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Afghanistan Dispatch: On Patrol

Who controls Faryab province, the police or the Taliban?

Andkhoi, Afghanistan—The changing of the guard in Faryab province takes place in sinister mimicry of the desert’s perpetual diurnal rhythm. In the brief and hazy dusk, police officers patrolling the rutted roads and villages of thirsty apricot groves pile into green pickup trucks and go home. In their place, on motorcycles, in cars, and on foot, the Taliban take charge, until morning.

(This is the second in a series of dispatches by Anna Badkhen from northern Afghanistan. You can read the earlier dispatches here: Part 1.)

Most of Faryab, where the scarps of the Turkestan Mountains flatten northward into an immense frontier wasteland, survives in the pall of two generally despised and warring regimes: by day, the kleptocracy of President Hamid Karzai, and, by night, the Taliban’s so-called “shadow government,” a loosely organized network of commanders, mullahs, and sharia judges. What makes it possible for several hundred Taliban to operate in the province, local officials here say, is a police force so tiny, and so poorly outfitted, that it can only patrol fragments of the area it needs to cover, and only half the time: 2,000 men and 200 vehicles in a region approximately the size of New Jersey, with a population of almost 2 million.

To police officials and civilians of Faryab, President Obama’s plan to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops and transferring the control of security to Afghan forces as soon as July appears utterly ludicrous. “If we get more police, more equipment, then sure, we’ll be ready to defend each square meter of this land,” says Colonel Sadiq Khan, deputy provincial police chief. He takes a deep breath, then launches into a litany that sounds like a prayer he has committed to memory. “We need twice as many officers. We need twice as much equipment. We need highway patrolmen, we need beat cops, we need a SWAT team. Our policemen aren’t adequately trained. They aren’t professional.”

Mostly, they are simply overwhelmed.

Each day at dawn in Andkhoi, a colonial town of potholed boulevards that run starlike from the whitewashed central mosque, Lieutenant Colonel Sadiq Bigzada dispatches a police car with nine officers to the edge of what the Faryabis call “the forest”—one of the country’s few juniper thickets that has somehow survived the massive deforestation of Afghanistan during the last three decades, a byproduct of conflict. The grove sprawls immediately to the west of the province’s main highway, a two-lane tarmac that connects Andkhoi and the regional capital, Maimana. Insurgents use the cover of the evergreens to ambush passing cars and trucks and to fire rockets at government vehicles on the road; the police do not enter the forest, but hope that their presence nearby will somehow deter attacks.

Sending a police squad to guard the juniper thicket leaves Bigzada with only 43 police officers and two cars, including his, to patrol a district where more than 100,000 people live in 78 villages. Most of these policemen are taken each morning to tiny outposts perched on arid hillocks, where, without cars to either pursue or escape, they are left to squat in the sandbagged shade and squint at the desert glare till sundown: not so much a fighting force confronting the Taliban as sitting ducks hoping to avoid being attacked. By 6 p.m., the government checkpoints are deserted, and only a handful of police officers on duty remain in the district headquarters, which is considered safe enough. The rest of the desert is thus ceded to the Taliban. The patrolled become the patrollers. “Yes, this is the problem we have,” Bigzada says. “But we simply don’t have enough policemen. We have no choice.”

Neither the Karzai government nor the Taliban really assists the Faryabis, the majority of whom are ethnic Uzbeks struggling through yet another drought that has desiccated their fields, withered their orchards, and starved their livestock. Billions of dollars of international aid funneled into the country in the last decade have barely reached this outlying province, and even police officials here blame the government in Kabul for stealing or mismanaging the money that is supposed to help build a safe and prosperous Afghanistan. The Taliban is likewise unpopular among the people: for levying taxes on the already impoverished villagers; for extorting tolls from travelers at impromptu checkpoints; and for threatening anyone who listens to music or wears Western dress. Several months ago, after a campaign of threatening phone calls and letters delivered to family compounds at nighttime, weddings, traditionally phantasmagorias of color and sound, have fallen silent in several districts. Women have all but vanished from the streets. “Life is poor dirt,” says Abdullah, an old farmer from the village of Qurghan. “No clean water, no electricity. The government is there during the day, and, at night, there are Taliban. Simple people are always in the middle. What can we do?”

Life goes on. In Shirin Tagab, where a suicide bomber two months ago killed two men and injured several during a buzkachi game, potato fields are in lavender bloom. Shepherds repeat their millennial minuet on hilltops crisscrossed by ancient sheep paths. Women weave resplendent wool carpets beneath breast-shaped clay roofs; men take them to market, where they sell for a song.

But there is no sense among the Faryabis that the Taliban is in decline, no confidence that the tide of the insurgency has been turned sufficiently for Afghan forces to fully take over once American troops begin leaving. “So far we aren’t made to grow out our beards, but that’s because the Taliban are still only gathering speed,” Mohammad Rahim, a young carpet merchant, tells me in the Andkhoi bazaar. “Come talk to me when they’ve completely taken over.”

Anna Badkhen is the author of Peace Meals and Waiting for the Taliban. She is writing a book about timelessness. Her reporting from Afghanistan is made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.