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Residents of Afghanistan’s capital are following military operations in the north with more interest than usual lately: The outcome of the battle will determine how much electricity flows to the nation’s capital during these cold winter days.
Baghlan, as province that lies between Kabul and Kunduz, has been the site of a major confrontation with the Taliban for the past several weeks. In the course of the campaign to rid the Dand-e-Ghori district of the insurgents, at least one electricity pylon was destroyed and two others heavily damaged.
This has cut the supply of power to Kabul by almost 75 percent,leaving residents frustrated, angry, and confused. Repeated promises from the government that power would be restored within days have gone unfulfilled.
Security in Baghlan has been deteriorating for several months; when Kunduz fell temporarily under Taliban control on late September, Baghlan residents saw the writing on the wall.
The Taliban got close to the gates of the provincial capital, Pul-e-Khumri, but were pushed back by security forces, aided by groups of citizens under the banner “Khizesh-e-Mardomi” (The People’s Stand.) Many former jihadi leaders joined the movement, and they kept the Taliban from getting inside the city.
Nevertheless, the militants remained active outside Pul-e-Khumri, with significant activity in districts such as Dand-e-Ghori, Dand-e-Shahabuddin, and others.
Local authorities sounded the alarm to the Kabul authorities, pressuring them to organize an operation to cleanse Baghlan of the Taliban.
The government’s response was disappointing to many: Rather than the army, they sent a delegation, headed by Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Mohammad Gulab Mangal.
The delegation discussed the situation with the elders of Dand-e-Ghori, and signed a document that essentially barred the government from launching operations against the Taliban for a certain period of time. In return, the elders guaranteed that the Taliban would not be a threat to Baghlan.
The document was signed by Mangal, as well as the former governor of Baghlan, Sultan Mohammad Ebadi, Provincial Council Chair Mohammad Safdar Mohseini, Baghlan High Peace Council head Abdul Samad Estanekzai, as well as several others.
The agreement provoked a strong reaction in Parliament, which summoned Mangal to answer for the deal. Civil society activists were also upset; many felt that this was tantamount to giving the Taliban an official base.
“It is because of this agreement that the Taliban have become so strong in Dand-e-Ghori,” said Sher Mohammad Jahesh, a journalist in Baghlan.
Approximately three weeks ago, President Ashraf Ghani ordered an operation to take back Dand-e-Ghori.
Called “Khorshid 20,” the campaign began on January 26. The Afghan National Army targeted insurgents with air and ground attacks, and the government announced at the end of the first day that several areas had been cleared.
As the fighting began, a major electricity pylon that delivered power to Kabul from Uzbekistan was destroyed. The government said that the Taliban had blown it up; the militants vigorously deny this, saying it was the government forces.
“During these military operations, the main transmission pole supplying power to Kabul was also targeted and destroyed by the stooge enemy forces resulting in darkness for our numerous countrymen,” the Taliban wrote on their website. “The stooge enemy then tried to blame Mujahidin of the Islamic Emirate for this felonious act committed by them and with regret some biased media outlets, while quoting the enemy without any enquiry, pointed their fingers towards Mujahidin.”
Since then an additional two pylons have been damaged, with even less electricity available in the capital.
The government has repeatedly promised that it would repair the pylon and reconnect Kabul to the power grid, but weeks have passed with no result.
The government dispatched General Murad Ali Murad, the Army Deputy Chief of Staff, to Baghlan to take control of the operation; upon arrival he announced that Dand-e-Ghori and Dand-e-Shahabuddin would be cleared within two days, and Kabul would once again have power.
Several days later, the general was recalled to Kabul.
People are angry, and are demanding action. Residents of Baghlan are now asking international forces to once again take part in the war.
This is unlikely: After more than 13 years of active combat in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) transitioned to Operation resolute Support, which has a mission to “train, advise, and assist” Afghan forces. From a high of about 130,000 troops, the international community now has under 13,000.
So the future is uncertain. The people of Baghlan, caught in the fighting, are facing at best displacement, at worst death and destruction. Their fellow countrymen in Kabul are facing a long, cold, and very dark winter.