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As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan nears its completion, the Afghan army is quickly losing ground throughout the country to the Taliban. To bolster its military, the government is arming militias to help in the fight. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson traveled to two provinces near the capital — Parwan and Logar — to meet militia men who have Afghan leaders worried about a new civil war.
As the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is all but complete, the Afghan army is quickly losing ground throughout the country to the Taliban.
Now, to bolster its flagging military, the government is arming militias to help in the fight.
Special correspondent Jane Ferguson traveled to two provinces near the Capitol, Parwan and Logar, to meet militiamen who have some Afghan leaders worried about a new civil war.
On Afghanistan's front lines, militia commanders now direct battles alongside government forces.
From this abandoned house in the Ghorband Valley of Parwan province, local volunteer forces fight to hold off the Taliban. We are only a couple of hours' drive north of the capital, Kabul. Both the Afghan army and these men, are trying to halt the group's advances in that direction.
As soon as President Biden announced America's unconditional drawdown from Afghanistan in April, the Taliban began a massive offensive, taking territory across the country, as the Afghan army buckled. With major cities in danger of falling, fighters like these were rallied to join the battle.
Abdul Zahir Salangi (through translator):
We thought it would be a long-term partnership under the United States leadership, and it would last until terrorism was rooted out, not only from Afghanistan but the region.
Unfortunately, the bad decision that Mr. Biden and his supporters made has led to a situation where thousands of Afghans are dying. This is all because of the failure of President Biden and the American politicians.
Abdul Zahir Salangi says he hasn't slept in four days. A member of Parliament, he is new to leading fighters. With the Americans gone, his men face combat of a bygone era, long before U.S. military might came and went.
What it's like to fight without air support, without medevac, without helicopters?
Right now, air support is not available to us. And that adds to the rising casualty rates. We cannot evacuate them quickly. They will die where they are injured.
The Taliban test the defenses here constantly. On the roof, they show us how close their positions are, just on the hill above us.
These men have only been fighting a matter of weeks, since the national army came under so much pressure from the Taliban. But given the intensity of the fighting in this valley, it seems clear that the security forces in Afghanistan need all the help that they can get.
There are government security forces all around the area. The militia hope to buoy collapsing morale amongst them. Anger at the White House's decision to leave runs deep, but so too does the will to fight.
Qand Agha (through translator):
We feel left behind by the Americans. They didn't honor the agreement. They abandoned us in the middle of the road. But if the Taliban want to take over, they will have to kill every last person here.
These men have come from a different area. But local villagers are also present. Just down the road, we came across this man offering to help the police at a small outpost
"If the Taliban came here, then they can come to my house too," he tells us, "so we have to defend ourselves."
As the Afghan military struggles to stop a sweeping Taliban advance across the countryside, one that threatens to overrun the Kabul government, the authorities are asking volunteers to join what they call popular uprisings to stand and fight alongside the army.
Some are flocking back to old established fighting groups, throwbacks to the days of fighting Soviets and then in the civil war in the 1990s that followed the Russian withdrawal.
Further north, in the Panjshir Valley, we see young men, some clutching little more than antique hunting rifles, prepare to go join the war effort. Signing up just a few days ago, they are a collection of rural volunteers that America and the world never imagined the country would need, after billions of dollars spent on the nation's armed forces.
Do you feel as though America abandoned this country?
Samim Sharifi (through translator):
America came here in their own self-interest, and they have left out of their own self-interest. We are happy they have left. We will defend our lands just like our forefathers and ancestors did and will take up arms in self-defense.
Today, their leader, Ahmad Massoud, is meeting with commanders and new recruits. He is swamped with well-wishers.
Massoud is the son of famed Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, a leader of the ethnic Tajik fighters of Northern Afghanistan, and close ally of the U.S. who worked with the CIA to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. He and his fighters fought the Taliban during the group's rule. Massoud was assassinated two days before 9/11, it is believed by al-Qaida.
Once again, this stunning, bucolic valley at the mouth of the Hindu Kush Mountains, sits at the center of organized anti-Taliban resistance.
