Rahmatullah says he was a farmer who fled his hometown of Sangin, in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province, after U.S. Marines began combat operations there in 2010. “For seven days we were stuck in our home, with the Taliban on one side and the Americans on the other,” he told me, wiping tears from his eyes. “Then a bomb landed on our house, killing my mother and son.”
After the blast, Rahmatullah says, he waited until nightfall. He fled the wreckage of his home under moonlight, running through tree lines and irrigation ditches as he hid from both sides waging the battle. He hid for three days until he was able to return home and pull his family’s bodies from the wreckage. After burying them, he took what was left of his life and headed for Kabul, where he’s lived ever since.
On the outskirts of the Afghan capital, more than 1,400 families from Helmand province live in a handful of refugee camps. The camps are compact, small alleyways full of trash and dirt winding between mud brick compounds, which sometimes collapse on the refugees inside them during the frigid winter months. The Afghans living in these communities are poor, many unable to work in a country suffering from rampant unemployment. Most fled the province in 2010, the same time as Rahmatullah, when they found themselves caught in a vicious conflict between the Marines and the Taliban.
In the six months since becoming president, Donald Trump has sought a new way forward for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, now officially America’s longest war — it’s gone on almost as long as two Vietnam Wars. The president continues to debate troop numbers and metrics for victory with his National Security Council, an effort that seems to be spinning its wheels in recent days as he’s discussed playing musical chairs with top brass. But there’s little doubt that any renewed American strategy must address unrest in Helmand province: a hotbed of pro-Taliban sentiment, opium trafficking, and government corruption.
The difficulty in achieving those objectives is apparent in conversations with Kabul’s Helmandi refugees — coalition forces call them “IDPs,” or “internally displaced persons.” Rather than seeing American men and women in uniform as harbingers of a better, peaceful future, Afghans forced to flee the fighting feel that the Americans came only to kill.
“If the Americans return to help us, we welcome them,” Rahmatullah’s brother, also from Sangin, tells me. “But if they want to make it like it was before, we do not want them here.”
Most of the IDPs I met were from Sangin, though others in the camp hailed from Gereshk, Garmsir, Trek Nawa, Lashkar Gah, and Marjah — place names well-known to U.S. military personnel who served in the province over the years. For Marines and soldiers, many of these cities bring up memories of firefights and IED blasts, of friends lost. For the Helmandis living in IDP camps in Kabul, those names remind them of homes and families wrecked in almost two decades of fighting.
The official mission for U.S. Marines and soldiers when they first took over Helmand Province from a beleaguered British command was to clear out the Taliban while establishing a beachhead for the Afghan government. This was no small task in a province that, since the 1990s, had proven fertile territory for the conservative Islamist movement that would become the Taliban. Using contemporary counterinsurgency doctrines, the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces pushed into major towns and villages across the province, countering local fighters while promising to assist the population in a way the Taliban never could.
126 Americans were killed in Helmand Province between 2001 and 2014. But the civilian population continues to suffer a much greater toll. The U.N. estimates that nearly 900 Helmandi civilians were killed or injured in fighting last year — more casualties than in any other part of Afghanistan besides Kabul. According to Rahmatullah, 2,842 civilians were killed in Sangin between 2010 and 2014, a figure he claims is verified by the Afghan Ministry of Interior.
In early February of this year, U.S. forces supporting the Afghan army launched an airstrike in Sangin that is believed to have killed up to 18 civilians, mostly women and children — an incident reminiscent of older U.S. attacks in the city that claimed the lives of civilians and led to widespread anti-American protests.
A month after the February airstrike, the Afghan army cleared out of Sangin and ceded the capital to the Taliban. A month after that, Marines were sent to Helmand, again. “It feels like Groundhog Day,” one deploying staff sergeant told reporters.
Last week, another U.S. airstrike in Helmand killed at least 18 Afghan policemen, allies in the fight against the Taliban.
As American forces return to Helmand to support the beleaguered Afghan army, the refugees in Kabul express wary resignation. “If the Americans are returning, they’re not returning to help the government or Afghan forces. They’re not returning to help us,” yells a man who says he lost half of his family to a US airstrike.
The man’s brother begins talking over him.
“The Americans boast that they have technology that can target anything, even something deep inside the ground. Then for God’s sake, the Taliban in Helmand are not deep underground, why can they not target the Taliban who are fighting against you?” he says. “Instead of that you target civilians and ambush them, kill them. You killed 60 to 70 people in one village.”
