KAJAKI, Afghanistan — It was after midnight when red tracer rounds spat from government lines in Helmand’s Kajaki District across a band of darkness toward a second line of lights. From a hilltop perch, an Afghan National Army sentry on lookout barely shifted in his seat; the fighting here is constant.
A defensive line of 600 troops is all that stands between the Taliban and a U.S.-built dam that provides electricity to millions in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. This is Taliban territory, and it stretches to the horizon in every direction. In Kajaki, they’ve backed government forces and residents into a corner. The only way in or out is by helicopter.
But the fallout from such pressure, for Kabul and Washington, is being felt far beyond these rural battlegrounds. Today, as the Taliban’s representatives sit for the eighth round of peace negotiations with the U.S., in Qatar, they do so from the strongest position they’ve held since the war began.
Kajaki has long been a strategic flashpoint. Its power-generating dam was built by American engineers in the 1950s to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Decades later, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, the dam was a prized piece of infrastructure in the war with the Taliban. U.S. officials hoped that bringing electricity to millions of Afghans in the south would undermine the group’s influence there, so they deployed thousands of British, American, and Afghan troops to protect it.
Since 2004, the U.S.Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense has invested $775 million in the dam and its transmission infrastructure, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
But there’s little evidence they’ve reaped the rewards. Although the dam provides power to countless households and businesses across Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban may be benefiting the most. Not only does the dam power the Taliban’s national capital in the neighboring district of Musa Qala, and other areas under its control, the group collects taxes on those who use it.
This dynamic is on stark display when looking out from The Shrine, the northernmost point under Afghan government control anywhere in Helmand when U.S. Marines withdrew from Kajaki in December 2013.
The Shrine, which was named by Marines after the tomb lying beneath a nearby tree, remains the government’s northernmost outpost in Helmand. Today, it offers a commanding view over the Zamin Dewal plains, a vast fan of poppy fields and small, mom and pop–style heroin factories that comprise the nexus of southern Afghanistan’s smuggling highway, and a Taliban commercial hub.
“Zamin Dewal is the source of all insecurity” for southern Afghanistan, Kajaki’s district governor, Abdul Raziq Muslimyar, told VICE News. “For 18 years this has been under the control of the Taliban and smugglers.”
In an attempt to stanch Taliban income streams, American airstrikes have targeted narcotics factories in Zamin Dewal since November 2017, with questionable success. Never, however, have they tried to pacify or hold these badlands.
The Shrine is constantly in the sights of Taliban snipers. On the perimeter, ballistic windshields from wrecked Humvees are propped up on the fort’s walls so soldiers can spot snipers without being shot.
On a recent evening in June, a machine-gunner in a mud-turret inhaled the last of his hash cigarette and heaved the barrel of his weapon up to a sniper hole. He aimed at an identical hole 350 yards away.
Seconds later, there was a thump. Dust and broken mud filled the air. An incoming round had struck the rim of another sniper hole, beside the stoned gunner. After firing back reflexively, he turned to see the dust still hanging in the air. He raised his eyebrows in nonchalant surprise.
From the Shrine, the once bustling Tangay “Narrow” Bazaar can be seen a mile to the south. A bend in the Helmand River curves before it.
Aside from military bases and a small government office, Tangay Bazaar, a half-mile of crumbling, abandoned shopfronts, is all that remains of government-controlled Kajaki.
Even late in the evening, when residents surface after sleeping through the afternoon, to swim in the river or drink tea by the roadside, Tangay is a ghost town. Still, there’s something idyllic about the isolation. There hasn’t been a crime reported in Tangay in two and a half years.
There are 300 civilians inside this besieged oasis, where they've been trapped since 2016, when waves of Taliban fighters pushed government forces and anyone caught in between to the foot of the dam.
Safar Khan, the tribal leader here, recalls making frantic calls to the Ministry of Defense in Kabul. “We thought support would come… Every attack we would lose one or two kilometers. Kabul kept making ghost promises that never came through.”
Reinforcements eventually arrived. The Taliban were pushed out of Tangay Bazaar and a new frontline was established, but no one has been able to leave since.
