This year’s turmoil has been deepened by the arrival of roughly 20 displaced families from central Afghanistan. They were hungry and homeless, he said, so he gave them what little food he could spare before making his way to the district center in hopes of finding someone else who could help.

“We are so tired,” Mr. Khan said, his blue shalwar kameez flapping in the morning breeze.

In recent weeks, the United States and the European Union have pledged to provide $1.29 billion more in aid to Afghanistan. The World Bank’s board moved in late November to free up $280 million in frozen donor funding, but U.S. sanctions against the Taliban continue to make it extremely difficult for aid organizations to get money into the country.

Aside from the sanctions, the Taliban government’s inability to provide for its people also stems from its inexperience in governance, which was clearly illustrated in a visit to the district office in Marja.

Inside the squat government building that was refurbished by the Americans a decade ago and nearly destroyed by fighting in the decade since, sat Mullah Abdul Salam Hussaini, 37, Marja’s district governor. The newly appointed local leader had spent the better part of the last 20 years — essentially his entire adulthood — trying to kill U.S. and NATO forces as a Taliban fighter.

Now he found himself governing a district of around 80,000 people mired in crisis, with little in the way of funds, infrastructure or public-service experience to support his constituents.

People lined up at the compound gates with a litany of complaints and requests: Do something about the displaced refugees; build a new health clinic; help farmers whose crops were destroyed; find more teachers for what may be the only remaining school in Marja.

“Whatever people ask, I am asking that, too, because we are not in a situation to do it ourselves,” Mr. Hussaini said quietly, surrounded by Talibs who looked far more comfortable behind a rifle than a desk. “We need the help of foreigners because they did it before and we’re asking them to do it again.”

Inside the governor’s dimly lit office, walls and window sill adorned with Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons captured from the previous government, sat a representative from a local aid group who had come to survey the district and its food needs for the World Food Program. The organization is still distributing basic food staples, but the rising demand has far exceeded their supplies.

For years, the insurgent group controlled pockets of Afghanistan and fueled a shadow economy by leeching off the previous government’s foreign-filled coffers through taxes on everyone in their territory, including truck drivers and aid workers. But those sorts of activities cannot make up for the loss of outside help.

“The Taliban don’t seem to have had a sense of how dependent the economy was on foreign support, which they benefited from as did everyone else,” said Kate Clark, the co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network. “Even under the areas under Taliban control they weren’t funding the schools and the clinics.”

Marja, a district long reliant on growing poppy for its own illicit economy that the Taliban also taxed, was built by the United States in the late 1950s and 1960s as an agricultural project that diverted water from the Helmand River into a series of distinct grids.

In 2010, during the height of President Barack Obama’s troop surge, thousands of Western and Afghan troops secured the network of canals and fields in a major military offensive and then made promises of roads, schools and a functioning local government. Considered the last Taliban stronghold in central Helmand, Marja was a strategically important district in the eyes of military planners, who decided a victory there would be crucial to Mr. Obama’s new counterinsurgency strategy.

The Koru Chareh bazaar, a cluster of shoddy low-slung, steel-door shops, was where some of the first American troops arrived in 2010. “They came at night,” recalled Abdul Kabir, a young shopkeeper who was 9 when the first helicopters landed nearby.

As a boy, he watched as the Marines in desert tan uniforms walked by, saying nothing to him.

But this November, the only visible signs of the Americans’ occupation was a “Trump 2020 Keep America Great” flag draped from a shopkeeper’s peanut stand and a Confederate battle flag hanging from a shed nearby. A paved road that bisects Marja from north to south is arguably the most prominent American piece of infrastructure in the district, built as part of the more than $4 billion in stabilization funds that the United States poured into the country.

“It’s good the fighting is over,” Mr. Kabir said, standing next to his money exchange stand, where he focused on changing afghanis into Pakistani rupees. Few people ambled by. He had lived in Marja his whole life, an arc that followed the entire U.S. occupation.

Mr. Kabir was one of several residents who praised the security situation but lamented the economic downturn. “There is no money and everything is expensive,” he added.

With fluctuating border restrictions, higher import costs and a cash shortage, basic products in the bazaar, such as cooking oil, are three times as expensive as they once were.

To the vendors, who have distinct memories of fighting outside their homes, and explosions and gunshots that killed their friends, the economic crunch and the United States’ unwillingness to recognize the Taliban feel like punishments against them, not the new government.

Ali Mohammed, 27, who runs a chicken stand at the main intersection of the bazaar, has carried the weight of the war for years. He watched as a friend was gunned down by the Americans in a field just a few hundred yards from where he now sells his underfed birds. To him, his country’s situation was simply a new phase of the conflict.

“The foreigners say they are not here anymore,” he said. “But they didn’t finish the war against us.”

