As bullets from a Taliban machine gun ricocheted through the street below, an Afghan soldier wearing an “I Heart Kabul” T-shirt took a brief rest. “There has been fighting day and night.”
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The war is just on the other side of this wall, a partly destroyed cinder block barricade in southern Afghanistan.
A week ago, a family lived in a house on the property. They have since fled and their home has been converted into a fighting position held by a half-dozen soldiers, along with their spent shell casings and empty energy drink cans.
The roof terrace is pockmarked from a rocket-propelled grenade explosion and there are holes bore out of the mud brick for machine guns and rifles to fire through.
“There has been fighting day and night,” said Cpl. Hamza, 28, an Afghan border force soldier who had been compelled into holding this position — far from any border — after the police and local militias fled.
It is the front line in a now abandoned neighborhood still within the city limits of Lashkar Gah. Bullets from a Taliban machine gun ricocheted through the street below, and the dull thud of grenades shook the large ornate mirror in the room where Corporal Hamza had gone in to briefly rest.
As commandos arrived to reinforce the position, a burst of automatic weapons fire narrowly missed the soldiers disembarking one of the armored vehicles. One bullet punctured a tire, a few hit the steel hull and others kicked up dirt as the troops ran for cover.
Corporal Hamza, who goes by one name, fired his American-supplied M16 rifle at enemy positions across the street. Under his vest that carried his ammunition, he wore a black T-shirt that read “I Heart Kabul.”
When the Taliban pushed toward the city last week — whether they had paid off the police or cut deals with them prompting those positions to quickly collapse — Corporal Hamza and his motley crew of border force soldiers became the last government forces separating the Taliban from the city. (A Taliban official said many of the police had been paid off.)
This may be the closest the Taliban have ever gotten to taking Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province, which is the Taliban’s heartland and a volatile swathe of territory that has become synonymous with the U.S. and British military’s failures in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.
At one point last week after the offensive began, the Helmand River was the only barrier keeping the Taliban from overrunning government positions until American and Afghan airstrikes and Afghan troops pushed the Taliban back. The city’s airport shut down to commercial traffic because of mortar and rocket fire, and more than 1,000 families have fled into the more defensible city center.
As the American withdrawal got underway, the Taliban began their latest offensive on the provincial capital on May 1, a date that tied neatly with the poor weather and blowing dust that prevented air support from stopping them. The insurgents struck elsewhere in the country at roughly the same time, taking several Afghan Army bases in the north.
Capt. Shir Agha Safi, an intelligence officer who moves around Helmand Province, had not come to terms with the planned U.S. departure. Because the Americans, their foreign sounding names and aircraft and drones are still ingrained into almost every part of the war.
“They won’t leave us,” Captain Safi said of the Americans, convinced that the withdrawal was not really happening.
Almost every day Captain Safi talks to the U.S. Army captain who helped him for months by coordinating airstrikes from nearby Camp New Antonik, a scab of a base built between the ruins of Bastion and Leatherneck, former British and American installations that are now decaying relics of the war’s last chapter.
The American flag folded for the last time at Antonik on May 2, leaving freezers full of apple pies, chicken and bean burritos, boxes of medical supplies and fluorescent night sticks that have since been harvested by Afghan forces nearby. The smell of musk and body odor still lingered in the rooms once inhabited by American troops when the Afghan soldiers came to retrieve anything left behind.
Captain Safi’s link to the U.S. military is now back at Bagram, a sprawling base in Afghanistan that will become one of the United States’ last before the country fully withdraws sometime this summer. Despite his geographical distance, the American captain continues to help direct airstrikes as a key member of a WhatsApp group: the Helmand Targeting Team. The group chat of messages, pictures and grid coordinates is a virtual meeting room for Afghan and American forces planning daily bombing runs in the province.
Around noon on Monday, the day was heating up as Captain Safi stared out over the Helmand River from one of the city’s military bases. Along the river banks, families bathed in the water and children played in the shade. Around him, commandos prepared for their next mission. Some rested under their armored vehicles, others prepared their weapons and gear.
Above him an Afghan A-29, a single prop bomber, swooped down over the western bank of the river, dropping a 250-pound Mk-81 unguided bomb on, what Captain Safi said, was a group of Taliban fighters trying to position themselves to strike the airport.
The plume of smoke, shock wave and finally audible blast barely caught the attention of those enjoying the warm day along the river bank. Traffic moved steadily into the city, busier than usual because of the approaching Eid holiday commemorating the end of Ramadan. Nobody bothered to leave as the flight of aircraft returned three more times, steering into a dive to drop the remaining ordnance hooked under their wings. It would take more than an airstrike to cut this day short for these families who so far had refused to flee.
As the planes departed and the smoke drifted lazily into the air, Captain Safi laid back on a green cot and put his hand to his temple, exhausted. At 28, he had been in the military for 11 years.
“It has been a tough decade,” he said.
It may only get worse. Staring at a map of Lashkar Gah in his command center earlier in the day, Captain Safi gestured at the little blue dots that denoted police checkpoints in the surrounding area — arguably the Afghan government’s front line.
“Ninety percent of them are gone,” Captain Safi said, and he turned back to his radio.
Now, supported by armored personnel carriers outfitted with automatic grenade launchers and heavy machine guns and the better-trained mobile strike team commandos that crew the hulking vehicles, Corporal Hamza and his gang of border forces soldiers were waiting to clear the surrounding neighborhoods still firmly in Taliban hands. The modest goal: to give Lashkar Gah a slightly bigger security bubble of government presence.
But until the police returned to their positions, Corporal Hamza would have to stay on the line, doing a job that was supposed to be someone else’s. His bushy-browed commander, Capt. Ezzatullah Tofan, laid it out plainly, showing a screenshot on his phone to his troops as the PKM machine gun on the roof fired away. The document, Captain Tofan said, indicated that the police and local militias would not return to their posts any time soon.
“You’ll have to keep fighting,” Captain Tofan explained. His men seemed strangely unfazed, as if they knew this had been coming or, at the least, resigned to their fate.
A three-day cease-fire was announced by both sides beginning Thursday to commemorate Eid, leaving the troops here incredulous. It was an excuse, they said, so the Taliban could move fighters and equipment back to the front lines without fear of being attacked.
When the cease-fire ends, the war will once more be on the other side of the wall.
“I’m happy for my family,” Corporal Hamza said of the holiday, “But I will be here.”
Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.