KABUL, Afghanistan — The first explosion came early in the morning while Yousef, a local army medic, was still in bed. Before he had time to understand what had happened, the second blast ripped through the US-Afghan base, sending him crashing to the ground.
At least 12 people were killed and dozens more wounded in the twin suicide attack, which struck on Sept. 1. Bodies lay scattered in the dirt — some trapped under debris. Amid all the chaos, a policeman tried to steal a necklace from an injured woman.
“The army does not have the morale to fight. We are here because we have to be," Yousef told GlobalPost a few weeks after the assault. “Tomorrow we have another operation so again there is no morale, but we have to join it because we are paid for this.”
Situated on the main highway linking Kabul to southern Afghanistan, Maidan Wardak is a strategically vital province in the war against the Taliban. US President Barack Obama sent reinforcements to the area soon after taking office and now, nearly four years later, it remains the site of an exhausting struggle for control over the gates to the nation’s capital.
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Nowhere is this more apparent than in the district of Sayed Abad. Although the attack on the military base there killed no American troops, it was another high-profile incident in a long, slow, conflict that appears to be grinding down everyone except the insurgents.
It is looking increasingly likely that Western forces will throw up their hands and leave Afghanistan to manage its own affairs. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the Guardian this week that the coalition was considering withdrawing sooner than originally planned. And the New York Times reported Tuesday that the United States was scaling back efforts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban.
Sayed Abad is roughly 45 minutes drive from Kabul. Whoever triumphs in the area will land a crucial blow in the fight for the country’s future. If the Taliban continue to gain territory and are able to choke off the highway, they know they will be one step closer to winning the war.
Yousef — a pseudonym — described the rebels as “sons of dogs.” But he admitted they can defeat the Afghan army on the battlefield even when they are heavily outnumbered.
“Yesterday we shot dead a woman in the Hassan Khail area because the Taliban were hiding behind her, and today I heard that a child was killed,” he said. “You know, it is a fight and in the crossfire this happens.”
The condition of the highway as it passes through Sayed Abad is testament to the intensity of the fight for the district. Sections of the surface have been ripped apart by explosions and civilians are reluctant to travel on the road, particularly after dark.
Neither side can claim to have full control of the route. But in the wheat fields, mountains and mud-walled villages of the surrounding landscape, the insurgents are very much in command.
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Everyone interviewed for this article spoke either via telephone from Maidan Wardak or in person in Kabul. Among them was Wasiq, a local Taliban foot soldier who provided an insight into how they operate and why the rebels are still going strong.
The Taliban, Wasiq said, are split into groups according to specialist skills, he explained. Some are equipped only with Kalashnikovs. Others are designated bomb-makers, or are responsible for heavy machine guns.
Illiterate men will often have simple fighting roles, while an insurgent who can speak English may be given the important task of operating a military radio so he can listen in on NATO conversations.
Wasiq said the leader of the Taliban in Sayed Abad is based in Peshawar, Pakistan, and that the rank and file are given no prior notice of suicide attacks. He claimed any rebels who robbed or harassed residents were criminals, not genuine members of the Taliban.
“People are happy to give us food or a place to stay the night,” he said. “Despite all the propaganda of the media, they think it is part of the jihad.”
Coalition forces have taken severe casualties in Sayed Abad. In August 2011, 30 Americans, including 22 Navy Seals, were killed after their helicopter was shot down. In September of that year a massive truck bomb targeted the same base that was hit last month, injuring almost 80 US troops. Most recently, just days ago, two Americans — a soldier and a civilian contractor — were killed there.
The district is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns who form the Taliban’s traditional core of support and sympathy for the insurgents is easily found.
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While many residents feel a strong ideological affinity with the rebels, others side with them simply because they associate the NATO occupation with the worst of the violence.
Supply trucks using the Sayed Abad road to equip Afghan and foreign troops throughout the country have long been vulnerable to ambushes and people claim the convoys’ guards shoot randomly into civilian areas in an effort to ward off militants.
Roshanak Wardak, a former lawmaker who lives in the district, told GlobalPost her house is regularly damaged in firefights because the Taliban requisition her garden as a staging post for attacks.