A parade of white Taliban flags lines Musa Qala bazaar right up to the central monument where two kidnappers were hanged in a public execution earlier this year. The flags flutter from almost every shop in celebration, some rough and handmade, others printed and lined with tinsel.
The dusty town, an opium trading centre reached most of the year by driving up the gravel bed of a seasonal river, was the Taliban’s southern capital from 2015 until the militant group took over the national capital. Before that it was the site of intense fighting by British and US forces for more than a decade, including a bitter 2006 British siege in which 88 men were holed up for two months, leading to the first – albeit hyperlocal – international ceasefire negotiations with the Taliban.
Now its rulers control the country as well as this stretch of farming valley, and the only physical traces of the foreign mission are a couple of broken concrete spans of a bridge to nowhere, shoddily built and mostly washed away in the first flooding season that followed.
The memories run deeper, and they are not good. Here 23 British soldiers and at least four Americans were killed, fighting in the name of a better, peaceful Afghanistan. As such it is a place that carries particularly painful associations for UK troops. Yet the legacy of their mission, seen from Musa Qala, is only a mirrored grief and a scattering of families.
“They spent a lot of money and killed a lot of people,” said Sufia, a widow in her 40s. “But they left nothing behind except these terrible memories.” She lost her husband to a mine 13 years ago.
Those weapons were usually deployed by the Taliban, careless of civilian lives whether planning suicide attacks in towns or burying improvised mines to catch patrolling soldiers, but Sufia refused to assign blame. Had Nato not come to Musa Qala, she said, there would have been no fighting.
Sufia has plenty of losses to chalk up directly to the western presence. An uncle, a great-uncle and her father-in-law, all civilians, died when a mosque where they were praying was bombed, she said. An airstrike killed three neighbours, truck drivers who had just returned home for a break. The survivors fled and the empty ruins of the home still lie next to her pomegranate trees, a permanent untended memorial.
It was a small sample, but every person interviewed by the Guardian in Musa Qala bazaar and two villages nearby had lost multiple relatives in the conflict – to airstrikes and artillery, Taliban improvised mines, snipers and close combat in fields, orchards and dusty lanes, or night raids on family compounds.
Abdul Wali, who at 40 is a little younger than Afghanistan’s civil wars, sells cold drinks and ice-creams in a bazaar cafe with mirrored walls and blue and green plastic chairs and tables. He joined meetings with British troops when they first arrived, because he speaks a little English, and he believed in the promise of security they offered.
“We were happy when they arrived because we thought they would bring peace. Instead they killed our people and we can never get them back,” he said. As the body count of friends and neighbours mounted, he vowed not to speak the language of the people killing his family any more. “I haven’t used my English for nine years,” he said.
Asked about losses in his own family, he said they had been lucky. Then he clarified that only his immediate family – his wife and children – had come out unscathed, and seven members of his wider family were gone. An uncle and three cousins died in an airstrike, the others were caught up in fighting, he said. In a town so badly ravaged, that counted as a kind of good fortune.
Musa Qala bazaar. Photograph: Emma Graham-Harisson/The Guardian
Yet, like everyone the Guardian met in Musa Qala, he was polite and even hospitable to the first Briton he had spoken to for the best part of a decade. Amid desperate poverty, and an economy in freefall, most people said they want foreigners to come back, but with aid rather than weapons.
After 15 years of a foreign presence and six years of Taliban rule, the town and outlying districts still have no electricity, no paved roads, and there are just a handful of schools – for boys.
Locals said they were grateful for the security brought by the Taliban’s nationwide victory, an unexpected peace that goes far beyond the uneasy calm of previous Taliban control, punctuated as it was by bombings and night raids.
Now people are back at fields, and at night when the heat fades the banks of the Sangin river fill with groups of men enjoying picnics, and the riverbed is lit up at night by the headlights of their cars and long-distance trucks winding their way on a journey that just weeks ago was too risky for all but the most desperate.
But this peace has come at a cost. Analysts who have studied the Taliban say their rule in Helmand province has been ruthless, with few efforts to win over the civilian population as they did in other parts of the country.
