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The Taliban, whom the US-led forces have been trying to defeat for almost two decades, is now active in 70% of Afghanistan’s territory, according to a BBC investigation.
It concluded that areas threatened or controlled by the Taliban have increased since foreign combat troops left the country in 2014.
The Afghan government played down the importance of the investigation, saying it controls most of the country.
But the recent attacks claimed by the Taliban and by militants of the Islamic State resulted in dozens of deaths in Kabul and other parts of the country.
The response of the Afghan government and the US president, Donald Trump, was to rule out any dialogue with the radicals.
Last year, Trump announced that US troops would remain in the country indefinitely.
How was the investigation carried out?
The BBC’s investigation – carried out in the second half of 2017 – provides an overview of the security situation in each Afghan district between August 23 and November 21.
A network of BBC reporters across the country spoke with more than 1,200 local sources, in the 399 districts of the country, to build a complete radiograph of all the attacks in that period.
These conversations took place in person or by telephone and all the information was contrasted with at least two, and often up to six, different sources.
In some cases BBC reporters went to bus stations to find people traveling from remote and inaccessible districts to do a second check of the situation in those places.
The results show that around 15 million people – half of the population – live in areas controlled by the Taliban or in which the group has a presence and executes attacks regularly.
From their traditional bulwark in the south of the country, the Taliban pushed east, west and north.
The areas that fell to the Taliban since 2014 include places in Helmand province such as Sangin, Musa Qala and Nad-e Ali, in which foreign forces fought to return control to the government since US-led troops expelled to the Taliban of power in 2001.
“When I leave my house, I’m not sure if I’ll come back alive,” said Sardar, a resident of Shindand, a western district that suffers weekly attacks. “Explosions, terror and the Taliban are part of our daily life.”
The BBC’s investigation also suggests that the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) is more active than before in Afghanistan, although it is much less powerful than the Taliban in that country.
How much territory does the Taliban control?
Gathering accurate and reliable information about the conflict has been increasingly difficult since the foreign combat troops withdrew and left the responsibility of security to the Afghan forces.
The BBC study shows that the Taliban now has full control in 14 districts (4% of the country) and is active and has a physical presence in 263 (66%), which is much higher than the previous estimates on its strength.
In areas with an active and open presence of the Taliban, militants carry out frequent attacks against government positions , ranging from series of bombings on military bases to sporadic attacks and ambushes against military convoys and police checkpoints.
Amruddin, who runs a local transportation company, lives near the front line in the Baharak district of Badakhshan province, in the north of the country, where the BBC’s research suggests that the Taliban has an average presence.
” We live in constant fear, it’s quiet now, but the Taliban is still here.”
In the area of Sangin, controlled by the Taliban, Mohammad Reza says that life was “better” when the militants ruled because there was peace.
“He became violent when the government forces arrived,” he said.
During the period of investigation, the study of the BBC found that in 122 districts(over 30% of the country) it has not and an open presence of the Taliban .
These areas are under government control, but that does not mean they are free of violence.
For the purpose of the investigation, the districts controlled or held by the government are those that have Kabul representation in the form of district chief, police chief and courts.
Kabul and other large cities, for example, suffered deadly attacks – launched from adjacent areas or by dormant cells – both during the investigation, before and after it.
“People have no choice but to leave their homes, farms and orchards or stay and live under Taliban norms,” Mahgul, a teacher in a district in the north of Kabul province, told the BBC.
He said his family fled the town in October. They went to seek refuge in the central district – controlled by the government – only to have his brother killed two days later in a suicide attack.
During the investigation it was also discovered that in districts where there is an open presence of the Taliban, they forced farmers, local businesses and even commercial convoys to pay taxes .
What is the Taliban?
- The hardline Islamic movement of the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996 after the civil war that was unleashed by the conflict that confronted that country with the Soviet Union. Five years later, the Taliban were removed from power by a US-led invasion.
- When they were in power, they imposed a severe version of Sharia law. There were public executions, amputations and women were erased from public life.
- The men let their beards grow and the women were forced to wear a burka. In addition, television, music and movies were banned.
- They came to house Al Qaeda leaders before and after they were expelled from power. Since then, he has fought a bloody insurgency that continues.
- In 2016, the number of civilian victims reached a historical record. To a large extent, says the United Nations, that increase is the responsibility of the Taliban. The international organization indicated that 3,498 civilians died and 7,920 people were injured in 2016, which represented an increase of 3% compared to 2015.
How much has the violence increased?
The violence has spread since international combat troops left Afghanistan three years ago.
More than 8,500 civilians died or were injured in the first three quarters of 2017 , according to the United Nations. The numbers for the whole year are not yet known.
Many episodes of violence are not reported, and only major attacks in the cities make headlines. These attacks are occurring more and more frequently and the Afghan security forces seem unable to stop them.
In the last 10 days, three attacks left the capital staggering, with more than 130 dead. Last May, Kabul suffered the deadliest attack since 2001.
At least 150 people died in that attack and more than 300 were injured when a truck exploded in what is supposed to be the safest area of the city. No group claimed the attack.
“Will I go home today?”
Karim Haidari, BBC Afghanistan, Kabul
I have not slept well this week. It happens when a new tragedy hits our city. “You look old, dad,” says my 7-year-old son when he enters my room to remind me that it’s his birthday. As if I had forgotten. I laugh and get up.
When I leave home I stop and look back to see my family having breakfast. Will I go home today? Is this the last time you see them? We all think so in Kabul now.
My colleagues are waiting in the car. We exchanged news of the latest attack. One, mother of two children, begins to cry. “Sometimes I just want to be able to blow up and end all of this, but I do not want to hurt anyone else.”
The driver turns on the radio, trying to change the mood. It begins to sound a pop song. It’s just another day in Kabul. Just another day waiting for us to stay alive.
How strong is Islamic State?
Although EI has shown that it can launch attacks in places like Kabul, the jihadist group is confined to a relatively small area on the border with Pakistan in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
During the time of the investigation, at least 50 people were killed in Jalalabad, the provincial capital. Three of them were decapitated, a hallmark of the IS murders.
The group fights against both the Afghan army and the Taliban for territorial control .
The residents and officials who spoke with the BBC said that the IS has a presence in 30 districts – although it does not completely control any -, not only in the east but also in areas such as Khanabad and Kohistanat in the north.
During 2017, the number of attacks attributed to the group increased, and many took place in urban centers and were directed against Shia Muslims , in sectarian violence barely seen in the 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan.
How much territory does the government say it is under its control?
In presenting the findings of the BBC, President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman Shah Hussain Murtazavi said: “In some areas it may change hands, but if you look at the situation this year (2017-2018), the activities of the Taliban and EI were considerably limited. “
“The Afghan security forces won the war in the villages, it is no longer possible for the militants to take control of a province, a large district or a road, there is no doubt that they have changed the nature of the war and are launching attacks in Kabul, against mosques and markets. “
He added: “I understand that the BBC report is influenced by conversations with people who may have experienced some kind of incident for perhaps an hour in a day, but the activities and services provided by our local administrations across the districts show that the The government controls the absolute majority of the districts, except for a handful in which the Taliban is present. “
However, in recognition of how security has deteriorated, President Donald Trump agreed last year to deploy 3,000 more troops, increasing US forces in Afghanistan to around 14,000.
However, there is no prospect of the conflict ending and a new generation of Afghans living in the shadow of violence.
“My children are not safe outside the house, so I do not let them out,” says Pahlawan, a carpet seller in Kabul with 13 children.
“They’re basically under house arrest, I’ve built them a school in the warehouse, their world is between walls and carpets.”