Afghan villagers fear militants' return outside shadow of US forces

The withdrawal of US troops has been a cornerstone of US President Donald Trump's plans to end America's longest war. PHOTO: AFP

ACHIN (AFP) - Living in the shadow of a United States military base had provided protection to villagers in eastern Afghanistan, but locals now say the recent withdrawal of foreign troops has left them exposed to militant attacks.

"When the Americans were here, there were drones in the air 24 hours a day and there were no Taleban and Islamic State (IS)," said Mr Kameen Khan, who lives near one former US base in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, using a variation of the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"In the months since they left the area, the Taleban and IS have restarted their activities," he told AFP.

Dozens of US special forces set up shop in Achin - and at another base in neighbouring Haska Mina - to fight IS after the militants seized large parts of Nangarhar in 2015 and established a foothold in Afghanistan.

For a while, the province was terrorised by extremists, who sometimes beheaded locals or forced them to sit on bombs before detonating them.

They also destroyed health centres and forced schools to close.

For many in nearby towns and villages, the US arrival provided a welcome respite: attacks dropped dramatically as drones and jets pummelled militant positions.

The Pentagon focused significant resources on the area, including in 2017 when it deployed the military's largest non-nuclear weapon, the MOAB, nicknamed "Mother Of All Bombs", on an IS cave complex.

"Security got better, people were happy," said Haska Mina governor Rizwanullah Basharmal.

Mr Haji Gul Shinwari, who lives in Achin, said the American presence had meant farmers could return to their fields in relative safety.

"But since they left, we cannot go outside at night, as we worry the Taleban or IS will come again," he said.

Mine shut down

Living alongside a US military base also allowed trade to flourish, and the presence of nearby troops provided some stability to industries such as talc mining.

But now several nearby mines have shut down, said Mr Hayatullah, whose relatives were involved in the extraction of the mineral used in products ranging from baby powder to paint.

"Over the years, traders came here to invest in mines, but when US forces left, they too left," said Mr Hayatullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name.

The withdrawal of US troops has been a cornerstone of US President Donald Trump's plans to end America's longest war.

His administration cut a deal with the Taleban in February, promising a full troop withdrawal in exchange for a commitment from the group to stop trans-national hardline groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS from operating in Afghanistan.

Last week, Mr Trump tweeted that all US forces in Afghanistan "should" be home by Christmas, a move that would hasten the withdrawal timeline by about four months.

US forces began leaving the Achin and Haska Mina bases in November after Afghan officials declared victory over ISIS. The withdrawals were completed in May and July respectively.

Some limitations

During recent visits to the facilities, signs of the former American presence remained - including small stars-and-stripes flags in various rooms and US military emblems spray-painted onto walls.

Afghan forces have now assumed full control but admit to some limitations.

"American forces had modern equipment like drones and were controlling the area from the air," said First Lieutenant Hashmatullah, a commander of about 60 men at the Achin base.

"Unfortunately we don't have those capabilities."

Still, he played down reports of a sharp increase in attacks, saying they had only risen slightly.

Achin resident Abdul Qadir disagreed, insisting it was the wrong time for the US to pull out.

"There is still danger for us from IS as Afghan forces are not strong and well equipped to defend the country."

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