World

After years of war in Kandahar, Taliban leaders now seek aid from former enemies

Two months after the Taliban swept into Kandahar — part of its march toward the ultimate collapse of Afghanistan — CBC News went back to the southern region where Canadians had fought and died.

Life is still difficult in province in southern Afghanistan where Canadian soldiers fought and died

Abdul Ghafar Mohammadi took over as the police chief of Kandahar in August, when the Taliban seized the city. Under the former government, three of his predecessors were killed on the job. Most of the old Afghan police force abandoned their jobs after the Taliban took control. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

The Taliban's new police chief in Kandahar squints, steely-faced, as he mentions he "fought face-to-face" against the Canadians on the front lines of Panjwaii. 

"They came here to invade Afghanistan, they destroyed villages, did nighttime attacks, with American support," said Abdul Ghafar Mohammadi, a former Taliban commander in the Panjwaii district just west of Kandahar City. 

Mohammadi now holds the top enforcement job in the broader Kandahar Province, where Canadian Forces had bitterly fought the Taliban during its 13-year mission in Afghanistan.

"Our expectations now of Canadians, if they want to help Kandahar, they should send humanitarian aid," he said, a comment that ignores Canada's multimillion-dollar legacy of development projects, which the Taliban consistently tried to disrupt during the Afghan War.

During a half-hour interview with CBC News at Kandahar's police headquarters — built by the U.S. — Mohammadi answers questions methodically. But he does not look at the female journalist sitting in front of him.

WATCH | A return to Kandahar under Taliban control:

Return to Kandahar under Taliban control

2 months ago
Duration 6:49
The Taliban are in power in Kandahar province, where Canadian soldiers fought and dozens died. CBC News' Susan Ormiston returned to the region and spoke with former Taliban fighters now in government, on a mission to restore international help, and the villagers, who remember the Canadians' presence and whose lives are still difficult under the new regime. 6:49

His media adviser, fluent in Pashto and English, breaks in periodically, coaching him on points for the international press. 

"You've been around Kandahar — you see the security, how calm it is," said Mohammadi, echoing a Taliban claim that under its regime, security in the country has already improved.

But just 48 hours later, a powerful suicide bomb attack ripped into a Shia mosque, killing 47 people, in the biggest attack in Kandahar in years. ISIS-K — a militant group that is a sworn enemy of the Taliban — has claimed responsibility.

"When the Taliban came, we did not think that such incidents would happen in Kandahar," said the mosque's imam, Sarder Mohammad Zaidi.

Women at the Panjwaii District Centre try to appeal to a Sharia court to solve their problems. The Taliban says it will solve disputes using a strict interpretation of Sharia law. The women don't appear to have secured a hearing. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

A brazen ask for aid

Mohammadi is tasked with rebuilding Kandahar's police force after most of its former officers fled when the Taliban took control of the region in mid-August, fearing violent reprisals.

His mission is also to convince former enemies to restore the foreign assistance that propped up Afghanistan over the last two decades. According to the World Bank, 43 per cent of Afghanistan's GDP came from foreign aid and about 75 per cent of public spending was funded by foreign grants.

"We don't want to have bad relations with any country," said Mohammadi.

"Our door is open," he said. "We want a good relationship with the international community, because we want those countries to help Afghans to rebuild."

But during the interview, he also accused Canadian and other international forces of inflicting "crimes" on Kandahar during the Afghan War.

Two months after the Taliban swept into Kandahar Province — part of its march toward Kabul and the ultimate collapse of Afghanistan — CBC News went back to Panjwaii.

The Panjwaii District Centre was opened by Canada in 2009, part of economic development in Panjwaii. Today it's headquarters for the Taliban district office, Sharia court and adjacent to the former military-operations centre for Canada, the U.S. and Afghan forces. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Located 30 kilometers west of Kandahar City, with its dusty grape fields and mud compounds, Panjwaii is where dozens of Canadian soldiers fought and died. 

The Taliban centred itself in Kandahar in the mid-1990s, as well as made their last stand there in 2001, before falling to U.S.-led forces. Support for the Taliban went underground during the war, but remained strong in the region — and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

The Panjwaii District Centre, built with Canada's help in 2009, is now district headquarters for the Taliban, serving as a kind of municipal office.

Next door, a former military-operations centre is deserted. New Afghan uniforms spill out of half-opened boxes. A helmet lies in the dust. The last soldiers for the Afghan government were run out of here in mid-July as the Taliban swept to power.

