Since the drawdown of US-led troops, Afghanistan has been grappling with a Taliban comeback in some regions. Locals have little confidence in the government. Kiran Nazish reports from Kunar province.
Latif Khan rolls up the dusty mat that had been left on the floor and puts it on the side of the classroom in this single-story mud building in the small town of Dangam. Until recently, the room buzzed with the giggles and chatter of some 20 children aged between nine and 10. But the school has been closed indefinitely, as locals in Afghanistan's southeastern Kunar province, which borders Pakistan's tribal belt, have been tackling militant activity for weeks.
"Children will return to school again, but we can't say when," Khan, a schoolteacher, said.
This is just one of many schools that have closed its doors, though no one seems able to say quite how many. At the same time, the Afghan government continues to deny Taliban present a viable threat. Government statements imply there are no Taliban who cannot be defeated by government forces. Even so, there are indications that Afghan security officials are just as nervous as Kunar locals.
Khan couldn't say more - a common response in Dangam, where people are too scared to reveal anything they know about the new threats their town is facing.
Khan has decided to move to Kabul. For many like Khan, who enjoyed a sense of freedom during the 13 years American troops were deployed in the country, it is time to either move away or accept living in danger.
The skies in Dangam echo with noisy firefighting between Afghan security forces and insurgents. "They have wreaked havoc in Dangam. Tribals [people from local tribes] have been torched and beheaded for helping us find the enemy," Masood Khan, an Afghan fighter who fought the insurgents in Kunar in December, told DW.
Although the continual presence of Taliban is nothing new in Afghanistan, many districts are gradually bowing to their authority. The government is aware that militants are overrunning most of the districts of the southeastern provinces.
"Government forces have control only of provincial capitals," one police officer told DW on condition of anonymity. "We [the police] only operate in the capital cities of these provinces. We don't go inside."
Logar province, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of Kunar, is one of the places that have fallen to militants. There a man shot and killed his sister because she was teaching at a school. Police officials say they could not go to the area to investigate the incident, because it was too dangerous for them.
Reality on the ground
Dangam is only one of the many small districts of Kunar where civic life is disappearing. Many schools have been bombed, others are closed simply because children dare not go to school.
"Within 20 days, two schools have been torched [in Kunar]. Hundreds of children attended them. Taliban want to make very clear that they are back," said Abdul Qahar of Kunar province's education department. "It's not just in Kunar, but the bombing of institutions has also destroyed many buildings, including schools in Nangarhar province."
Some hospitals don't have any more doctors, and locals who can afford to leave are looking for jobs in the bigger cities, where state power is reliable.
Kunar villagers have witnessed the growing presence of Taliban in market places and residential areas, since US troops left. "Afghan forces cannot succeed until they counter militants outside of the capital and inside villages where they reside," says Ahmed Saadi, a former police officer in Kunar.
In Ganjgal, another small village in Kunar, cascades of lush green trees watch over the dwindling silhouettes as night sets in. The scenic valley sketched with a patchwork of fields is becoming more and more difficult for locals. Neither international NGOs nor Afghan officials make their way down here anymore. Locals say that's because many areas here are becoming home to militants - many of whom come from Pakistan.
"They [militants] have been escaping from their homes across the border, and have been able to take shelter in homes here," says Mustufa Khan, a tribal leader from the valley. "This has been going on for months," he adds.
As a result of the ongoing Pakistani military operation to root out militants, hundreds have fled to different parts of Pakistan or crossed the border into Afghanistan's Kunar and Kandahar regions.
Anti-Taliban villagers have reportedly fought to stop them, but in places like the Ganjgal Valley, the militants seem to have gotten out of hand. Many anti-Taliban locals here have already been killed by militants. "They find an excuse to punish anyone who spoke against them when the US forces were here," Mustufa Khan said.
Increasing numbers of armed militants have helped Taliban to regroup here and strengthen their rule in Ganjgal by setting up sharia courts. In their black turbans, these Taliban are an intimidating presence across the valley. Mustafa Khan says people have already started fearing them. Several of his friends and acquaintances have been shot dead since December, which has spread fear among villagers who opposed them. Like Latif Khan, Mustafa has decided to pack up his family and move. "If we don't leave, I am sure they will come after me too," he said.
Government officials in Kabul deny Taliban began encroaching once the international troops withdrew. "We have control over militants now. There is no significant threat from these groups anymore," Sedi Sediqi, an Interior Ministry spokesperson, told DW in January.
Regardless of the government's confidence, Kabul has been attempting to get Taliban to the table for talks.
For Kunar residents like Mustafa Khan, this too is an unnerving prospect. "The Taliban will only strike a peace deal with the government if they give them reign over certain pockets. And towns in Kunar could be among them," Mustafa said.
An Afghan government official told DW on condition of anonymity that President Ashraf Ghani's government would be willing to hand over control of six provinces to Taliban.
"Taliban will be allowed to take the governorship of the proposed provinces if peace talks are successful," the official said, referring to the provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost and Gardez in the east of the country and Kandahar and Kunar in the south.