Written by David Zucchino and Fahim Abed
Janat Bebe sent a son and two grandsons to the Afghan National Police force to fight the Taliban. All three returned home last year in coffins, borne up to a cemetery high above their mountainside village of mud and stone.
The village, Shemal, has only about 3,000 residents, but it has lost nearly 60 police officers and soldiers in combat, at once devastating and impoverishing the hamlet.
“They had no choice except to join, because we have no other way to earn a living here,” Bebe said of her son and grandsons. They left behind 17 children whom she must now feed, clothe and educate.
Afghanistan’s war is killing at a staggering rate. President Ashraf Ghani said in January that 45,000 soldiers and police officers had died in combat since late 2014. In recent months, the pace has been 30 to 40 deaths a day, a toll that one senior US commander described to Congress as “not sustainable.”
In a country that has endured 40 years of war, each death is a fresh blow to families and communities that have already borne too much.
That is one reason for heightened interest in peace talks between the United States and the Taliban that for some have raised hopes for an end to war — or at least for an interlude of peace. Taliban delegates are meeting with U.S. negotiators in Qatar this week.
But parents like Bebe and Shen Gul, 70, who lost two policemen sons to Taliban ambushes in northern Afghanistan, are uneasy about what peace might bring.
Mostly, they fear that a deal might bring the Taliban into government, putting a hated enemy of their families into power. But there is also the worry that a truce might lead to reprisals against their family members in the security forces — or end their jobs and the salaries that have become so important to their families.
“If they dissolve the army, the Taliban may kill them,” Gul said of his five sons who still serve in the security forces.
Many soldiers and police officers say they join out of patriotism and a sense of national duty. But their salaries also sustain extended families and, in villages like Shemal, an entire local economy.
“We depend so much on their salaries — without them, we have nothing,” said Malik Ajmer Khan, 53, a village elder whose own son is among some 300 village men he said have joined the security forces in the 18-year war.
Khan said the village cannot survive solely on its wheat and corn crops, or on the goats that roam steep mountain paths leading to the village. Accessible by car and then by foot via a muddy track beneath the snow-dusted peaks of eastern Afghanistan, Shemal is so remote that Khan said some villagers have never visited nearby Jalalabad — or any city.
Bebe said she had to sell her home after her son and grandsons were killed in a Taliban ambush on their outpost in Zabul province a year ago. Her husband died fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, she said. By Afghan custom, she now heads an extended family that includes the dead policemen’s three widows.
Surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Bebe wore pink sneakers and a robe fastened with a plastic hair clip. She held the youngest, Gulab, an infant whose name means “roses.” She was born after her father died.
“I always had a great worry that I would lose one of the men in our family, but I never expected to lose all three at once,” Bebe said.
Police officers, who are frequently in combat but are not usually as heavily armed as members of the army, suffer higher casualty rates than soldiers do. They are often the last line of defense at small, rural outposts that are vulnerable to being overrun by the Taliban in the face of 1,700 insurgent attacks a month nationwide late last year.
Despite the escalating body count, military and police jobs are still prized. Police recruiters in the home provinces of Bebe and Gul said they had more volunteers than they could accommodate.
Farid Khan, a police spokesman in Nangarhar province, which includes Shemal, said hundreds of recruits are waiting their turns to join units. Most formations stay at or near full strength because of the backlog of volunteers, he said.
Army recruiting totals in Kunduz province have doubled since last year, to 300 to 400 a month, said Col. Abdul Qadier, head of army recruiting there. He said an economic crisis in neighboring Iran has prompted Afghans to stop looking for work there and apply to the army instead.
“There are no other job opportunities,” Qadier said.
But overall, there are still problems with inflated personnel counts in both the army and the police. Officials say they are trying to crack down on misreporting by commanders who sometimes create “ghost soldiers” in their units to skim the salaries. And the horribly high casualty rate, coupled with a continuing but hushed problem with desertion, creates a constant struggle to train wave after wave of new recruits.
A report last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said reported security force strength dropped by nearly 4,000 troops last year — the lowest level since January 2015.
Starting police officers earn about $155 a month, according to the Afghan Ministry of Interior. Bebe’s son, Mahmood Jan, and one grandson, Gulab, had served 10 years, and the other grandson, Sekander, served three.
Bebe said she was overwhelmed by funeral expenses for the three men. Nearly the entire village turned out for each multiday service, costing her thousands of dollars to feed mourners several times.
Families receive a dead police officer’s annual salary for funeral expenses. They are also supposed to be paid long-term cash benefits, which are typically received months later but only after a slog through government bureaucracy.
In Shemal, villagers have opened their homes to the policemen’s widows and children, Bebe said. They move from home to home while Bebe earns cash cleaning houses.
Asked about the lasting effects of the three officers’ deaths, Bebe replied, “Of course I feel sorrow, but I’m proud because they died defending their country. They died in a very good way.”
In fact, she said, she will encourage her five grandsons and three great-grandsons to join the military. “The country must be served,” she said.
For Gul, who said he earned $2 a day from his small grocery in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, his sons’ deaths pierced both his heart and his family’s prospects. One of his sons, Awal Khan, was killed four years ago when his police outpost was attacked. Four months ago, a younger son, Mohammad Khan, 38, and 14 other officers were killed in a Taliban attack, he said.
Between them, his sons earned about $520 a month. Gul said the government paid him $3,000 for funeral costs. But he must now support an extended family that includes his two wives, plus his sons’ two widows and their 19 children.
Gul said he would welcome a peace deal so that no other fathers lose their sons.
“My own sons will defend their country until the last drop of their blood,” he said. “But we want peace, so that I don’t lose my other five sons in this bloodshed.”
In Shemal, Bebe expressed contempt for the Taliban fighters who killed the men of her family.
“I wish I was young,” she said. “I would join the military and take revenge for my son and grandsons.”
She touched the shoulder of her eldest grandson, Suleiman, a slender boy who appeared to be about 12 years old. She said she had urged him to join the military and avenge the family when he comes of age.
Suleiman was asked whether he planned to volunteer. Bebe and several village men and boys gathered around to hear his response.
“Yes,” the boy said in a faint voice. “I want to serve the country so that we win the war.”
Suleiman looked up at his grandmother. She seemed to want him to say more.
“And also,” he went on, “I have been inspired by the men in my family.”