While most of the men I spoke with refused to be photographed or speak on the record, Rahmatullah was willing to sit down and share his story.
His memories of American forces are bleak. His only face-to-face interaction came at the Sangin bazaar. He says he was stopped by a Marine patrol, his head pressed against a wall and zip ties put around his wrists.
“They put something in my face, I’m not sure what it was, but it made me feel like they were inside my head,” he says, possibly referring to a handheld biometrics scanner.
“They stopped me for three hours, so finally I asked their interpreter to tell the Americans to ask me questions, to ask if I am Taliban, to clarify for what reason I was detained,” he says. He explained to the Marines: “We have families waiting for us, we are civilians. If there are not charges against me, please don’t treat us like this.”
I speak with another refugee who fled Marjah, where 2010’s Operation Moshtarak was once heralded as a case study in new counterinsurgency doctrine before quickly devolving into a “bleeding ulcer” — highlighting the difficulty for American forces in meeting their Afghanistan objectives.
The Marines in Marjah “were scared of us, and we were scared of them,” the man says softly:
“I don’t know how they expected to help us when they couldn’t talk to us. The only thing I remember was that Marjah was never stable. Five days it was under Taliban control, then five days it was under Americans. It was never safe for us, for civilians. After the Americans left there was no more shooting, no more bombs. People had normal lives again.”
He echoed his fellow refugees’ sentiment towards who controlled the province: “We don’t care who is in control, we just want peace. We want our children in school and to grow our crops.”
When asked if he could say anything to the U.S. Marines who fought in his city, he paused, running his hand over his face before responding. “You created these conditions for us. You need to solve this. You need to fix this situation.”
Many of the men I spoke with openly admit to growing opium in the province, a mammoth illicit trade whose scourge was part of the justification for the 2010 U.S. troop surge in the province. For the locals, the drug trade is a necessary evil, and they appreciated the American and Afghan government mission to eradicate its production. “We would be happy if the opium stopped because the Taliban wouldn’t have money. Opium is destroying our society and funds the terror groups,” says one man who still sneaks back to Sangin during the opium harvesting season. “Unfortunately it is the only way we can feed our families.”
The 2010 surge in Helmand included USAID projects to replace opium farming with subsidized cotton farming. The plan was cancelled — thanks, at least in part, to U.S. legislation that bars the federal government from spending money on foreign crops that could compete with U.S. exports. Instead, 2010 yielded the largest opium harvest in recorded history for the province, according to the UN.
Despite the millions of dollars and American lives expended in Helmand province, many of the Helmandis I spoke with openly preferred the Taliban to U.S. and Afghan government forces. Promises of peace and security in the region fall on deaf ears after years of fighting and corruption.
“The situation is better with the Taliban there. If someone borrows money from you, they will have to pay it back,” a friend of Rahmatullah says. “When the Americans were there we couldn’t even carry 635 Afghanis [about $9] from our home to the bazaar because we were worried that someone would rob us.”
The Helmand refugees claim their Taliban preference is based on experience, not ideology. “When the Russians were here, I fought them,” one man tells me. “Since the Karzai and the Americans came to Afghanistan I’ve never touched a gun or had one in my home. What is my crime? I’ve lost my family, they destroyed whole villages. They bombed my home, my mother died, my son died, all for no reason.”
When asked if he could say anything to the American public, he pleads with me. “Please tell the military to never bomb and kill civilians,” he says. “Any goals you have, we don’t know the political side, please do it. But don’t put us in sorrow. You destroyed our country, our homeland.”
Many displaced Helmandis think the solution to their plight lies in compromise and dialogue. “It is impossible for the government to kill every Taliban, and it is impossible for the Taliban to kill everyone in the government,” one tells me. “We want them to come together and have a common goal that will stop killing us. We believe it’s easy for Americans to bring peace, but you can’t bring peace through war.”
America’s war in Afghanistan was justified in large part as an end to widespread human rights violations committed by the Taliban, but the civilians who’ve survived 16 years of unrelenting conflict see hypocrisy in this claim. “You cannot protect the human rights of the dead,” murmurs another man who fled the fighting in Sangin.
“When I was a child, my father told me I would grow up in peace,” said Rahmatullah, “Now I’m growing old in war. I cannot tell my children they will grow up in peace. When they don’t sleep, their mothers bang on pots to make the sounds of gunfire to scare them.
“This war,” he added, “is not for one or two decades. It is forever.”