Gun in hand, 55-year-old Dost Mohammad Salangi recites poetry as he leads a small group of men to a high place in the high hills of Parwan province, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
Heavily bearded and wearing a traditional pakol circular hat to ward off the sun, he has a warning for the Islamic Taliban militant movement, which has stepped up attacks on Afghan forces and claimed more territory as foreign troops withdraw.
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“If they impose war on us, oppress us and encroach on women and human property, even our seven-year-old children will arm themselves and resist them,” he told Reuters.
Salangi is one of hundreds of former fighters and civilians who have felt compelled to take up arms to help the army repel a growing Taliban insurgency.
The group’s rise comes as the last US-led international forces prepare to leave after two decades of fighting that ended without a clear victory for either side.
“We have to protect our country … now there is no choice as foreign forces abandon us,” said Farid Mohammed, a young student who joined a local anti-Taliban leader from Parwan.
He spoke as the German military completed the withdrawal of the second-largest foreign corps after the United States with about 150,000 troops deployed over the past two decades, many of them serving more than one tour of the country.
US President Joe Biden and NATO said in mid-April that they would withdraw about 10,000 foreign troops still in Afghanistan by 9/11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
The UN envoy to Afghanistan said the Taliban had taken control of more than 50 of the 370 areas this week and were in control of provincial capitals as the country looked increasingly volatile as foreign military support ended.
Armed mainly with old rifles, pistols and grenade launchers, men like Salangi and Mohammed have joined local shopkeepers and traders as part of a loosely formed public uprising trying to retake some of these areas.
Ajmal Omar Shinwari, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s defense and security forces, said Afghans wishing to take up arms against the Taliban had been absorbed into the ground forces structure.
However, some political analysts warn of the growing risk of a return to civil war as more groups take up arms.
Faced with growing violence, President Ashraf Ghani visited Washington in June to meet with Biden, who has pledged to support the United States in Afghanistan but said Afghans must decide their future.
Talks on finding a political settlement in Afghanistan have stalled, although the head of Afghanistan’s peace council has said they should not be abandoned despite the escalation of Taliban attacks.