Conflict enters a new phase as the US and Nato pull back while the Taliban remain a rampant force

December 30, 2014 10:21 am

Camps in Kabul are still full of displaced people and civilian casualties of the fighting are set to hit 10,000 this year. Photo / AP
Camps in Kabul are still full of
displaced people and civilian casualties of the fighting are set to hit
10,000 this year. Photo / AP

The war is officially over, victory secured. And Afghanistan,
once again, has been rebuilt. But for many, life in the restive
provinces is much as it ever was. The Taliban are a rampant force. The
Government’s authority is limited, at best.
Yesterday saw the US
and Nato formally end their war in Afghanistan with a ceremony in Kabul.
With it came a new name for the mission; Operation Resolute Support.
That
support will, said General John Campbell, commander of the US-led
International Security Assistance Force, serve as the “bedrock of an
enduring partnership” between Nato and Kabul.
From New Year’s
Day, the mission will be to provide training and support for the
country’s military. It is needed. As the conflict enters a new phase,
the Taliban have, in turn, adapted. And roadside bombs – easy to
assemble, easier to hide and costing a fraction of other weapons – are
the Taliban’s weapon of choice.

“Every day before setting off for work, I give my three
children a big hug. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back,” says Abdul
Ghafoor Afghanyar, a specialist in improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
who works for the Afghan police in Helmand province.
He has one
of the toughest jobs in the new Afghanistan. Over the past five years he
has disarmed more than 6000 roadside bombs and at least six car bombs,
all with his bare hands.
“A radio set, a pressure cooker, even a
Pepsi can be converted into a deadly weapon, which can destroy tanks and
armoured vehicles,” said Afghanyar, who has just turned 24. “And such
destruction could be assembled for as little as 13 ($26).”
According
to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, IEDs are one
of the chief reasons for civilian casualties in the country, which are
set to hit 10,000 this year – the highest in any year since 2008 when
records began. A total of 3188 civilians were killed and 6429 injured in
the first 11 months of this year – an increase of 19 per cent on the
same period a year before.
Afghanyar is based in Gereshk, about
50km from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. The district lies on the
1000km Highway No 1, which connects three of Afghanistan’s largest
cities – Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. The strategic importance of this
road has made it a favourite Taliban hunting ground.
About half
of the stretch, between Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west, is
considered among the most treacherous roads in Afghanistan. It is where
Afghanyar spends most of his day.
“The Taliban are not very far
from the road,” he says, pointing to the mangled remains of what would
once have been a police car. “Metal and ball bearings were used in this
home-made bomb. The bomb got to the car before I could get to the bomb. I
lost four of my friends in this attack.”
The paved road soon
turns into dirt and gravel. “Like my friends, this road, too, is a
victim of IEDs,” Afghanyar says, trying to manoeuvre along the
pockmarked road.
He is called to inspect a suspicious-looking
object stuck beneath a small bridge running parallel to Highway No 1. A
police party guards the bridge from a distance, stopping and asking
motorists to keep as far as possible from the metal track running over a
dry creek. The bridge is often used by police convoys to access
villages along the highway.
Afghanyar steps out of the police vehicle and is given a quick briefing by Hekmatullah Haqmal, the police chief of Gereshk.
He
zips into a bomb suit and hands the chief a folded piece of paper
before crossing the police cordon. “This is a letter from Afghanyar to
his wife and children,” Haqmal says. “This basically expresses his last
wish and what he expects his family to do if, God forbid, the IED turns
out to be better than him. I have held this letter in my hands several
times and I hope I will never have to open and read it out to his
family.”
Afghanyar is soon under the bridge. “It’s ammonium
nitrate,” he shouts. The IED is made up of a common fertiliser and
designed to trigger under pressure. It was aimed at passing police
vehicles.
Afghanyar emerges from under the bridge in about 20
minutes, wiping beads of sweat off his forehead with one hand and
holding a black plastic bag in the other. “It’s been tamed,” he says,
handing over the bag with the neutralised bomb to the police chief. “So,
how many down?” Haqmal asks. “I have lost count,” Afghanyar replies,
taking back the letter and carefully depositing it in his shirt pocket.

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