What the future may hold for Afghans is becoming clearer in one Afghan province where traders are required to pay taxes to both the Afghan government and the Taliban as civilians scramble for protection amid escalating violence.
Traders and civilians in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar are protesting against being forced to navigate competing authorities whose conflict threatens their lives and livelihoods in one of Afghanistan’s most strategic regions.
“In the name of God and the Koran, we urge both the Taliban and the Afghan government to listen to our cries,” Hekmatullah Kakar, a Kandahar resident, told several dozen protesters near a main square in Kandahar, the provincial capital by the same name, on July 28. “We are just ordinary citizens crying out for help and demanding peace,” he added. “People of the world, please listen to us and help us.”
Wali Mohmmad Badizai, another Kandahar resident, said more than three weeks of fighting in the province has displaced around 22,000 families, some of whom were forced to move among five different locations as they fled frontlines and fighting. He urged all sides to work toward avoiding a major disaster in Afghanistan’s second city, which is widely considered the political heartland of the country as the birthplace of modern Afghan empires and a dynasty that ruled the country for more than 250 years until the 1978 communist coup.
“We are calling on both sides to spare our lives and give us some love, peace, and quiet,” he told the protest. “My family has already been forced to move twice, but others have been forced to move even more. The fighting seems to follow us anywhere we could catch our breath.”
Noor Muhammad, another displaced man, told the story of a woman who was forced to give birth among hundreds of men as she fled the fighting in one of Kandahar’s rural districts.
“She fled in a taxi with other women from her family,” he said of her ordeal. “When they reached safety, they were surrounded by a crowd, where she had to give birth amid some 300 men.”
The Battle For Kandahar
After launching a multipronged offensive earlier this month, the Taliban has captured 15 of Kandahar’s 18 districts. The insurgents also control three neighborhoods of its capital, which is a major commercial and agricultural hub. The Taliban first remerged in the region a quarter-century ago when it reeled from a fratricidal civil war. Its recapture would be a major boost for the hard-line Islamist movement.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed and maimed in the fighting so far, and residents are terrified of the random clashes and periodic exchanges of heavy fire. The rival check posts set up by government forces and the Taliban are a stark reminder of the civil war days in 1990s when residents had to pay various warlords in the province to move between their fiefdoms.
The Taliban, however, denies it has committed atrocities. In a statement on July 29, it criticized the government for detaining four journalists who had visited Spin Boldak to interview Taliban members.
“When we invited the journalists to come and visit us and see the reality for themselves, the Kabul administration, which cannot face the dissemination of realities, resorted to arrests and threats,” the statement said.
But the Afghan government, independent observers, and rights watchdogs accuse the Taliban of atrocities including scores of reprisal killings in Kandahar, where they have allegedly targeted the relatives of government officials and the Afghan security forces.
After the Taliban overran the strategic border crossing of Spin Boldak earlier this month, government officials moved custom officers to Kandahar, where they now require traders to pay import and export taxes and other revenues after they have already paid them to the Taliban members manning the border crossing at Spin Boldak some 100 kilometers to the east.
“First, we suffered a lot because of the coronavirus pandemic, but now we are forced to pay taxes both to the government and the Taliban,” Jamaluddin, a cloth merchant in Kandahar who goes by one name only, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. He recently spent more than $30,000 in in taxes and revenues to ferry his five containers from the Pakistan’s southern seaport city of Karachi to Kandahar.
But once his goods reached the border crossing of Spin Boldak, he had to pay the Taliban to get into Afghanistan. He was then asked to pay government taxes when his containers reached Kandahar. “The traders are in great difficulty,” he said.
"We loaded grapes in Kandahar, and on the way we have been extorted at least three times," Hidayatullah Khan, a trucker, told AFP in Chaman, a Pakistani town across the border from Spin Boldak. "Sometimes they charge 3,000 rupees ($20), somewhere else 2,000 rupees, and in some other place 1,000 rupees."
The costs of trucking goods and the prices of essential commodities have skyrocketed since the Taliban overran Spin Boldak. The loss of control over the border crossing deprives the Afghan government of more than half a million dollars in revenues daily.
“Without consulting Afghanistan, Pakistan unilaterally allowed trucks to enter our country this week,” Sebghatullah Ehsas, the head of the provincial customs department in Kandahar, told Radio Azadi. “To mitigate this, we established new check posts near Kandahar and have deployed mobile teams to prevent the flight of revenues.”
Kandahar residents, however, are afraid of the provincial capital being overrun by the Taliban, which is accused of committing reprisal killings. A video showing the Taliban's brutal murder of a local comedian, Nazar Mohammad Kasha Zwan, attracted widespread condemnation.
Award-winning Reuters journalist Danish Siddiqui was killed on July 16 while covering the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces near Spin Boldak.
“There are grave concerns that Taliban forces in Kandahar may commit further atrocities to retaliate against the government and security forces,” Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, noted. “Taliban leaders have denied responsibility for any abuses, but growing evidence of expulsions, arbitrary detentions, and killings in areas under their control are raising fears among the population.”
In an apparent effort to take advantage of the final withdrawal of foreign forces, the Taliban has swept hundreds of districts in rural Afghanistan since the final departure of the foreign troops began on May 1. The group now controls Afghanistan’s border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.
The names of RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan are being withheld for their protection.