Haji Ghoulam Farouq Siawshani watched the Taliban rampage across northern Afghanistan this month, weighing up the threat from militants on his doorstep. Then, 10 days ago, the former oil trader turned militia commander issued a call to arms.
“Where the Taliban go, they bring destruction, and they are one kilometre away from my village,” he told the Guardian. “We decided to respond.”
He now leads a few dozen men he armed with ageing Kalashnikovs, in Gozara district, just south of the ancient trade and cultural centre of Herat, on the country’s western border with Iran.
Foreign troops are racing to leave Afghanistan ahead of the final departure of the US military, who led and underpinned the foreign mission for nearly 20 years. They are now expected to be gone by the middle of July, and most of their Nato allies have already departed, leaving only British and Turkish forces still on the ground.
From Washington to Germany, generals and officials have claimed “mission accomplished” as their last men and women head home.
It is a message that may play well at home, but rings hollow in Afghanistan, where violence is spiralling and the Taliban threat grows by the day.
At least 50 of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts have fallen to the Taliban since May, the UN says. In the north, far from the group’s traditional southern stronghold, they have seized dozens, with eight falling over just two days. In several districts security forces surrendered without a fight, or elders negotiated a transfer of control.
The militants now control or contest more than half of rural Afghanistan. The cities tend to be bulwarks of security and anti-militant sentiment, but the Taliban are closing in on several, and are expected to mount a serious military push for some of the provincial capitals once the US withdrawal is complete.
“We have been betrayed by the Americans,” said Jawad, one of the militia commanders under Siawshani, who two weeks ago had a steady job as a mechanic. “We are prepared for the situation to get a lot worse.”
Even the departing head of US forces, Gen Austin S Miller, charged with ending the US’s longest war, admits he will be leaving behind a country on the brink. Trillions of dollars and more than 2,300 US military deaths did not buy security.
“A civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now, that should be of concern to the world,” he told journalists in a rare news conference in the fast-emptying Nato headquarters in Kabul.
He has refused to be drawn on when the US departure will be complete. The deadline is officially 11 September, but the US made clear it was aiming for July, and officials told Reuters this week the final departures were expected within days. A small force of 650 troops will stay on to protect the embassy.
Allies who rely on the US for logistics including air support have mostly packed up already. On Wednesday, as Siawshani discussed tactics with the district police chief in Gozara, the last of the Italian troops who operated out of nearby Herat airbase for two decades touched down at home. Germany’s last soldiers arrived back the same day.
Peace talks in Doha, launched as part of the US withdrawal agreement, have all but stalled. Afghan officials accuse the Taliban of engaging in bad faith, to provide cover for the departure of foreign forces. With intense fighting under way, and their military position improving almost daily, there is little expectation that will change, at least in the near-term.
Joe Biden, the US president, promised his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, ongoing backup for the huge financial cost of the country’s security efforts, and training and other technical support from outside the country. But Miller and others have refused to be drawn on how much help they can offer the embattled army and police.
“What I don’t want to do is speculate what that [support] looks like in the future,” he said. One of the biggest questions is about air support, which has been vital to staving off major Taliban advances in recent years, particularly on cities such as Kunduz.
Afghanistan runs a small air force, which carries out attack operations and medical evacuations, and supplies remote and besieged outposts. But Afghan pilots and aircraft are badly stretched by the pace of the war, and for maintenance they rely on US contractors, whose future in the country is unclear. There is some support from American bomber planes, and armed drones now fly into Afghan skies from beyond its borders, but they reportedly struggle to coordinate strikes with troops on the ground.
“The Taliban launched the attack at 10pm and we were fighting until 6am. We called our commanders, we called Kabul, we called the Herat governor begging for air support, but no one arrived,” said a commando who was besieged in Obe district before it fell to the Taliban.
“In the morning we called and said we don’t need airstrikes, just pick up the dead and injured, but they never came either,” added the commando, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.
And so as officials cast around for ways to protect their population, they are embracing militias, after years of western-backed efforts to disarm the country’s unofficial bands of armed men. After the Guardian’s meeting with Siawshani, he sat down with the district governor and police chief to discuss tactics and support.
In a different Afghanistan, the one the US once dreamed of building, the young men waiting outside for him would have had different futures. Salim Shah graduated from high school last year, and planned to study law at university. Now Jawad has given up his job as a mechanic, he is unsure how he will support his two children.
But collectively they decided that the fight for their country had become critical. Many have already lost brothers, cousins and neighbours to the Taliban. “Our main aim is protecting our family, our relatives and our land,” Jawad said.
While this iteration of the long Afghan civil war will be his first time in a conflict, many of those leading the militias were battle hardened in past cycles of violence. Siawshani first picked up a gun with the Mujahideen in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. Among his key lieutenants is Rahmatullah Afzali, a retired general who spent over three decades in the government army that Siawshani fought.
Afzali raises an eyebrow at their current alliance. “When he was doing jihad, I worked for [the then president] Najibullah. Now the Taliban have brought us together,” he says with a grin. But never has the fight been so critical.
“I have fought all over Afghanistan, I was injured 17 times, and I have never felt under as much pressure as the last four months, since Biden said he was giving Afghanistan to the Taliban.”