‘Everyone here hated the Americans’: Rural Afghans live with the Taliban and a painful U.S. legacy

There are white flags there, too.

Together, they’re reminders of the legacy the United States has left in many rural areas across Afghanistan.

“Everyone here hated the Americans,” said Zabiullah Haideri, 30. His shop was shattered by an airstrike in 2019 that killed 12 villagers. “They murdered civilians and committed atrocities.”

In Kabul and other Afghan cities, the United States will be remembered for enabling two decades of progress in women’s rights, an independent media and other freedoms. Many Afghans see the United States through the lens of violence, death, and conflict in America’s hinterlands.

Here in Wardak province, 25 miles southwest of the capital, the U.S. military, the CIA and the ruthless Afghan militias they armed and trained fought the Taliban for years. Farmers and villager were also caught in the crossfire. U.S. counterterrorism operations and drone strikes, as well as gun battles caused many to become casualties.

A visit to Sinzai and the surrounding Nerkh District offered a glimpse of life in a post-American rural Afghanistan, home to nearly three-quarters of the population, where peace has emerged after 20 years of war. This visit provided clues as to the Taliban’s future plans and explained how they were able so quickly to take power in the nation.

They were abetted by the harsh tactics of U.S. forces and their Afghan allies and by the corruption and ineffectiveness of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. It was difficult to get justice and compensation from either the U.S. government or military. Many villagers supported the Taliban after the deaths of their loved ones and lack of accountability.

To be certain, the Taliban controlled the villagers through fear, intimidation and their own brand of viciousness. Rural Afghan society tends to be conservative and most residents agree with militants’ interpretation of Islam.

The villagers never got to see the other face of America: its generosity. Sinzai was less than 2 hours drive from Kabul and received very little of the U.S. assistance in Afghanistan. The U.S. government’s watchdog agency found that reconstruction efforts beyond the capital failed due to insecurity, corruption, and inefficiency. Sinzai homes and villages nearby still lack electricity and running water.

“The Americans left us nothing,” said Khan Mohammed, the 32-year-old owner of a shop outside an abandoned U.S. military compound in the district center. “Only that empty base.”

Still, with the departure of U.S. forces and the fall of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, there’s now a calm unlike any the villagers have experienced in two decades. The violence stopped after the Taliban took control of the situation and ended the conflict.

“The major change is there is peace and security now, and the killings of the people have stopped,” Mohammed Omar, the village imam, said in front of a mosque peppered with bullet holes. You can now move anywhere. Death has disappeared.”

But any sense of relief is tempered by new woes. However, any relief is tempered by new woes. The Taliban’s takeover caused a freeze in Afghanistan’s funds and humanitarian aid. International charities pulled out of the area and the economy has fallen into freefall.

“There are no airstrikes, no night raids, no bombings,” said Haideri, tall and wiry with a black beard and wavy hair. People here are facing hunger. People here are facing hunger.”

A history of deadly raids

Years before the airstrike that destroyed Haideri’s shop and 16 other businesses, the people of Wardak were seething with resentment.

Nationwide protests erupted in 2009 after U.S. soldiers allegedly burned a Koran, Islam’s holiest text, during a raid in Wardak. U.S. military denied the accusation. An Army Special Forces A-team was accused of killing at least 18 Afghan civilians between 2012 and 2013, prompting President Hamid Karzai to order the A-team out of Wardak and the Pentagon to launch an investigation.

By then, Wardak was the site of the U.S. military’s greatest single loss of life in the war. On Aug. 5, 2011, Taliban fighters shot down a Chinook military helicopter in the Tangi Valley, killing 31 U.S. military personnel, seven Afghan National Security Forces members and an Afghan interpreter.

By 2015, U.S. forces were no longer based in the province. The fighting continued. U.S.-backed Afghan village-based and national forces were fighting the Taliban in Nerkh. They were aided with U.S. airstrikes.

The Taliban, by then, controlled much of Nerkh. In the center of Nerkh, was the government. Villagers were trapped in the middle. Sometimes even the simplest tasks were life-or-death issues. For example, if Haideri was to shave, would the Taliban regard him as loyal to foreigners or the government? Would the U.S. consider Haideri a spy if he grew his beard?

“Whenever we left our homes we told our families, ‘goodbye,’ ” he said. “We didn’t know whether we would return home alive.”

The family of Sher Mohammed was inside their home in the village of Sarmarda in April 2019 when Afghan forces raided the compound. Mohammed claimed that his son wouldn’t come out of the compound when they launched an airstrike. He, his son and the wife of his son were all killed along with their children, three grandchildren, and two relatives. The only survivor was his granddaughter, now 11.

Mohammed said his son occasionally communicated with the Taliban, like almost every villager, but he was not a militant. After the strike was over, the Taliban saw an opportunity. Mohammed stated that the Taliban gathered the villagers and instructed them to transport the seven bodies to Maidan Shahr in the province capital to protest the strike.

“Why this? “Why this?” villagers shouted as they carried their bodies wrapped in white cloth.