A container full of new Afghan uniforms and boots is abandoned in the operations centre in Panjwaii. Afghan forces were run out of Panjwaii in mid-July after a concerted, year-long fight. Canadian Forces occupied the centre until the military was pulled out in 2011. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

The new district chief, Syfe Rahman Syfe, holds court behind a desk in the district office, guarded by fighters toting AK-47s and flanked by elders lined up against one wall, listening to CBC's questions. He struck a similar tone to Mohammadi, asking for help from his once-enemies.

"The Panjwaii people, they suffered a lot from the war and drought," said Syfe. He said he was arrested by the U.S.and jailed for three years in the notorious U.S. prison at Bagram Airfield.

"With the help of Allah, our God, we will provide good security when you bring some aid to the people. And you can return back to your home without any suffering."

Syfe Rahman Syfe, Panjwaii's new district chief under the Taliban, says he was jailed for three years during the Afghan War. Panjwaii was a Taliban hotbed during the war, with frequent attacks between insurgents and Canadian and Afghan forces. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

In mid-July, as Panjwaii fell to the Taliban, Canada's acting chief of defence Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre issued a message to Canadian Forces. 

"The fall of Panjwaii has hit many of us particularly hard," he wrote. "While history will be the ultimate judge, the current trajectory of the country leaves us with much pain and doubt." 

When reminded of the 158 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Syfe said: "As you suffered from the Afghanistan war, we suffered too," following that up with an admonition: "In the future, do not attack our land, our nation; don't use drones on our land." 

"There is no security threat," he claimed. "The only problem we have is that the international community is not recognizing Afghanistan."

None of the Western countries who fought the Taliban, including Canada, has recognized the new regime.

Then he dispatches one of his guards to ride with us — "we can guarantee your security" — as we venture deeper into the district.

WATCH | Taliban's human rights record creates diplomatic challenges:

Taliban’s human rights record a hurdle to creating diplomatic ties

2 months ago
Duration 2:15
The Taliban is holding meetings to try to establish diplomatic relations and access international aid after its takeover of Afghanistan, but its human rights record is a hurdle for many countries. 2:15

Support for the Taliban

Panjwaii is suffering. Multiple years of drought have killed crops, and the region needs schools and roads, said Syfe — the same kinds of development Canadian forces tried to build up during its mission here.

In the nearby Panjwaii Bazaar, a strip of shops along the main road, shopkeeper Abdul Bari remembers the Canadians constantly on patrol, then boasts of the Taliban's success.

"The Mujahadeen planted some IEDs," he said. "And they ran away." 

IEDs were the Taliban's weapon of choice, hidden under roads and in culverts, with some killing and maiming Canadian soldiers.

Some of the smooth, paved roads that the Panjwaii area still benefits from were constructed by Canadian and U.S. forces both to minimize the threat from IEDs and improve farmers' access to their markets.

Villagers that spoke to CBC News said they hoped the Taliban flag would fly forever, but they also remembered Canadians' presence here and their departure in 2011. 

"Canadians were good people," one man said. "When they realized their mission was against the Afghan people, they left our country, which was a good thing."

'How can I be happy?'

A half-hour away, down a rutted, dusty road snaking between mud huts and former Afghan National Security Forces outposts, we come to what was the final front line last summer in the war between the Taliban and ANSF forces.

Babuo, a 75-year-old mother and grandmother, mourns the death of one of her sons, a Taliban fighter. He died in the last few months of the war, she said, killed in an airstrike. He left behind seven children in a poor village in Panjwaii. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Inside a family compound, a 75-year-old woman introduced only as Babuo sits, surrounded by seven grandchildren. She's glad the war is over, she said, but then begins to cry. 

One of her sons was a Taliban fighter and was killed in the last few weeks of the war in an airstrike, she said.

"They brought the dead body back to me. He was martyred."

A fallen Taliban fighter killed in the last few months of the extremist group's push to gain control of Panjwaii left behind seven children, including the four shown here. Panjwaii is a strategically important district, serving as the gateway to Kandahar City. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Babuo sweeps her hand toward the kids sitting around her.

"How can I be happy? I lost my beloved son. I am left with all his children, my grandchildren — what should I do with them now?" 

The Taliban has won its war in Panjwaii, but its problems are as entrenched as ever. It's now their job to solve them.

The Joint District Co-ordination Centre, shown here on the day it opened in 2009, was built by Canadians in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.

With files from Ellen Mauro

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