrophe. This is the result of more than 15 years of British and American war and almost a trillion dollars spent.

The Taliban resurgence was underway even before the US handed security to the poorly equipped and often badly behaved Afghan National Security Forces. Preventing the government forces' collapse has meant a huge increase in airstrikes. All of these factors have led to a continuous rise in civilian casualties. More than 31,000 Afghan civilians have been killed so far; 1.2 million are now internally displaced, and the country is second only to Syria in producing refugees. Almost half the country is controlled or contested by the Taliban, and ISIS has a small presence close to the border with Pakistan.

Foreign and military leaders still churn out sunny press releases about what tomorrow will bring, but they do so from behind the high walls that have become a dominant feature of the capital city, Kabul. Their helicopters now rumble constantly overhead, ferrying embassy staff from the airport to their offices. The only Afghan ground they ever set foot on is the tarmac between their plane and helicopter.


Almost every Afghan I know has either fled—legally or by paying smugglers—or has a plan to flee, ready to be put into action at short notice. Many of those who can afford it have already moved their families to Dubai, Europe, or the US. For the rest, and there are many who can't afford smuggler's fees or the soul-destroying bureaucracy that may one day lead to a visa, this summer will almost certainly be grim. The worsening security situation means that our grand promises of justice, education, women's rights, and an end to corruption look as far away as ever.

Soldiers from the Afghan National Army (ANA) move toward the front lines in Dasht-e Archi.

A pomegranate lies on the side of the road between Kabul and Nangarhar Province.

Soldiers load the body of a colleague onto the back of a Humvee. They had been surrounded by the Taliban for four days inside a small walled compound called a patrol base, but no one had been able to reach them to retrieve the corpse.

Getting to the base took a day of fighting, during which one man had to dig up five IEDs with his bare hands. These men waited for the Humvee to return and have just realized that the dead soldier was their friend.

Major Hamid Saifi of the ANA, who fought for nine years in Sangin, the most violent district in Afghanistan, prays near the front line with the Taliban in Dasht-e Archi, where he has been redeployed. Sangin fell to the Taliban late last year, soon after Saifi left.

Female internally displaced persons, who fled their homes after the Taliban took Kunduz for the second time in 13 months, wait for medical attention. With the government unable to help, this makeshift camp was set up with donations from affluent friends of the local governor. Takhar Province, Afghanistan

Surgeons in a hospital in Kabul, built and run by the international NGO Emergency, treat a gunshot wound.

Soldiers from the ANA patrol frontline positions in Dasht-e Archi.

A soldier looks out over the Spin Ghar Mountains, which mark the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the front line with ISIS, which uses tunnels in local salt mines to its advantage. These tunnels were recently targeted by US forces, which dropped a MOAB, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast, bomb approximately half a mile from here. The bomb is the biggest nonnuclear weapon in the US arsenal. Achin, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan

Ben Anderson is a correspondent for VICE on HBO. Check out his episode, "Taliban Resurgence," on HBO NOW. You can see more of Frederick Paxton's photography on his Instagram.