Australian War Photographer Andrew Quilty on Life in Afghanistan

"The optimism of 2013 has gone."

by Maddison Connaughton
22 August 2017, 7:24am

Image by Andrew Quilty

Just a few years ago, Andrew Quilty thought he'd landed his dream job. The photographer was working for a big Australian newspaper, shooting photos that would end up splashed across the front page every other day. But that was before Afghanistan.

Four years ago, Quilty visited the war torn country with a fellow reporter for what was meant to be a short trip. He's been there ever since, documenting a country still ravaged by the 2001 US intervention, witnessing the resurgence of the Taliban firsthand.

This week, US President Donald Trump announced his new plan for Afghanistan, vowing to annihilate the Taliban, defeat ISIS, and destroy Pakistan's capacity to harbour militants. "We are not nation-building again," Trump said during his speech. "We are killing terrorists." It's clear this is no longer a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

"When I first arrived, in late 2013, there was a sense of optimism amongst Afghans," Quilty says. He's speaking to VICE via Skype over a shaky internet connection from the backyard of his Kabul house. Overhead, you can hear choppers circling. Chickens scratch around in the background.

"But two things happened soon after, which saw that begin to evaporate. The 2014 presidential election became mired in controversy over widespread fraud allegations, resulting in a compromise 'unity government' between the two highest vote-getters," he explains. "Then, at the end of that year, international combat operations ceased. The Taliban pounced."

Here, Quilty recounts for VICE the stories behind the images that have stuck with him from the past four years. "Afghans are used to war, but they're tired of it," he says. "The optimism of 2013 has gone."

During an exchange of fire, an Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier peers toward a Taliban position through a firing hole in the wall of a school in Chah-i-Anjir (also known as Changir) that is being used by the ANA as a base on the Nadali District frontline, not far from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province. White Taliban flags can be seen less than 100 metres away. Fighting between the ANA and Taliban occurs on a daily basis. Most residents from the area have evacuated their homes and the local bazaar is practically empty.

Gul Ahmad, an infant boy suffering from acute malnutrition, is covered by his mother's scarf while being treated in the therapeutic feeding centre ward at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) administered Boost Hospital in Lashkar Gah, the capial of Helamnd Province in southern Afghanistan. According to MSF staff, malnutrition is a chronic problem in Afghanistan. In most cases it is not malnutrition that sees children admitted to hospital, but an illness that's been brought on by the child's inability to fight off infection because its body is so degraded of vital nutrients. For infants in Afghanistan, malnutrition is often the result of mothers feeding their babies formula, or even tea, instead of breast milk. The reason for this is generally a lack of access to information and education for new mothers.

Girls are seen as silhouettes behind a sheet dividing boys from girls in a school in the Gualn Refugee Camp for North Waziristani refugees. The school is run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) which currently has approximately 2,000 children from the camp enrolled. These are among the thousands that fled North Wazristan in June when the Pakistani military began an offensive against insurgent groups such as the Taliban in the western tribal areas of the country after several high profile attacks on Pakistani soil.

Here, a commando medic treats a soldier whose neck was grazed by a bullet after the compound they were holding was attacked by Taliban forces close by. In a maze of residential compounds, 10 miles west of the Helmand capital Lashkar Gah, a unit of the Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers were holding a frontline against Taliban forces that—in the week or two prior—had pushed several miles closer toward the capital from their previous positions. As well as the ANA soldiers, Special Forces Commander Rohid had 14 men and 30 Commandos bolstering the regular army. The special forces and commandos had been there for one week and said they were being attacked up to three times per day by a force estimated to be around 100 strong. During an attack witnessed by Foreign Policy, many of the ANA soldiers abandoned their lookout positions and afraid, sheltered inside the compound buildings until the SF and commandos moved in and fought off the attack.

Before sunrise on the northern edge of Herat in western Afghanistan—only a couple of hundred meters from the US Consulate and on the edge of a main road—families from Ghor province warm themselves by fires and in makeshift shelters and tents. The 300 or so Internally Displaced People (IDPs) left their homes for many different reasons—from factional fighting to drought and the associated effects on the farming communities' source of food and livelihood. The temperature was minus eight degrees celsius soon after sunrise.

Young students in a classroom with no teacher at the Sayedabad-area school in Helmand's Nadali District. The school is currently operating with Afghan National Army soldiers positioned on its roof, with a diminished number of students and teachers and with the sound of fighting regularly audible nearby. Taliban-controlled villages are only a couple of hundred metres away. After years of relative calm in Nadali District, the ALP, with the support of the Afghan National Army (ANA), are now maintaining the tenuous frontline against the ever-encroaching Taliban who have pushed closer than ever to the nearby Provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, in recent months. The ALP are between a rock and a hard place—unable to lay down their arms because of the immediate proximity of Taliban fighters but under-equipped to provide adequate protection for the villages they protect and call home.

Image by Andrew Quilty

Afghan National police men rest and smoke cigarettes inside an isolated check point that sits less than 200 feet from a compound under Taliban control in Chah-e Anjir, less 30 minutes' drive from the centre of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province in souther Afghanistan. In the last month, three men have been killed at the check point and several more wounded.

Some boys hitch a ride on top of a taxi up the Asmai Heights, a mountain range outskirts of Kabul City that's known as TV Mountain.

Najibah tries to comfort her daughter Zahra, 8, as they both weep over the grave of their husband and father, Baynazar, just south of Kunduz City. Baynazar, 43, had been wounded by gunfire when returning home from work during the Taliban takeover of Kunduz City in northern Afghanistan in late 2015. He was taken to the nearby MSF Kunduz Trauma Centre for treatment. However, in the early hours of October 3, during his second operation, a US AC-130 aircraft attacked the hospital for more than half an hour, killing 43 MSF staff, patients, and patient carers, and wounding dozens more. The US has accepted responsibility for the attack and blamed human error and technical failures for destroying what they claim was the wrong target, though many questions remain unanswered. At the time of writing this caption, it is known that 12 military personnel have received administrative punishment for their involvement, but none are facing criminal charges at this stage. Baynazar is survived by his wife Najibah, sons Samiullah, 19, and Khalid, 6; and two daughters, Raiana, 10, and Zahra.

Photo by Andrew Quilty

Saturday 3 May, 2014: Approximately 24 hours after two landslides buried over 2,000 residents of Argo district in the mountainous northeastern state of Badakhshan under hundreds of feet of mud. The first landslide buried some 300 homes and those who had been inside or on the streets at the time, as well as those attending a wedding party. The second landslide struck as villagers attempted to rescue those trapped—digging with shovels and their bare hands. Rescuers called off a search for survivors due to a lack of heavy machinery required for the massive task. Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of Afghanistan's two vice presidents, along with a handful of ministers, travelled from Kabul to pay their respects at the site of the landslide. With the landslide in the background, these men look to the sky as an Afghan National Army helicopter carrying the vice president flies over the disaster.

Image by Andrew Quilty

August 7, 2015: Shopkeepers sit at the entrances to their stores after their doors and windows were blown in by a truck bomb. Fifteen people were killed and hundreds of other civilians were injured in the blast in the early hours of the morning in eastern Kabul. The attack would be the first of three in the 24 hours that followed.

Image by Andrew Quilty

August 16th, 2015: An Afghan National police man conducts the first body check for hundreds of Afghan passport applicants queuing before sunrise, outside Afghanistan's only passport office in the country's capital, Kabul. Thousands of passports are being applied for and issued each day now, as an ever increasing number attempt to leave the country because of deteriorating security and job prospects.

Andrew Quilty will be appearing at Storyology, which is happening across Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne 24-31 August. More info here.

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