Very nice to meet you all.
Good to see you again. Thank you for having us.
The "NewsHour" was granted rare access to the younger Massoud. In an interview, he spoke candidly with us about the burden of history repeating itself here.
You must think a lot about your father right now.
This pressure that's on me at this time, I just — I cannot even imagine how much of the pressure he was actually on. And it was — it's just, for me, the sense of the pressure, responsibility and uncertainty what's going to. It is something which is really like, these days, making me wish — like, I wish he was alive.
Massoud is pushing the Afghan government to expand the use of militias alongside Afghan forces. According to him, they are a desperately-needed second line of defense.
Personally, I believe that the Afghanistan government, especially the Afghanistan armed forces, have been stretched and exhausted.
And they need to retreat, and they need to reorganize and reenergize themselves. To do so, Afghanistan government must allow for some local resistance.
Not everyone agrees.
Whatever you call it, whether you call it resistance or militia, that war is going to become more district to district. We are afraid that will turn more to local ethnic tension.
Back in Kabul, former Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil worries the new fighting groups are dangerous.
Local units are more likely to come from the same ethnic background. Ethnic division was a devastating driver of the Afghan civil war, when those who had fought the Soviets then turned on one another.
I raised my concern from day one. That will be a temporary solution. To cover their temporary mistake, they committed a very long strategic mistake.
Everybody will try to keep their territory. Instead of defending the state, they will defend their own interests. And that easily — the complex situation we have in Afghanistan, that easily can turn to become ethnic conflict.
It is also unclear if the militias can make a real impact on the battlefield.
If the Afghan security forces, with all of the equipment and supplies that they have been given, and funding from the United States over the years, can't hold off the Taliban, how is it that these resistance fighters are supposed to do that?
Well, right now, in many areas that the Taliban are not able to capture, it's because of these resistance groups, because, when it comes to war, and when it comes to military, like in a war, everything is not just ammunition and guns.
Morale is everything. So, the morale is everything. And, unfortunately, with Americans' departure and Americans' withdrawal, the morale of Afghanistan's soldiers, it crashed.
A growing sense, however, amongst military leaders is that whoever is fighting in Afghanistan from here on in will have to adapt to the new realities of war without highly sophisticated weaponry, and never should have been dependent on it in the first place.
Unfortunately, Americans, in the past 20 years, the model that they based Afghanistan army on, it's American-based model, like, an army which is always dependent always on technology and aerial support and air support, and also based on — like, they always have contractors.
So, Afghanistan is a poor country, and it cannot afford those two things. So, that is one of the major things that, after Americans withdrew, Afghan soldiers, they felt a huge reduction in aerial support. And they could not actually, like, cope with that void.
South of Kabul, a different province has been arming civilians for years.
Like Parwan, Logar province also borders the capital. The Taliban have had a strong presence here for much of the war. As they push to take the country's remaining roads and isolate the cities, Logar's capital risks being cut off from Kabul.
Just to get there, we had to travel in a military convoy because ambushes are so common. In Logar, irregular forces recruited from the local population already work alongside security forces. The governor insists they have been key to keeping the city and says he has oversight when handing out guns.
Abdul Quayom Rahimi:
There's too much pressure on me that everyone want weapon. And I say, OK, wait, guys, we are going to give you weapon, but there are rules and regulations. We have to follow the rules and regulations.
These local fighters are in their own village, but have been organized and paid for years to keep the Taliban at bay.
Just over this berm and across the field next to us is Taliban territory. The villagers here say, although they have managed to hold the Taliban off, other areas have fallen.
The issue of whether to arm militia groups centers around the bad memories of the past civil war in Afghanistan, whether the groups could precipitate another civil war, or whether it's too late for that, and people need a means to protect themselves as the U.S. military leaves.
It has already started. Civil war already started. We have been saying and repeating that. Don't leave Afghanistan without a peaceful resolution.
If peace, however much against the odds, cannot be salvaged now, another generation of Afghanistan's young men will face marching off to yet more years of war.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Parwan province, Afghanistan.
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Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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