”Kabul kept making ghost promises that never came through”
Today, civilian residents rely on government helicopter deliveries for basic supplies like fuel and flour. The only wheat crops in the area lie beyond the frontline where it’s too dangerous to farm.
Mohammad Daoud runs Tangay’s only bakery. It produces 2,300 diamond-shaped bread flats each day; enough to sustain the population of 1,000 here. Children wait with wheelbarrows outside the police and army headquarters after meals to collect scraps to take back to their families.
Daoud brought his family here five years ago from Kandahar. He planned to use the higher wages in Kajaki to pay off debts but became stuck when the siege began, and took over the business from its owner who was away and unable to return.
Mohammad Sadiq, a father of 17, grows vegetables for his family outside an abandoned shopfront. His son, Sardar Wali, was harvesting eggplant and bright red tomatoes one afternoon, recently, handing them to younger siblings who collected them in the flaps of their kameez’. Sadiq pointed to a green area just beyond the end of the Tangay Bazaar road. “This is our village,” he said, “but for four years we haven’t been able to go there.”
A government health clinic is operated by a nurse who provides basic care and medicine, but he is frequently under-equipped and overwhelmed. Residents often succumb to treatable injuries like gunshot wounds. Women in labour, and children with serious conditions are permitted into Taliban-controlled Kajaki where an international NGO supports a larger clinic.
Complete isolation has bred self-sufficiency in Tangay. Five small stores stock essentials including energy drinks, rubber sandals and hair dye. It’s all smuggled in, on foot, from Taliban areas, by boys young enough to avoid suspicion.
Bismillah, 18, runs one of the stores. Without a ready supply of cash, he told me, most customers pay on credit. “Sometimes people die on the frontlines and I’m left with their debt.”
Fuel is nearly four times the price as in Lashkar Gah, 60 miles away. To save petrol, motorcycles are switched off when ridden downhill.
For the people on both sides of the frontlines in Kajaki, favorable results from the peace talks in Doha are desperately needed, but in light of local dynamics and historical grievances, most here see a peaceful future as unlikely.
Distrust runs deep. Last year, during a three-day ceasefire that saw sworn enemies embracing in the streets, countrywide, Kajaki remained divided. Each side blames the other for not opening up their frontlines.
“The families here have sacrificed their sons for the government,” said Muslimyar, the district governor. “They have no land and are living in shops.” A peace settlement would allow them to return to their homes and land, and to reunite families that were split four years ago when new frontlines were forged.
But Muslimyar has little hope for peace. “There are many factions fighting the government,” he said, eventually, referring to the various groups aligned with the Taliban and smuggling networks. “If one faction agrees [to peace], the other will not.”
From high up on the hilltop outpost, the balance of power in northern Helmand is laid out in plain view. In Kajaki, the government’s tiny enclave is dwarfed by Taliban territory. To the south, down the Helmand River, Sangin, perhaps the most violent district in Afghanistan, is also visible. The government is ineffectual there but maintains a symbolic presence. To the southwest, the lights of Musa Qala, the Taliban’s de facto national capital, can be seen at night. The government hasn’t functioned there in years.
Doha, where American and Taliban representatives continue to negotiate over Afghanistan’s future, feels a million miles away. In Kajaki, the government is fighting for survival, not a negotiated settlement. Without one, the Taliban’s grip on parts of the country like northern Helmand is so strong that the government will likely never contest them.
“Nowadays, we have no expectations of anyone,” said Safar Khan. After 18 years, a trillion dollars and tens of thousands of lives lost, aside from President Trump’s impatience to get out of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s best leverage against American negotiators comes from its ability to capture and hold vast amounts of the country and tie up government resources in places like Kajaki.
Inside Kajaki there are more immediate problems than the lofty goals of peace. “The main issue isn’t the fighting,” said Governor Muslimyar. “It’s trying to feed the people.”
Cover: An Afghan Air Force Black Hawk helicopter arrives at the helicopter landing zone in government-controlled Kajaki. The only way in or out of the government's zone is by helicopter.