Herat, Afghanistan —— The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tried to reassure his people the day before Eid al-Fitr, because government forces are vying with the Taliban for control of all parts of the country.
On Monday, Ghani was seen walking on the streets of the western city of Herat as Taliban armed groups launched a ferocious campaign in the vacuum created by the withdrawal of US troops to seize as much territory as possible. He approached eager passers-by, picked up the baby, and even marveled at the merchandise of a local candy store.
For the people of the largest city in western Afghanistan, his short trip on the streets of Herat was at a particularly important moment.
Earlier last month, armed groups successfully controlled the Zinda Jan district, 43 kilometers (27 miles) from the provincial capital Herat. Soon after, they occupied the Islamic Kala border crossing with Iran, one of the most profitable crossings occupied by the Taliban in recent weeks.
The news of the two seizures shocked this ancient city with a population of 400,000.
Residents worry that this group of people may march on Herat on the next day’s sunrise. This fear is so great that many people choose not to go to markets and bazaars during the Eid holiday.
Because of this, the visit of Ghani, followed by the visit of the minister of affairs on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, is intended to send a clear signal to the Heratis: help is coming.
But for many people in Herat, the fear is still very real.
Forogh Mohammadi divided his time between Kabul and Herat. He recalled that the Taliban took over Zinda Jan on the night of July 8 as a turning point in his life. That night, he decided to join the uprising, and thousands of people across the country took up arms against the increasingly invading Taliban.
By the next morning, he changed from a manager working in an office to carrying an AK-47 on his shoulders and heading to the surrounding areas of the city to defend against any Taliban attacks.
“If you were there that night, you would know that the Taliban were totally interested in occupying big cities.”
Residents who spoke to Al Jazeera said that the Taliban occupies an important position in more than a dozen districts in Herat. They use words such as “trapped” and “besieged” to describe the city, and they still worry that armed groups may occupy the city.
After receiving threats from the Taliban, a resident of Herat fled with his family to the capital, Kabul, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) to the east. “The city, the road to the airport, and one or two districts [near the city] It’s the only place that is truly safe,” he said, afraid of revealing his identity.
Last month, journalists, human rights activists and prominent women were threatened by the Taliban. Many of them are now looking for a way to leave the city, if not the country.
The six-year rule of the Taliban was impaired by violations of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities before the Taliban was removed from office in a military invasion led by the United States in 2001. The armed group promised to allow girls to receive education and protect ethnic minorities, but the group still does not welcome Afghans.
Herat, a major economic center
It’s not just Herat’s location on the map, it’s on the border with Iran, making it a valuable target for the Taliban. The population is large; at least 2 million people call the province home.
It is also home to an increasing number of high-rise buildings, numerous historical sites, universities, regional hospitals and government buildings.
Most importantly, as the largest city in the western region, Herat has always been an economic powerhouse. Everything from saffron to cola and marble is produced here. Part of this economic status also comes from the illegal drug economy, in which the Taliban have been involved for many years.
Therefore, Mohammadi said that if the Taliban also managed to occupy the city, they could make a lot of money.
“There is money everywhere here, and if they take over, it will become their cash cow.”
When they took over Islam Qala, the largest border crossing between Afghanistan and Iran, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the city, the group had already tasted the potential benefits. The acquisition and the departure of many large investors from the city have already had an impact on consumer product prices.
Business owners and residents in Herat told Al Jazeera that the prices of basic cooking ingredients such as eggs, flour and oil all increased on the eve of Eid. Cooking oil has risen from 500 afghanis a few months ago to 700-800 afghanis in the past two weeks. Even shepherds and farmers who sell animals for Eid al-Fitr say that the cost of each animal has risen by at least 20%.
But the plain geography of the city puts it in danger. Due to the lack of mountain coverage, residents worry that any possible attack on the city may result in a large number of civilian casualties.
“This is an open field. This makes defense more difficult,” Mohammedi said.
So far, the momentum has not been favorable to the Taliban in taking over major cities across Afghanistan. On July 7, the group entered the capital of Badghis Province, but were expelled by government forces within a few hours. At the same time, they also launched an offensive against Kandahar, but have not yet been able to fully enter the city. The province has now imposed a curfew.
In the weeks leading up to the Eid al-Fitr holiday in May, sources in the southern province of Ghazni stated that the Taliban wanted to “practice Eid al-Fitr prayers in Ghazni,” but they were also blocked. After two weeks of the holiday, they tried to capture the capital of the eastern Laghman province, but they were also repelled by security forces.
Nevertheless, the people of Herat stated that they would not even allow the Taliban to attempt to occupy their city.
When Ismail Khan, the former commander who fought against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, saw 8 of the 15 districts in the province fall into the hands of the Taliban earlier this month, he immediately decided to launch his own uprising in Herat .
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Khan said that the people of Herat will come forward to help the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) defend the country from the Taliban, especially as efforts for a political settlement continue to stagnate.
He said that although all Afghans want peace, the current talks between the Taliban and representatives of the government of Doha, the capital of Qatar, are a “waste of time” the armed group uses to advance its military objectives.
The Herats expressed their concerns about the Doha talks that ended last week. A joint statement was issued, but there was no mention of a ceasefire or reduction of violence.
Former commander Khan insisted that the people stand up to defend their country. He said that since he launched his campaign two weeks ago, hundreds of young and old people have come into contact with the Taliban. In his mansion on a heavily guarded street in Herat, dozens of men were waiting in the garden with guns to join the battle.
Now, hundreds of these people have set up checkpoints in villages and areas outside the city.
Mehrabuddin only revealed his name. He was holding a rocket launcher on a road near the Injil district on the outskirts of the city. When he was standing guard, his arched black moustache stood out from the green of his helmet, clothes, and rocket launcher, ready to launch a rocket at any time. He said that in recent days, the Taliban have carried out attacks within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the city. Since then, he has had to launch rockets many times.
Unlike the city, several areas of Herat are mountainous, where the Taliban often occupy positions and fire on national security and insurgent forces from a height.
Mehrabuddin said that this is why he carried the rocket launcher. He said the area was calm during the day, but at night, the fighting began. Most of the Taliban fighters he encountered came from the area.
“They have houses everywhere, and I bet there are such houses everywhere in the houses over there,” he said, pointing to a field in the distance. The fact that the Taliban may be one of them adds to the fear of the insurgent forces.
“They can watch at home now,” Mehrabuddin said.
Although the insurgents did say that they had encountered Pakistani and Iranian fighters in the Taliban, they said that the fact that many Taliban came from the region made the ongoing Herat battle a microcosm of the larger conflict in the country-Afghans and Other Afghans fight.
But for one of the insurgents, he hopes that the history of this country, especially the history of Herat, can help them resist the Taliban.
Mohammad Yasini is a trade veterinarian who first participated in the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance at the age of 12. At the time, he was fighting hundreds of thousands of others, including Ismail Khan, who was 27 at the time, to repel Soviet occupation.
Now, in his 60s, he joined Khan’s men to remind the Taliban of the bravery he saw in Herat.
“They will never occupy Herat because it is the city of jihadists.”