For 40 days, the Taliban besieged Zurmat’s district compound in Afghanistan’s Paktia province. While the group contested and controlled much of the district for the last two decades, it waged a recent full scale campaign to capture the district compound. The campaign turned the populous area of the district into a battlefield. The town’s main bazaar, close to the district compound, was shut down.
The Taliban planted roadside bombs on the road to the district compound to cut support lines for the government forces inside, said Abdul Ahmad*, a resident of the district. The Taliban told him and other villagers to leave their houses so the fighters could use them as outposts. In return, government forces struck his house with a mortar, destroying the guesthouse and his trees.
“We could go to our houses to take care of the sheep in the daytime,” said Ahmad. “We had to return to our relative’s houses in the night. We couldn’t sleep because of the heavy gunfire.”
After a long fight for the district compound, the Taliban captured the district from the government forces. The battle was just one part of the larger Taliban push for districts across Afghanistan. In a nationwide campaign, the Taliban took over scores of districts from long besieged and often fleeing Afghan government forces.
In between, civilians were caught in the crossfire.
As the war raged through district compounds and even steamrolled into provincial capitals, civilian areas were turned into battlefields. Major towns, district compounds, and provincial capitals are the hubs of business in Afghanistan and the main connection routes to and through the countryside. The fighting put these areas in the crossfire of gunfire, mortars, explosions, and airstrikes. With peace remaining a distant dream, children, women, and men watch their lives being destroyed as the conflict rages on.
“The intensified war and widespread combat is causing every day civilian deaths and destruction of public infrastructures of the country,” said the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in a statement. “Tactics such as economic surrounding of cities, destroying houses of civilians, and displacing people are in place. People are increasingly being deprived of their rights to life, to free movement and access to basic services and health care.”
The U.N. Refugee agency warned of a “looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as the escalating conflict brings increased human suffering and civilian displacement.” The refugee agency said that as many as an estimated 270,000 Afghans have been displaced inside the country since January 2021 — adding to a total number of over 3.5 million people who are displaced.
As civilians feel trapped inside the war, the United Nations in Afghanistan was prompted to issue a statement about “serious human rights abuses and violations alleged in communities.” The U.N. Mission to Afghanistan said in a statement that: “The reports of killing, ill-treatment, persecution and discrimination are widespread and disturbing, creating fear and insecurity. Those who carry out any such acts must be held accountable.”
In Ghazni city, in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, the Taliban stormed government outposts and entered people’s homes, according local media outlets. As the Taliban battled Afghan government forces in the city, people were pushed out of their homes. Many other civilians were trapped in their homes. One female high school student, Sarah Alizada, was shot in the head in her home in the Naw Abad district of Ghazni city.
“I still remember her smile,” Yaser Zakawat, a high school teacher, said in a Facebook memorial post. “She was disciplined. I can’t remember a day that she had missed her assignment. She had big dreams. It was a shock when I learned about her death. This damn war took and buried one of the brightest members of the society with all her dreams.”
In northern Faryab province, the battle for the provincial capital set a local market on fire. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul blamed the Taliban for burning down the market. The Taliban denied the claim. In Baghlan province, a video circulated on social media showing a local market burning down. In southern Kandahar city, farmlands and fields burned.
For much of the present 20-year war, itself but a phase within a 43-year war, rural Afghanistan has been the primary battlefield. As much of rural Afghanistan is mountainous, insurgent groups have found safe haven among civilians in remote areas. In return, the Afghan government and its foreign allies have frequently bombed and conducted military operations aimed at wiping out the insurgents, leading to civilian casualties along the way.
Juan-Pedro Schaerer became the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan in 2018 during a time when the Taliban had withdrawn protection for the humanitarian committee. Schaerer witnessed a rise in violence and civilian causalities. While peace talk efforts intensified in 2018 when then-U.S. President Donald Trump ordered U.S. diplomats to begin talks with the Taliban, the negotiations did not do much to reduce the burden on Schaerer’s team.
“There were only discussions over peace, not peace talks,” said Schaerer, who stepped down from the head of the ICRC in June 2021. “The war and discussion over peace have been two separate boats. I hope that one day they will become one boat.”
After the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, there was hope for peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban to end the war. Instead, as U.S. troops withdrew from the country, the peace talks failed to reduce violence in the country. The war raged on.
In a swift campaign this summer, the Taliban marched across Afghanistan, capturing areas that previously were held by government forces. The group gained ground in the north of the country, a historical base for anti-Taliban forces. Their advances raised concerns about revenge against their old foes of the Northern Alliance, led by the late Ahmad Shah Massoud in the late 1990s when the Taliban controlled Kabul.
“The Taliban’s retaliatory attacks against civilians deemed to have supported the government are an ominous warning about the risk of future atrocities,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Taliban leadership has the power to stop these abuses by their forces but have not shown that they are willing to do so.”
Human Rights Watch said in a report that the Taliban had forced residents of Bagh-e Sherkat in Kunduz province to evacuate and threatened those who had provided past support to the government forces. The watchdog said that the Taliban looted and burned down homes, though the Taliban denied responsibility.
In many other newly-taken districts, Taliban fighters have been trying to polish their image and clean off the stain of their past atrocities and harsh rules. In Takhar province, home to the base of Ahmad Shah Massoud during Taliban regime in the 1990s, the Taliban took all districts. “The Taliban have become politicians,” said a local official on condition of anonymity, fearing government retaliation. “They encouraged people to continue their normal business and announced amnesty for people.”
In Logar province, an hour drive to the south of Kabul, Hafizullah Haqparast had worked for local radio stations for years. Recently Haqparast left his job at the radio stations and was working on his farm when the war hit him. On the morning of June 9, while working on his farm in Kolangar village in Logar province’s Puli Alam he was killed in the crossfire between Afghan government forces and the Taliban.
His family said the government forces shot him. The Afghan government said the Taliban killed him.
*Name changed to protect the individual.