“The Taliban in Helmand didn’t care about clinics or schools, you didn’t see them pursuing the bargains you saw elsewhere in Afghanistan to get people to accept them, they just didn’t care,” said Ashley Jackson, an expert in armed groups who has studied the Taliban for more than a decade and visited areas under their control before the rest of the country fell, including nearby Sangin.
“There are such low expectations in Helmand. Maybe people were resigned to the fact that they were less brutal once they were in control, there was a feeling of just: we are lucky if these people don’t plant IEDs [improvised mines] in the bazaar.”
British soldiers passing a farmer in Musa Qala in March 2006. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
The peace brought an end to the use of human shields, a tactic Jackson said was regularly documented, including gathering Taliban leaders at children’s events such as a Qur’an recitation competition. Though frequently denounced by government forces and the west, the apparent disgust was never translated into military changes that stopped the civilian deaths.
Two Taliban security officers with guns trailed the Guardian around the bazaar and villages, offering protection from a threat they never described, but even there people were willing to lay out their low expectations. “They are an unknown leadership, I don’t know what they will do,” said one when asked about hopes that the group might help him rebuild a home destroyed in fighting.
And in more private settings there seemed to be few illusions about what the group would offer. The triumphalism from their soldiers gave way to a sense of weary relief from the people they now rule.
“We know the Taliban, they don’t have any money, we still have to give them food,” said one whom the Guardian has chosen not to name. Another Musa Qala resident agreed. “We didn’t expect any help from the Taliban, they took 1,200 food aid parcels to feed their soldiers. They need to bring this under control.”
Unlike in the cities, the Taliban’s control did not strip women of any rights they could enjoy. The group’s oppressive controls on women, based on their particular interpretation of Islamic law, draw from and echo deeply conservative local traditions in their heartland.
In Musa Qala, women have long been forced into extreme seclusion as they approach puberty. Even in the compounds that contain much of their lives, younger women scatter into back rooms at the approach of all but the closest of male relatives.
The central Taliban leadership has made some slight concessions on women’s rights from the totalitarian misogyny of their 1990s rule, including now allowing girls a primary education, and women working in health and education to keep their jobs.
But from Musa Qala these changes look like efforts to staunch internal resistance and international criticism, not any fundamental shift in the group’s thinking.
There were no girls’ primary schools to keep open in Musa Qala, no high schools to close and no local women working outside their homes, except the very poorest who go out to do housework for other women but remain hidden from men.
A previous foreign invasion brought Sufia a fifth-grade education that she is proud of in a village of largely illiterate women, but only by default because her family fled to Iran as refugees after Soviet troops abducted her father, enabling her to go to school there.
Although some men say they want to educate their daughters, there is no broad push for a girls’ school. Old codes that tie men’s sense of family pride to the seclusion of their women seem more powerful for some than any drive for education.
“People were not interested to send their girls for education and now is the same,” said Abdul Rahim Mutmaeen, a grocer. “We have to see the overall situation, it’s not just about me. We are looking for other people to bring their girls to school, then we will get ready to bring ours.”
Ruins of a house in Musa Qala. Photograph: Emma Graham-Harisson/The Guardian
The women are still hopeful that change could come through aid. “If they spent 5-10% of the money from the war on schools and hospitals, it would have transformed things,” said Sufia, who says she would now welcome the west if it would work with the Taliban. “They brought helicopters and planes to attack us, now they should bring bulldozers to help build the road.”
Like the majority of Musa Qala residents the Guardian interviewed, Bibi Naema, a great-grandmother in her 60s, had no interaction with the western mission beyond its bullets and bombs. She counted off losses from them including two cousins, three nephews, an uncle and a brother-in-law.
“Every day we looked out for the jets and drones patrolling here, and now we sleep at night and wake early in the morning without even hearing the sound of planes.”
The crumpled remains of a car, reduced to the snarled metal of its frame, still lies by the road where it was hit in the last aerial attack on her village of Ghondai. That was two years ago, but the skies never cleared and fear hung over residents while the jets and drones did.
Musa Qala was among the most heavily contested parts of Afghanistan, and even after the ground war stopped and the first foreign then Afghan troops retreated from its bases, the air war continued.