A month later, in the predawn hours, airstrikes hit the shops in Sinzai and killed villagers in different parts of the hamlet. Witnesses reported seeing huge plumes of smoke and balls of flames. Villagers said they were able to hear the drones and U.S. aircraft circling overhead by that time. Haideri stated that “it was the Americans.” “No one else had such modern airplanes and drones.”

The villagers went to the governor’s office to make a complaint and seek compensation for the damage to their shops. Their resentment only grew as they didn’t hear back from them.

The villagers acknowledged that two of those killed were members of the Taliban, but they said the 10 others were civilians. They were furious.

“Whenever the Americans came here and conducted raids or any operations against the Taliban, they indiscriminately fired at anyone,” said Ahmed Khan, who lost his shop in the airstrike. The Taliban were protecting the people, and that’s why all of us supported them. The Americans were killing the people while the Taliban protected them.”

Between 2016 and 2020, international and Afghan airstrikes killed 2,122 civilians and injured 1,855 across Afghanistan, according to Action on Armed Violence, a London-based nonprofit, which analyzed U.N. data. The U.S. military’s civilian casualties figures are significantly lower than those from the U.N.

In Kabul, Afghans are waiting to see how the Taliban will govern.

In Sinzai, they already know.

Life is governed by strict sharia law — which the villagers embrace. Omar, an imam said that it was acceptable because it was divine and in accordance with our Afghan values.

Girls are educated only until sixth grade. For decades before the Taliban first came to power in 1996, villagers said, no woman here had gone to secondary school or a university.

On the rocky, unpaved roads, women float by in blue burqas that cover them from head to toe. There are certain limits to their mobility. Omar said that she cannot travel alone to the city with her husband, son or daughter.

Music and satellite dishes are banned, though few people have television sets because the only electricity is solar-powered and there’s no normal antenna reception. Separate sections are used for weddings, where only the women can sing traditional songs.

“If we listen to music in public the Taliban will beat us,” said Rohullah, 22, a grandson of Sher Mohammed, who like many Afghans uses one name.

The Taliban has a three-level court system and a police force, typically fighters not in uniforms. Public whippings are offered to first-time thieves. Nobody can remember a time when the penalty was to amputate a person’s hand as per the sharia. The militants tax the villagers, usually 10 percent of their farm production or store revenue.

The Taliban has been relatively lenient by its hard-line standards to avoid alienating villagers. Villagers can listen to music and watch videos from their phones at home. Omar stated that some satellite dishes are hiddenly set up.

The militants have not enforced a requirement that men grow long beards. Residents said that the Taliban’s morality police are present in the village. However, they prefer to preach their dictates than resorting to force.

Now that the Taliban controls the country, it remains to be seen whether it will clamp down harder in Sinzai. The militants seem to be enjoying their moment of glory.

“The victory is an achievement for all the people,” said Maulavi Shafiqullah Zakir, 33. He was a Sinzai national, and became so angry at the airstrikes and night raids that he decided to join the rebellion against the Americans. He is now in charge of the Taliban village. “People who haven’t seen each other in two decades are now traveling to far-flung areas to see relatives.”

But he acknowledged the militants face huge challenges.

Poverty, which has always been deeply rooted here, is worsening. The prices of basic foods are on the rise. Few Western agencies providing food and health care have left. Only one doctor is available and only one midwife. There are few medicines.

“Before, there were four to five doctors, one vaccinator and a nurse in the village,” Omar said. “But after the Taliban took over, everyone has gone.”

“Some people are hardly getting food for their families,” Haideri said. “One man the other day told me that he has been boiling potatoes and eating it for the last four days.”

That has made Haideri and other shop owners more resentful of the urban elites in Kabul. They have not been able to repair their shops and feed their families for two years since the attack. They have seen millions flow to corrupt politicians and shady contractors in capital. According to them, they’re the same people that fled the country with help from the United States.

“Those who left Kabul, they did not leave Afghanistan due to hunger,” Haideri said. They have accumulated a lot wealth and have moved to live a lavish life in foreign countries. No one likes the Americans here, so how could those people be liked?”

Taliban fighters in pickup trucks now patrol roads dotted with banners that proclaim the nation free of foreign troops. The fighters pass Combat Outpost Nerkh, a sprawling ex-military base located in the center of the district.

It sits like an ancient ruin. The silence is a peaceful place where visitors can walk past the strands and concertina wires that are fading symbols of U.S. Military power.

America’s legacy here haunts Shukrullah Ibrahim Khail.

His younger brother, Nasratullah, was an alleged victim of the A-team. He said that the Special Forces unit invaded his home, grabbed him and then took him to the U.S. military base. To secure their release, his family sought out tribal elders for help. They found Nasratullah dead near a bridge two days later. Months later, the remains of 10 missing Afghan villagers were uncovered in graves near the base.

The U.S. military denied the allegations. A criminal investigation into the allegations was opened again two years later. Khail claimed he was summoned to Kabul by the U.S. government and U.N. officials. After recounting his story, Khail said that he had not heard from the Pentagon.

The Pentagon did not respond to emails asking about the status of the investigation.

“Our demand was to punish those who were responsible for those killings,” Khail said. Khail stated that justice was not done. There was no compensation offered to the victims’ families.

“What can we do now when they have all gone?”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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