The battle for control of an Afghan district is often fierce, involving car bombs, airstrikes and raids that destroy government buildings and leave a trail of bodies.
But the Afghan military’s routing of the Taliban two weeks ago from Khwaja Umari, a district about 10 miles from Ghazni City, capped a rare period of relatively good news for a military demoralized by years of high casualties and territorial loss.
More proactive security forces, borne of a generational shift to younger leaders, have been credited with denying the Taliban any major new gains at a crucial time of peace negotiations. The forces have ruthlessly used commandos and airstrikes to bleed the insurgents, waging what has been a more flexible and adaptive counterinsurgency compared with the older ways, when the forces remained less mobile and largely defensive.
The strategy, even if not significantly reducing the casualties of Afghan forces, seems to be slowing the insurgents’ momentum.
Whether the Afghan forces can hold the district from falling again to the Taliban, whose fighters lurk on its edges and still fire mortars on government soldiers, will be a test of whether the military pressure is just the result of a savvy use of force or will translate into deeper changes.
The Taliban still remain a major threat to most of Ghazni province, with only three of the 18 districts entirely in government control, according to Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, the head of Ghazni’s provincial council. Five districts remain largely under Taliban control. The rest of the districts are contested to varying degrees.
“We used to not feel comfortable even 2 kilometers outside the city center — the Taliban could easily gather in large numbers,” said Faqiri. “Now, the security belt has expanded.”
Col. Abdul Mobin Mohabati, the commander of the Afghan Army brigade in Ghazni province who led the operations to retake Khwaja Umari, which was in the hands of the Taliban for nine months, said about 300 soldiers, 60 of them commandos, were involved in the assault.
“The fighting didn’t last longer than 30 minutes,” the colonel said. “It was all ground forces, no air power.”
The district’s recapture is part of the plan to break the Taliban’s chokehold around Ghazni City. Over the past three months, Afghan forces first expanded the security belt around the city, and then pushed to clear the areas surrounding the highway before launching operations to take back two districts close to Ghazni City, including Khwaja Umari.
When the Taliban first made a run for Khwaja Umari last April, the assault was so fierce that the district’s young governor, Ali Dost Shams, fought to his last man.
The insurgents were repelled only when airstrikes killed dozens of them. When reinforcements arrived, the district was saved, but not its governor, who had promised to be home in Kabul for his little daughter’s birthday when the assault began.
The second time the Taliban came for the district, last August, it was part of a larger, ambitious run for Ghazni City. While the collapse of the city was barely avoided, the Taliban took control of neighboring Khwaja Umari.
Increasingly, it seems, little fundamentally changes for residents when a district switches hands from the government to the Taliban, or the other way around.
Interviews with residents in Khwaja Umari suggested that for much of the time the Taliban controlled the district of roughly 40,000 people, the insurgents showed little ambition for governing. Their officials rarely held large meetings with residents, keeping their movements unpredictable in a cat-and-mouse game with airstrikes and commando raids.
The Taliban, however, made sure to collect taxes for sustaining fighters as their units grew financially decentralized. Residents said Taliban fighters would collect one-tenth of all their produce, such as potatoes, apples and plums.
“Last year, they taxed our apples,” said Irfanullah, 18, who like many Afghans uses only one name. “But this year, they left before the apples were ripe.”
In Khwaja Umari, the schools remained open for both boys and girls, and the clinic functioned normally. But the Taliban tried to put their stamp on basic services, even though the salaries of local teachers and doctors still came from the U.S.-backed central government.
“Female patients at the clinic had to come with a male chaperone,” said Ahmad Shoaib, 28, a resident of Khwaja Umari. And at the girls’ school, students “had to cover up in Islamic hijab.”
In one signature Taliban method of governing, the mediation of local disputes, they had less of a presence, Haji Gul Jan, a local elder, said.
In one case, “a laborer in Iran had sent money to his family, but the courier was in denial and not delivering it to the man’s family,” Jan said. “When the family petitioned, the Taliban commander gave them a note to bring the latest exchange rate from Ghazni City. And the courier was forced to pay the money right away according to that rate.”
When Afghan forces have pushed out the Taliban, the insurgents have destroyed government facilities before their retreat, officials say. In Khwaja Umari, the district governor’s office was left in tatters. Only a couple of rooms in the Police Headquarters, which were heavily mined and damaged, have returned to use.
“Our estranged brothers are still near that hill,” said Sgt. Ahmad Zaki, using a sarcastic term for the Taliban. “They still fire rockets at us.”
The protection of the district now falls to the police, led by another young commander, Col. Khalid Wardak, 33. He spent years in the police special forces before he was made the security chief of Ghazni.
Quiet and shy, the colonel lost a leg to a roadside bomb four years ago, but he went to India for treatment and returned to the fight a couple of months later with a prosthetic.
“It was a nice little burst of fighting,” he told a friend after returning from a skirmish with the Taliban one recent evening. “I had a headache all day, and it went away with the smell of gunpowder.”