In 2006, when British forces brokered the uneasy first ceasefire with the Taliban and were evacuated in cattle trucks, the then defence secretary, Des Browne, called it iconic. But he had not endured the long, bumpy drive to a place with no roads, key to opium trading but not on any other economic arteries.
Once western and Afghan government forces had been driven out, the Taliban gathered there and foreign fighters were able to pass through, Jackson said, though the details of their militant links are still unclear. The Pentagon claimed Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida were based there.
Civilians were regularly killed in airstrikes but their deaths were difficult to verify, frequently denied by Afghan and American forces, and rarely made news unless the scale of the atrocity was so appalling it could cut through the daily backdrop of bloodshed in war.
Their fate is a bleak warning of potential deaths to come in an “over the horizon” drone war that the US and UK have pledged will continue against “international terrorists” in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon claimed that the last US strike in Kabul, after the bloody airport bombing, was a “righteous strike” on a known terrorist to prevent another imminent atrocity. Instead, US media research shows it killed a much-loved aid worker with US ties and his family, their final hours exhaustively documented on security footage.
It was unusual because it took place within easy reach of dozens of international journalists, who were able to chart the gulf between military claims of a precision strike on an IS operative and the reality of the civilians killed.
Until now, the intensity of the war and Taliban hostility to journalists, whom the group have routinely killed and kidnapped, made it hard to visit most places hit by US or Afghan military airstrikes. Claims of civilian deaths were bolstered by photos or phone calls.
In Musa Qala the Guardian finally was able to visit the site of a massacre two years ago in the village of Shawahroz, which like other news organisations our reporters covered at the time but only through phone calls and second-hand accounts.
The twisted metal remains of a tray are skewered into a tree by a field, a stark reminder of a wedding party under way there when the airstrikes hit, locals say.
A wedding tray in a tree. Photograph: Emma Graham-Harisson/The Guardian
Haji Nader knew nothing of the bombing until he arrived at the site of the wedding in a procession of cars with his son, Mohibullah, the groom, and future daughter-in-law. A day that should have been filled with celebration turned to ashes as they bumped up the dusty village path.
The tents for guests, set up in a field, were reduced to a bloodied mess. And in the crushed ruins of their family home nearby lay the bodies of another son, four granddaughters, a grandson, a great-niece and nephew, his son’s sister-in-law and a cousin’s wife.
“We got here happy for the wedding ceremony, and it was just rubble,” says the 85-year-old. “Then after everything was demolished, there was fighting for hours. I don’t know who was firing.”
On 23 September 2019, the US claimed it had made “precision strikes” against al-Qaida terrorists in the area after they opened fire on American and Afghan forces. It also claimed most died from “al-Qaida weapons” or suicide vest explosions.
Unlike in the Kabul strike, there is no video footage of the victims’ last hours to provide proof of violence wrongly deployed. But it is hard to believe the ancient, broken man is lying about his losses as he slips in and out of memories and verges on the brink of tears in the shade of a tree that once sheltered his family courtyard.
“I want justice,” said Haji Nader. “This cruelty has been inflicted on us and what happened to the people who did this, will they just live out their happy lives in their own country?”
Abdul Khaliq Montazir, now the Taliban police commander for the province, fought Britons and Americans for the best part of a decade and dodged their aerial strikes in the years that followed, but had spoken to someone from those countries only once before he agreed to show a Guardian journalist around Musa Qala.
Fighting in Kajaki, he was detained for 24 hours until local women vouched for him as a farmer.
He was called to another airstrike site the evening the wedding was hit, where four people were killed. He pulled body parts from the wreckage so badly damaged they all had to be buried in a mass grave, and prepared to hear from new recruits.
“Many times it happened after such a tragedy, people came to join the Taliban,” he said. He knew the US claims of foreign fighters and dismissed them. He picked up a gun 15 years ago, and followed in family footsteps; his father died years earlier fighting the Russians.
He travels around town in a Toyota Corolla with no number plate, a Taliban flag on the dashboard alongside an insurance label from a Colorado car dealer that remains stuck to the windshield. He doesn’t hate the west, he insists, despite his brief detention and years on the battlefield.
“They did bad things to us. But we respect guests and treat them well, so you can welcome them to come here and reconstruct,” he said. “If they come here as fighters, then we will fight again.”