A motley crew of local fighters have taken their positions on the Siahgerd front line in the north of Balkh’s provincial capital, Mazar-i-Sharif. Most are dressed in the traditional shalwar kameez, with limited protective gear and an array of weapons slung over individuals’ shoulders. But, as is the case across other front lines around the city, the men are buoyed and morale is high.
Raouf Aliyar, 28, is among the group of local men who are fighting on behalf of Abbas Ibrahim Zada – a Hazara member of parliament who is head of the Hezb-e-Wahdat-e-Naweein Afghanistan Party, his extensive wealth having earned him the nickname “Abbas Dollar”. Aliyar, who speaks fluent English, was working for a local NGO until last week, when he was let go for his lack of attendance, having spent most of the last month on the front line. He felt that it was a necessary sacrifice.
“If we don’t come here, the Taliban will attack our city and kill us one by one. We’re protecting our family and our home,” says the father-of-one who, like many of the men he is fighting alongside, is here on an unpaid, voluntary basis.
“It is a must for me, to protect Mazar-i-Sharif until the end.”
Hundreds of citizen militia forces have been deployed to bolster Afghan security forces’ efforts to protect Mazar-i-Sharif from a Taliban attack, after the insurgents threatened to breach the city gates at the end of last month.
Taliban fighters have swept across the northeast of Afghanistan, taking control of scores of districts, in a devastating blow to the Afghan government. Approximately one-third of all 421 districts and district centres in Afghanistan are now controlled by the Taliban.
Newly appointed as the defence minister last month, Bismillah Mohammadi called on the public to rally against the Taliban as one of his first tasks in the role.
It is a risky endeavour for Aliyar, who has now received threats from the Taliban as a result of his involvement in the fight against the group.
“I sent my wife and my eight-month-old daughter to Kabul for their safety. Lately I sleep on the roof of my house to ensure I can see everything that is going on around the perimeter of the property,” he says.
Intermittent gunfire punctures the otherwise quiet position as he talks, and a strong smell of incendiary chemicals permeates the air. It is late in the day and the flat horizon is filled with a burst of orange and pink from the setting sun. Empty green fields surround the men.
Aliyar says taking up arms is the last thing he wanted to do, but with the deteriorating security situation and flailing government forces, he felt obligated to join the fight.
“It was a sad day when I was forced to pick up a gun and head to the front line, leaving behind my wife and child. But I am sure that if the Taliban takes control, my wife won’t be able to work, my daughter won’t have access to a proper education. These people don’t believe in human rights,” he says.
From the top of a half-built building, another fighter, who does not give his name but explains that he works as a de-miner for an American company, points out a building in the distance.
“That base belongs to the enemy. Previously it was a security forces’ base wherein 13 soldiers got killed,” he says, adding that they are not able to attack, only defend, because the surrounding area has been covered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“These men have gathered here based on the orders of Abbas Ibrahim Zada, the representative of people of Balkh. They are tailors, shopkeepers, carpenters, labourers and so on – not a single one of them is a soldier or police officer.”
Approximately 250 men are covering a 10km stretch in the area.
“We are here to defend our city and people until the last bullet in our magazines and the last drop of blood in our veins,” says the fighter.
Morale has been lagging among government forces in recent months as US troops have departed the country. Over the last couple of weeks, almost 1,600 Afghan government troops have fled over the border into Tajikistan in a bid to escape a Taliban attack.
All districts except for the capitals of Badakhshan and Takhar provinces fell to the Taliban last week, and residents reported government forces surrendering without a fight. The alternative has been for Taliban fighters to destroy basic infrastructure in captured districts, according to officials and residents.
Balkh’s provincial governor, Mohammad Farhad Azimi, says this destruction shows the group has no intention of establishing a legitimate governance.
He says the backing of the local population is very important and indicates strong support for the government. However, he emphasises that the militia fighters, numbering approximately 1,000, across Mazar-i-Sharif are only playing a supporting role to the security forces and admits that the uprising of local fighters is cause for some concern.
“In the past we have had very bad experiences with militia groups and we don’t intend to replace the Afghan national security forces with these groups,” says Azimi.
“These militia groups argue that they are the protecting force of the city and of the surrounding districts, rather than the national security forces. But they were previously local police who fled their districts. Of course, in an emergency situation we can use them, but they are not the main protector of the city. If we do not believe in [the ability of] our national security forces, it is a mistake.”
The governor acknowledges there is a serious shortage of personnel in the Afghan national security forces and a way to combat this issue while also reducing the risk of fracturing along powerbroker lines has been to bring the local fighters under the command of the security forces.
“We have to build up the legal armed forces to support the national security forces, to encourage people to register their name, and it is our duty to encourage people to join the police, army and NDS,” says Azimi, adding that those who are registered are being paid a salary and are being supplied weapons by the government.
No one expected such rapid moves and huge waves of attacks by the Taliban. Nor that they would capture several districts at once
General Atta Muhammad Noor, former governor of Balkh
Although this did not appear to be the case at the front line manned by Ibrahim Zada’s men, collaboration between government forces and local fighters answering to General Atta Muhammad Noor was clear to see at another front line where both parties were stationed.
A former Balkh governor and a former mujahedin commander, Noor’s photograph can be seen on billboards throughout Mazar-i-Sharif. The commander raced back to Mazar-i-Sharif from Dubai as Taliban fighters threatened the city with a bloody onslaught. He was followed by Hazara warlord Mohammed Mohaqiq.
“No one expected such rapid moves and huge waves of attacks by the Taliban. Nor that they would capture several districts at once,” Noor tells The Independent during an interview at his home.
He says his stance had been to form a national mobilisation force to reinforce government troops early and ahead of the US withdrawal, but it was never accomplished because of “fake self-confidence and misconceptions by the government”.
Noor also points out their reliance on international troops in terms of air support, and that losing the technical capacity of American aircraft has left a big gap in the Afghan security forces’ fight against the Taliban.
“If the power of the people is used to support the armed forces, we can conquer all the areas occupied by the Taliban. But, on the contrary, if we fail to do this, we will be confronted with a wide wave of attacks,” he says.
Responding to criticism of utilising this crisis to shore up further power, Noor says he has no need to do so, and that his only aim is to defend the Afghan people against the Taliban.
“I have good support from people. I am involved in the government, the political arena and in decision-making. We need to defend and save the lives, property, dignity, and self-esteem of Afghan women and men, and children. We do not want our people to live under beatings and violence,” he says.
“It never can be said that Mazar-i-Sharif will not fall. We say that we will use all our power and capabilities to prevent it from falling to the Taliban, and suppose the city does fall to the Taliban, we will go house to house and fight with the Taliban. We will find them and make them retreat.”