A crowd gathered recently around an old Afghan villager as he wailed in inconsolable anguish, holding him up as his body buckled. Word quickly spread that the man had just lost his entire family to a Taliban attack in his home province of Helmand.
That assault was Oct. 13, but was just one of dozens inside the beleaguered region in recent weeks – a microcosm of a country ravaged by war, still dominated by an ever-emboldened Taliban, and unsure if it can stand on as its own as the United States steps away.
National Defense Secretary Robert O'Brien affirmed this week that the Pentagon was working to carry out President Trump's vow to further diminish U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, slashing numbers to just 2,500 by early next year. However, Trump has pushed the envelope even further in recent days – advocating that all troops be brought home by Christmas.
U.S. troop numbers fell from 12,000 to 8,600 in July. But as Trump makes good on a pledge to bring an end to the "forever war" some 7,000 miles away – months after Washington officials inked a deal with Taliban representatives in Doha centered on the U.S. leaving in exchange for the insurgency not to harbor terrorist outfits such as Al Qaeda – Afghans on the ground are caught in the crossfire of increasing Taliban assaults, the rising death toll and steep uncertainty over what comes next.
"The overall security situation in Afghanistan is regrettably not good," Afghan Ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani told Fox News. "There are a high number of attacks on a daily basis – people getting killed every day by the dozens. There is a serious fighting still happening, and it's the Afghans who are dying.
Locals say that in areas under Taliban control – almost half of the landlocked nation – checkpoints have sprouted up, parents have stopped sending their young off to school for fear that they won't return and women are becoming increasingly restricted.
"The Taliban keeps saying that they will allow women to have rights as long as it is in accordance with Islam, and that is concerning," Rahmani said. "We are already doing everything in accordance with Islam; we are an Islamic country. They go further and say 'true Islam.' Who gives them that authority, to impose their own interpretation to justify the oppression of women?"
Many of the dying and wounded are deemed the "Second Generation" fighters in the War on Terror, with most not even born when Al Qaeda slammed planes into U.S. buildings on Sept. 11, 2001.
In response, the U.S. has conducted "several targeted strikes" to defend Afghan troops.
"The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country," Gen. Scott Miller, the leading U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement this month. "It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace Talks."
Under the terms of the deal, the Taliban vowed to stop attacking U.S. forces but stand of accused of increasing their bloodshed toward Afghan soldiers. The Kabul government was no party to the agreement as the Taliban refused to talk to the "illegitimate" leadership.
Last month, some inroads were made in Qatar as Taliban and Afghan government delegates started the process of bringing the warring factions for the next stride to cease the conflict, but little progress is yet to be seen.
"The talks have not even started. Our teams are still working on the codes of conduct and rules of the game. There are stumbling blocks in the rigidity the Taliban is showing," Rahami said, stressing that there are at least 20 other terrorist outfits operating in Afghanistan – including the ISIS-affiliate.
To a number of foreign policy analysts and lawmakers inside, leaving the burning country to plunge deeper into medieval customs and violence is a glaring mistake.
"Afghanistan is probably at its most fragile point since the U.S. toppled the Taliban regime," said Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the Center for Global Policy. "The Afghan jihadist movement not only has the upper hand in the battlespace, it is also emboldened by the deal with the United States.
"If the U.S. leaves too soon, then it risks creating a strategic vacuum in the country that would lead to a collapse of the talks and fighting between the two sides," Bokhari added.
"We don't want to go back to the 90s when the Taliban ruled," said Afghan Member of Parliament Mariam Solaimankhail, who represents the nomadic Kuchis.
Solaimankhail spoke from her home in Kabul, where her own uncle was recently gunned down by Taliban operatives.
"We have come so far in building schools and a justice system – the world helped us build that," she added. "War crimes are still happening here; for the Americans to leave is unthinkable to us. What we really need to look at it is where the funding for the Taliban is coming from – and stop that."
Ahmad Muslem Hayat – a former Afghan diplomat in London and security expert – bemoaned that a "full withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO would be the biggest mistake of the 21st century."
"It would be the biggest victory and accomplishment for all terrorism and terrorist organizations around the world," he said. "The U.S. would leave behind a chaotic situation."
However, others agree with Trump, that it is time for the U.S. to stop expending blood and treasure in Afghanistan.
"Any terrorist presence in Afghanistan can be effectively mitigated by our ability to strike any direct threat to the U.S., no matter where in the world," said Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis (ret.), senior fellow and military fellow at Defense Priorities. "The U.S. stops wasting up to $40 billion a year on a war disconnected from American national security interests. We stop suffering dead and wounded troops in an unnecessary war."
Dan Caldwell, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and senior advisor for Concerned Veterans for America, agreed.
"The United States accomplished what it needed to long ago in Afghanistan, and leaving troops in the country will only mean a continued loss of American life in pursuit of objectives that do not serve our national interest," he said. "President Trump deserves credit for dictating a full and rapid withdrawal from the country so that our military can focus on other pressing national security priorities."
A full withdrawal from Afghanistan has Americans' overwhelming support, Caldwell, noted, citing polling conducted by YouGov, which shows that 76 percent of Americans support a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and polling run by Concerned Veterans for America shows that 73 percent of veterans support a full retreat.
"The only real interest we have in Afghanistan is in ensuring that the country does not become a staging ground for terrorist attacks against the United States, which can be accomplished by working with local actors and utilizing long-range strike capabilities as opposed to leaving troops in the country indefinitely," he said.
But the toll of the war from the U.S. side will no doubt be felt for decades to come, paid for with lives and hard-earned tax dollars. The official first mission name of the invasion, "Operation Enduring Freedom," occurred between Oct. 7, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2014. U.S. deaths were 2,313, and more than 20,600 were wounded in action.
The Pentagon has also spent more than $822 billion on the effort between 2001 and 2019.
If there is one silver lining to crack through the controversial Doha deal, it is that no U.S. service member has died at the hands of the Taliban since.
Since 2016, Trump – running on an "America First" platform, has made it clear he intends to end all unnecessary conflicts abroad. Democratic candidate Joe Biden, according to his campaign website, also seeks to "end the forever wars in Afghanistan," "bring the vast majority of our troops home," and underscores that "staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention."
"It just might be the issue where he and President Trump have the most agreement," added Jonathan Bydlak, interim director of the Governance Program at the R Street Institute. "The most likely outcome, in my opinion, is that he would largely follow through on President Trump's plan to draw down from the country."