In the mountains of Badakhshan, in north-east Afghanistan, victims of last week’s are waiting for food and shelter.Temperatures are dropping with menacing speed, and some of the worst affected may have to keep waiting.
Government security forces are preparing a large offensive against the Taliban in Warduj district, close to the quake’s epicentre, even though the fighting may obstruct aid efforts.
The emergency response to the earthquake as it is. Government workers and most international agencies avoid Warduj and other areas where the Taliban presence is high, despite the of an informal ceasefire in areas hit by the quake.
“We haven’t exactly tried to send employees to see if the Taliban kill them,” said Abdullah Dehqan, director of Afghanistan’s national disaster management authority in Badakhshan province.
“When they capture soldiers, they don’t follow the rules of war. They behead them,” he said, referring to the armed insurgents who decapitated eight soldiers in Badakhshan in April. “That is why we don’t trust them.”
Rather than placing its faith in the promised ceasefire, the Afghan government is about to send 1,000 troops into Warduj, including 650 pro-government militia fighters, said Qari Abdul Wadood, the district police chief in neighbouring Baharak district.
Insurgents in Warduj, of whom there are an estimated 1,000, have had time to mine incoming roads, raising fears that the battle could drag on and leave civilians isolated for a long time.
“[The Taliban] have dug in there, and they have had a month to prepare for it,” said Ted Callahan, an American security adviser in Badakhshan. “It’s going to be very bloody to take it back.”
Yet local authorities believe the onus is on the Taliban to protect local residents.
“The Taliban have a district governor in Warduj. He can take care of them,” said Abdul Sami Atiq, the Baharak district governor, who has implored residents to leave.
“When they leave Warduj and come here to Baharak, we treat them better than our own. But the people who chose to stay in Warduj, them we can’t take care of,” he said.
Sediq Sediqqi, the interior ministry spokesman, confirmed that the new provincial police commander in Badakhshan was instructed to conduct operations with the army in several areas of the province, Warduj among them.
Asked whether, in light of the earthquake, the government would postpone military operations until aid had been delivered, Sediqqi said: “Aid delivery has always been a priority for the police. The police in Badakhshan will do everything they can to make sure the aid reaches its destination.”
He added that the government was in close contact with organisations responsible for delivering aid.
Not all NGOs appear to have been informed, however. Mission East, one of very few charities working in Warduj, said it was unaware of the planned military operation.
“If that is the case, it will have an impact on our emergency response, obviously,” said Kishor Rai, the group’s programme manager in Badakhshan. He said the Taliban had so far cooperated with them in the region’s villages but stressed that his organisation had spent a decade demonstrating its impartiality.
The Taliban in Badakhshan has generally accepted the presence of humanitarians, but a recent influx of foreign fighters, who may not follow a ceasefire decreed by the leadership, has made the situation unpredictable, according to Callahan. “As always where you have foreign fighters present, it’s wise to be wary of these guarantees,” he said.
Aid agencies in Badakhshan are working against the clock to save lives. The region is vast, remote and has poor infrastructure, with parts of it almost inaccessible in the winter, leading to a rise in malnutrition and disease. , more than half of children under the age of five in Badakhshan are stunted from chronic malnutrition.
Assessments are ongoing, but at least 400 families are in need of aid and shelter in Warduj alone, said Rai. “But if there is fighting going on, of course we can’t go there.”
As part of a broader northern offensive, the Taliban has targeted the strategically important Baharak district, which they seized temporarily on 2 October, without a fight, after defeating government forces in Warduj.
“The Taliban came in shooting, and raised their flag in the central square. They tore down photos of [the anti-Taliban heroes] Ustad Rabbani and Massoud,” said Noor Abbas, 45, a fabric seller in Baharak bazar, where the restored Afghan flag fluttered in the steady drizzle.
“They was no resistance against the Taliban,” said Haji Hafiz, an elder. “I don’t know why the security forces just gave the district to them.”
The Taliban were ousted the next day, but the temporary subjugation of the historically safe haven spread fear among residents. Buoyed by a in another northern city, Kunduz, the Taliban suddenly look poised for success.
“They were pointing a dagger at the heart of Baharak, which is probably the main strategic lynchpin of the province. From there, it’s a 45km straight shot to Faizabad,” said Callahan. “Let’s be honest, Faizabad was very much within reach.”
Callahan saw the incursion on Baharak as a sign of Taliban momentum in the north.
“There’s a hell of a lot more fighting this year, and it’s not clearing operations. It’s the Taliban continuing to try and take district centres,” he said.
Officials said there was no time to waste: Warduj had to be retaken to prevent the Taliban from returning to Baharak.
“If we don’t take Warduj, the Taliban may come to people’s homes at night here in Baharak,” said Wadood, the police commander.
Confident of success – and, perhaps, his own immortality – Wadood lifted his shirt to reveal three scars on his abdomen. Two months ago, the Taliban tried to poison him, he explained; despite internal damage and pain, he survived after surgery.
“We are just waiting for orders,” the police chief said. “We are ready to fight.”