Ammunition was lacking at the military outposts in Laghmann province. Food was scarce. Some officers had not received their salary for five months.
Then, even as US troops began to leave the country in early May, Taliban fighters surrounded seven Afghan military posts in the countryside scattered between wheat fields and onion fields in the country’s eastern province.
The insurgents called on the village chiefs to visit the military posts with a message: surrender or die.
After negotiations lasted until mid-month, village leaders said, security forces handed over the seven military posts. After handing over their weapons and equipment, at least 120 soldiers and police were able to reach the government-controlled provincial center safely.
“We told them, ‘Look, your situation is difficult. There will be no reinforcements coming, ”said Nabi Sarwar Khadim, 53, one of the many village chiefs who negotiated the surrenders.
Since May 1, at least 26 military bases and posts in just four provinces – Laghman, Baghlan, Wardak and Ghazni – have surrendered after such negotiations, according to village chiefs and government officials. With military morale low as US troops retreat from the country, and with the Taliban using each military surrender to trumpet their victories, each military collapse fuels the next in the Afghan campaign.
The negotiated surrenders included four district centers that house local governors, police chiefs and intelligence services. This means, in effect, that government facilities came under the control of the Taliban and that the officials who carried out their duties there were dispersed, at least temporarily.
The Taliban have negotiated surrenders of Afghan troops in the past, but never before at the scale and speed seen in the collapse of military bases in four provinces stretching east, north and west from Kabul. The tactic removed hundreds of government forces from the battlefield and handed the group strategic territory, weapons, ammunition and vehicles, in many cases without the Taliban having to fire a single shot.
The collapse of the Afghan military bases is a measure of the accelerated deterioration of the government’s war effort. Military posts are falling one after another, some after battles, but in many cases after large-scale surrenders.
The surrenders are part of a broader Taliban “modus operandi” that encompasses the capture and retention of territory at a time when the morale of the security forces is weakened by the withdrawal of international troops. It also includes surrenders negotiated by the police and local militias, as well as local truces that allow the group to consolidate its advances and, finally, a military offensive that continues despite calls for peace negotiations and a ceasefire. national fire.
“The government is failing to save the security forces,” said Mohammed Jalal, a village chief in Baghlan province. “If your troops fight, they will be killed. So, they are forced to surrender.
The surrenders are the work of the Taliban’s invitation and guidance committees, which intervene after insurgents block roads and the arrival of supplies at besieged military posts. Taliban committee heads or military leaders phone base commanders — and sometimes their families — offering to spare their men’s lives if they return their posts, weapons and ammunition.
In several cases, committees donated civilian clothes and cash (usually around $ 130, R $ 683) to surrendered servicemen and sent them home unharmed. But they first film the men, promising that they will not join the security forces. The committees record the phone numbers and family names of the men and promise that they will kill them if they return to the military ranks.
“The Taliban commander and the Invitation and Orientation Committee called me more than ten times asking me to surrender,” said Major Imam Shah Zafari, 34, district police chief in the province. of Wardak, who handed over his command center and weapons on May 11 after negotiations mediated by local village chiefs.
Zafari said that after the Taliban arranged for a drive to Kabul for him, a committee member called him to promise him the government will not detain him for surrendering. “He said, ‘We have a lot of power in government and we can unleash it,” Zafari said.
Taliban committees take advantage of a typical feature of Afghan wars: fighters and commanders often change sides, make deals, negotiate surrenders, and seek the support of village elders to gain influence with local residents.
The current conflict is in fact formed by dozens of local wars. These are intimate conflicts in which siblings and cousins clash and commanders on either side persuade, threaten, and negotiate over cell phones.
“There is a Taliban commander who calls me all the time to try to destroy my morale so that I can surrender,” said Wahidullah Zindani, 36, a bearded and tanned police commander who rejected the Taliban’s request. to return his military post to Laghman. province, which has nine men.
The negotiated surrenders are part of a larger offensive in which the Taliban has already surrounded at least five provincial capitals this spring, according to a report by the Pentagon inspector general released on May 18. The offensive has intensified since the US troop withdrawal began on May 1. The Taliban have used their control over several main roads to cut off access to military bases and garrisons, leaving them vulnerable.
Dropouts have a profound psychological effect.
“They are calling and saying the Taliban are powerful enough to defeat the United States and can easily conquer Laghman Province. And that you would do well to remember that before they kill you, ”said Governor of Laghman Rahmatullah Yarmal, 29, when questioned in his barricaded compound in the provincial capital, Mehtar Lam.
It is a propaganda tactic that works, the governor admitted, to the point where some commanders of military outposts refuse to speak to village chiefs or Taliban negotiators. According to him, many of these village chiefs are not neutral peacemakers, but supporters of the group handpicked by the organization.
Yarmal said 60 police officers who surrendered and took refuge in his government center are now ready to fight to regain the seven posts lost to the Taliban. “I think we’ll get the messages back in a month,” he predicted.
But hours after the governor’s speech on May 19, a nearby district center, Dawlat Shah, surrendered to the Taliban without resistance after negotiations. The next morning, five other military posts similarly surrendered in Alishing district, also in Laghman.
These Taliban victories were facilitated in part by a 30-day truce negotiated on May 17 by village chiefs in the hotly contested Alingar district. The truce allowed the Taliban to move their forces to Alishing, where just two days later they forced the negotiated surrender of the five military outposts (on May 21, the Taliban violated the ceasefire, launching new attacks on Alingar, according to Khadim).
The negotiations were particularly successful for the Taliban in Baghlan province, where at least 100 troops surrendered, and in Wardak, where some 130 members of the security forces reportedly surrendered after negotiations.
In Laghman province, negotiations which led to the surrender of the seven military posts continued for ten days. Khadim, the village chief, said different village chiefs negotiated with the commanders at each post.
“We gave them a guarantee that they would not be killed,” he said. “There was nothing written. It was just our word.
A few kilometers away, Zindani refused to give up his isolated post near the front line. He said military officials who negotiated surrenders at neighboring posts have betrayed their country.
One of his men, Muhammad Agha Bambard, said he would fight to avenge the deaths of two of his brothers killed by the Taliban. He swore he would never give up.
The nine men commanded by Zindani had only one machine gun, one grenade launcher and one AK-47 rifle for each. But he said he intended to continue the fighting, as he told the Taliban commander that he was constantly calling to demand his surrender.
“I told him: ‘I am a soldier from my country, I am not here to surrender,” said the commander.
Four days later, on a Sunday, the post was raided in a shootout with the Taliban, according to a member of the provincial council. A policeman was shot dead. Zindani and his men were taken prisoner.
Hours later, the Taliban released a video showing Bambard lying on a mattress, face and neck bandaged, being interrogated by a Taliban commander. Ironically, the commander asked why Bambard posted on his Facebook page that as long as he was alive he would not let the enemy capture his post.
The injured officer replied, “This is Afghanistan.