Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
One day a journalist friend of mine told me he would like to discuss a very important decision with me.
He told me that his mother was continuously calling him to ask him to leave his job and return home to Tagab district because the Americans were to withdraw. She assumed that the Taleban would then return to power and might harm him for working with the government.
“I told my mother that am a journalist not a military person,” he told me, “but my mother insisted, ‘if you don’t quit your job I will not forgive you, what good is your job to me if I lose you?’”
My friend asked me what he should do, and I told him that the withdrawal of the Americans was just speculation and nothing else.
He was not convinced, but our conversation helped solve a question I had been thinking about for a while. Whenever I went to my home village in Tagab I would see some of the young guys who I knew were working in the police and army but seemed to spend most of their time in the village. I thought they had come back for holidays - but now I realised that they too had quit their jobs.
That was when the idea of writing a story on this issue occurred to me.
At first it was very difficult to work on this report because soldiers and policemen who had gone absent without leave did not want to be interviewed in case the government discovered where they were and forced them to return to their duties. Those who had quit also did not want to talk to me as they did not want the Taleban or the locals to know they had been working with the security forces; many had told fellow villagers that they had been travelling to Iran for work.
Outside the government-controlled centres of Kapisa province, the insurgents patrol day and night.
When I talked to people in the volatile districts of Kapisa province such as Tagab, Ala Say and Nayjraab, they were truly under the impression that the foreigners had been defeated in Afghanistan, that the Taleban were now returning to power and that the lives and properties of those working with the government were in danger.
I left Parwan province for Kapisa in the afternoon so as to reach my destination some time between the evening and nightfall.
When our vehicle entered Tagab district we saw some cars parked on the roadside and heard gunshots; other travellers told us that the road was blocked because of fighting.
When the gunfire stopped we started out again, and as we drove down the road again we saw some of the young men from the tribal militia with special armbands around their right arms stationed in the ditches.
As we left the main road and headed towards the village on the other side of the river, we saw other men with military-style uniforms, some wearing the traditional Afghan pakol hat. They were the Taleban.
They spread out across the road and when they got close to our vehicle they stopped us and started to search it. I put a scarf around my head and face and pretended I was ill. Fortunately, luck was on my side – in the back of our car there were some women and because of this the Taleban did not conduct a thorough search of our vehicle.
The Taleban troops seemed very angry because the tribal militia had killed one of their comrades and still held his body; the Taleban had also retained the body of a tribal militia member they had shot dead.
It was nearly dark when I reached the house of my friend. That night, we discussed the American withdrawal and what the public thought of it. From talking to him and his friends I realised that my suspicions had been correct – most of the young people employed by the state there had abandoned their jobs.
The next morning, my friend and I set out to find such people to interview.
We met a young man ploughing his lands who had left his post in the national army. At first, he strongly denied that he was a soldier but after my friend convinced him to speak to me he admitted that he was indeed employed by the army. He had been serving in Kunar province when rumours began to circulate that the Americans were going to withdraw, something which had a hugely negative impact on morale.
That was when he decided to quit so he would not have to face a Taleban trial, he said, stressing that he did not want his real name used in the article.
That afternoon we went to a village where a wedding was under way. Celebrations were in full swing and the young men of the village were dancing the traditional attan dance when around 25 heavily-armed men entered. They were the Taleban and with their arrival all the people in the wedding went quiet.
Fearing that the building might be attacked by the foreign troops, I said to my friend that we should leave, but he pointed out a man that he said I should speak to for my article first.
This young man, wearing traditional white clothes, introduced himself as Asad and admitted he was supposed to be serving in Helmand with the army.
“I preferred dying in my own country rather than working for the narrow-minded, prejudiced Iranians,” he told us. “But when the Americans announced their withdrawal my family and friends compelled me to leave the army.”
He said that there had been a huge fall in morale in the Afghan army because people sincerely believe that once the Americans withdraw the Taleban will take over and deal mercilessly with those who worked with foreigners.
Walking back to my friend’s house, we saw a man wearing a pakol hat, standing in a garden with a tame bird in his hand. My friend told me that he had once been a colonel in the army.
When we approached him, I introduced myself.
“Boy, don’t tell everyone you are a journalist, you are in Tagab district now, not in Kabul city,” he said with a laugh. Although he declined to give his name, he explained his reasons for leaving the army.
“I have a lot of lands and orchards here and when the Americans announced their withdrawal I could not risk these for the few afghanis I am getting from the army - because when the Taleban return they will not only take my property but label me a infidel and kill me. So I quit before that could happen.”
I spent the night at my friend’s and in the early hours woke up in fear at the sound of artillery and gunfire. My friend, who was already awake, laughed at me and said, “Relax, this is our nightly routine. The Taleban attack the foreigners and they, with all the might they have, fire towards the mountains.”
Nonetheless, I was very scared and left for Kabul early the next morning without having breakfast.
There, I contacted the officials of the defence and interior ministries but they declined to comment and gave me all kinds of excuses. I knew that they did not find the questions I wanted to ask them at all palatable. But in the end I finished my report, and it was republished in many of the domestic media outlets.
Maiwand Safi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kapisa province.
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