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Taliban Capture Zaranj, an Afghanistan Provincial Capital, in a Symbolic Victory

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban captured a regional hub city in western Afghanistan on Friday, officials said, the first provincial capital to fall to the insurgency since the Biden administration announced the full withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The successful takeover marks a significant milestone in the insurgents’ relentless march to increase their stranglehold on the Afghan government and retake power in the country. The Taliban have besieged a host of such cities for weeks, and the fall of Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimruz Province on the Afghanistan-Iran border, is the Taliban’s first breakthrough. And it handed the insurgents another crucial international border crossing, the latest in its recent campaign to control road access in Afghanistan.

A regional administrative hub is now completely controlled by the Taliban, an attention-grabbing addition to their steady drumbeat of rural victories in recent months. It was a considerable setback for the government, which has had to contend with simultaneous attacks on capital cities that have stretched military resources desperately thin.

The collapse of Zaranj at the hands of the insurgents was confirmed Friday by Rohgul Khairzad, the deputy governor of Nimruz, and Hajji Baz Mohammad Naser, the head of the provincial council.

coordinated attack by the insurgent group on the residence of the acting defense minister that left eight people dead. That assault highlighted the Taliban’s ability to strike in the heart of the Afghan capital as they continue their sweeping military campaign.

In northern Afghanistan on Friday, the Taliban attacked another provincial capital, Sheberghan, from five directions, burning houses and wedding halls, and assaulting the police headquarters and the prison. There were numerous civilian casualties, said Halima Sadaf Karimi, a member of Parliament from Jowzjan Province, of which Sheberghan is the capital.

Fighting also continued around the major western city of Herat, in Kandahar city in the south and in other provincial capitals.

The government’s response to the insurgents’ recent victories has been piecemeal. Afghan forces have retaken some districts, but both the Afghan Air Force and its commando forces — which have been deployed to hold what territory remains as regular army and police units retreat, surrender or refuse to fight — are exhausted.

In the security forces’ stead, the government has once more looked to local militias to fill the gaps, a move reminiscent of the chaotic and ethnically divided civil war of the 1990s that many Afghans now fear will return.

In recent weeks, the U.S. military has increased airstrikes on Taliban positions around crucial cities in an effort to give Afghan forces on the ground time to regroup. The strikes alone do little to change the situation on the ground, but have slowed Taliban advances.

The United States is supposed to complete its withdrawal by Aug. 31, at which point the Biden administration has said its military operations will end. That would give the Afghan government mere weeks to reconstitute its security forces to defend the cities and territory still under its control.

At a special session of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, Deborah Lyons, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Afghanistan, warned that without action, the country could descend “into a situation of catastrophe so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels in this century.”

Afghanistan, she said, had come to resemble the battlefields of Syria and Sarajevo, with the Taliban making a “strategic decision” to attack urban areas, causing hundreds of deaths among civilians in just the last few weeks. The fighting, she said, comes on top of a punishing drought that has left 18.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

She added: “As one Afghan put it to us recently, ‘We are no longer talking about preserving the progress and the rights we have gained, we are talking about mere survival.’”

Reporting was contributed by Christina Goldbaum, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Michael Schwirtz.

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On the Front Line: A Night With Afghan Commandos

On a recent night raid, a Times photographer captured Afghanistan’s elite forces as they disrupted Taliban operations in one of the country’s most volatile provinces.

SOMEWHERE OVER HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — As the city lights faded and the Soviet-era military helicopter banked over the fields and canals of southern Afghanistan one night in May, the Afghan commandos on board made their final checks, looking at maps and adjusting their weapons before turning on their night-vision goggles.

Their objective: to dismantle a bomb-making factory inside a squat mud-brick house in Chah Anjir, a village in Nadali, a district in Helmand Province that is completely under Taliban control.

Just days earlier, the Taliban had opened an offensive on Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah. Afghan government forces had lost ground. The city was under siege. Frantic to relieve some of the pressure on the capital, security officials committed their most elite of the Afghan special operations forces to the province.

21,000 Afghans in the commando forces, with hopes to greatly expand the program.

more than 20 Afghan commandos were killed when their offensive operation to retake a district in the country’s northwest was derailed by a vicious Taliban counterattack.

The outcome of the May raid, documented on the special forces team leader’s cellphone, was considered a success: bomb-making materials were seized and destroyed. Four Taliban members were killed while his men took no casualties. How much that changed the broader battle’s outcome in Lashkar Gah is questionable, but it kept one of the Taliban’s deadliest tactics — roadside bombs and homemade mines — off the battlefield for a brief time.

The commandos returned to Bost Airfield, a civilian airport. But that night it turned into a temporary command center for the unit. Officials had set up television displays and radios atop its small terminal, under a starry sky as fighting echoed in the distance.

Inside the helicopters as the city came back into view, some commandos joked among themselves, others took forceful drags from cigarettes.

Their mission was over. For now.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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What the War in Afghanistan Looks Like on the Front Line

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 bored out of the mud brick for machine guns and rifles to fire through.

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 glow 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.

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A City Under Siege: What the War Looks Like on Afghanistan’s Front Line

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.

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.

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