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Afghan warlords and militias fill the security vacuum left by a weak central government

Afghan security forces are strained to the limit and unable to stop rampant violence fracturing the country, as fighting has intensified between government forces and the Taliban. With the U.S. preparing to withdraw its troops, warlords and militias have been stepping in to fill the security vacuum. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and producer Emily Kassie report from Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our series on the longest war in Afghanistan.

    Afghan security forces are strained to the limit and unable to stop rampant violence, which is fracturing the country. Warlords, a mainstay of power and force, are stepping into that breach again.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and producer/cinematographer Emily Kassie have our report.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These gunmen are the rule of law in this remote mountainous region in the center of Afghanistan.

    Groups of fighters patrol and protect these communities, entirely independent of the Kabul government. Instead, they serve under this man, Abdul Ghani Alipur, known as Commander Sword.

  • Abdul Ghani Alipur (through translator):

    Twenty years ago, there was a sense of hope in Afghanistan. But, unfortunately, the situation is getting worse. The government was not able to establish itself in the way people had expected. The democracy that we were establishing never took much of a foothold.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    And so, he says, the rise of militias and their leaders is inevitable, with security deteriorating across the country.

  • Abdul Ghani Alipur (through translator):

    When a nation moves towards destruction, every group is forced to take their security into their own hands. They cannot leave their people behind. This is everyone's right.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These fighters' long-persecuted ethnic community, the Hazaras, have been the target of the Taliban for decades. Alipur says the government doesn't protect them.

  • Abdul Ghani Alipur (through translator):

    Hazaras have always been left behind. We can never ensure our rights will be respected.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    But that fear is felt by many across Afghanistan right now, from the various ethnic groups to civil society and women. As the American military prepares to leave the country, fighting has intensified between government forces and the Taliban, despite both sides technically negotiating in Qatar.

    And the Kabul authorities are less and less able to provide real security to civilian populations. The state's security forces arrested Alipur in 2018, accusing him of leading a criminal gang of fighters, but violent protests in the capital forced his release.

    Now he sticks to his own stronghold in the mountains. Alipur won't let us come to where he normally hides out. He is, after all, a wanted man by both the Taliban and the government. So he has agreed to meet us here in this extraordinarily remote and very beautiful mountainous part of the very center of Afghanistan.

    The intense security surrounding him is a reflection of this fracturing war. As each group entrenches, men like him have many enemies. His followers say they are providing a service to the community that the government simply doesn't. Without security, people cannot live decent lives.

  • Hammidulah Assadi (through translator):

    At one point, even schools had to close here, and people didn't have the ability to get on with daily life. With Alipur's movement, our people now live in security, and they can return to school, boys and girls, men and women.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    They were keen to show us those schools, Alipur himself giving us a tour.

    Here, on this snowy mountain top, a remarkable sight, boys and girls sitting side by side taking extra classes in calculus, as state schools close for winter break.

    But the reality is, this is not the image of Afghanistan's future either the Afghan people or the international community pictured 20 years ago, local militias patrolling their own communities, fighting off other militant groups.

    As America prepares to withdraw its troops under a February 2020 deal with the Taliban, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have stalled. If that peace process fails, there is a serious risk of the country's war splintering and smaller conflicts between fighting groups erupting for control of territory.

    The Afghan civil war of the early '90s, after the Soviet retreat, was devastating, with gangs of fighters plundering the country. That chaos was what eventually led to the Taliban's rise and popularity, as communities begged for order.

    Hopes to avoid repeating history lie with current talks in Doha between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But even if a deal happens, there is no guarantee that various ethnic and social groups in Afghanistan would support it. The Hazara community is predominantly made up of Shia Muslims, making them a target for the Taliban's Sunni extremism.

    If a deal is done in Doha between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it'll be men like this who have been targeted by the Taliban for years who will get to decide whether or not they themselves are on board.

    Several hours away from Alipur's hideout, in rural Bamiyan province, people live in the shadow of a visceral symbol of the country's culture and its destructive war. The famous 2,000-year-old giant Buddha statues carved from these cliffs and once a marker of the area's ancient Buddhist communities were blown up by the Taliban during their rule. And they continue to hold these communities in fear.

    Hussein Razayee makes a living as a taxi driver between Bamiyan and the capital, Kabul. It's one of the few jobs going in this part of the country. But to do it, he has to travel through areas controlled by the Taliban.

  • Hussein Razayee (through translator):

    If they decide they don't like something about me or with my passengers, if there is a government employee with documents, they might beat me.

    If a passenger is taken from my vehicles and is arrested by the Taliban, the government will say, I am involved. Both sides would accuse me, the Taliban and the government. All I could do is beg the mullah to please release the passengers, but they wouldn't. They don't respect us.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Now he says the immediate area is safer because of Alipur and his men.

  • Hussein Razayee (through translator):

    Alipur's presence is very good for the people who are using this road. He is doing a good job. Before he came, people were arrested by the Taliban who were from this area, because there was no one to protect them. Even the government didn't care.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Despite the peace talks, the realities on the ground of entrenched fighting and a rapid U.S. withdrawal leave few here like him confident the next generation will inherit a nation at peace.

  • Hussein Razayee (through translator):

    I hope so, but I'm not optimistic. We might have peace one day, but not soon. If fighting breaks out, I won't participate.

    For the last 35 years, I have never touched a weapon. I'm not a violent person. I just want to live as ordinary a life as I can. I just want a simple life.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It's a sentiment echoed across this country by the millions who aren't armed who are exhausted from war, asking for only a peaceful, dignified life.

    Yet, as fear sets in, that balance of power is being upended with a U.S. exit. Strongmen many call warlords may inherit some of that power once again.

  • Abdul Ghani Alipur (through translator):

    The government is weak. They are not able to defend the people. They cannot defend the country. They cannot move the war forward. When there is destruction and the system deteriorates, everyone ends up looking out for the themselves.

    No one's intention is to start a civil war. Everyone knows that civil war is an awful phenomenon. But if people feel unsafe, then they are forced to defend themselves.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    America's withdrawal from Afghanistan will be the ultimate test of its government's ability to rule the country and hold central power.

    The fear for so many Afghans is that it will not and what divides the country could prevail over what unites it, leaving people with no choice but to look to their own for survival.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

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