Inside Afghanistan, where people fear being left alone

The war is still raging, the Taliban are agitating, and the Americans are leaving. If it’s to achieve a better future, this is a country that desperately needs friends.

Photo: Lorenzo Tugnoli

Afghanistan’s war across the country is unrelenting. It is being fought by an overstretched army, an under-funded militarised police force, an effective but small commando force, an ill-equipped air force, and inexperienced but motivated citizen militias that are sometimes really just criminal gangs armed and paid by the country’s secret service. Together, they are not losing and they are not winning. Hundreds of fighting men on both sides are dying every month. Peace is still a long way off. As one official said to me in a philosophical moment: “We have to learn how not to be at war.”

The Taliban, who have been fighting an insurgency for almost two decades, are constantly on the attack in an undeclared summer offensive. Coronavirus has closed the madrassas in Pakistan, ensuring a good supply of young fighting men. The insurgents spin their war as a victory over the American superpower. They kill and maim men, women and children every day. Innocent civilians are often also caught in crossfire and beneath government bombs. The insurgents provide an umbrella for almost two dozen terror groups said to be operating in Afghanistan; they turn the violence on and off at will, taunting Afghan people with temporary ceasefires that give a glimpse of what peace could be.

Afghanistan’s people are traumatised, fearful, desperate. Afghanistan’s government is paralysed, caught between the interests of Washington, the predations of neighbours, and the ambitions of the Taliban. Decision-making is concentrated in the hands of one foolish, inept and almost universally disliked and distrusted man, President Ashraf Ghani. All around him, heart-stopping levels of corruption sap the very heart out of his poor beleaguered country.

To be here in Kabul at this time is to feel the tragi-comedy of this country’s past and future smash into each other. It’s hard not to laugh after sitting for hours in the office of a deputy minister, or an adviser to a vice president, or a senior security official whose phones don’t ring, whose only visitors are bowing servants who constantly pop in to top up cups of insipid green tea and bring trays of cakes and biscuits. When I am the one who has to make excuses to end the meeting because I’ve been invited to another just like it.

And it’s difficult not to cry when being followed by a gaggle of little girls around the grounds of a school that was bombed just weeks earlier. Their faces carry the grief and shock and trauma of losing friends and the realisation that they and their people, members of an ethnic and religious minority, are so hated that terrorists would attack them with such ferocity as to wipe them off the face of the earth.

At a marvellous party in downtown Kabul, young urban intellectuals, artists, political activists and bureaucrats gather to laugh, sing, play music and dance, snort cocaine and lick-sip-suck tequila shots. This is Afghanistan’s fin de siècle, and no one knows what comes next. Are those cracks in the air gunfire or fireworks from the huge wedding hall a couple of blocks away? At 11pm, they are bursts of matrimonial celebration. At three minutes to four in the morning, they are definitely gunfire. Is it a neighbourhood feud? Bored policemen letting off a few rounds or fighting each other or shooting at the packs of stray dogs that take over the capital’s nighttime streets?

If the gunfire is followed by a bang that rattles the windows, it’s a bomb. But what sort of bomb? A sticky bomb affixed to a car or minibus? A suicide bomber? A vehicle packed with explosives? Where is it and who is the target? Who is behind it? Most of the time, no one knows. Most of the time, the government doesn’t find out and no one takes responsibility. In the end, it’s all part of the war, Afghanistan’s seemingly never-ending war.

People try to avoid moving on the roads first thing in the morning, as a lot of attacks take place early in the day so that the 24-hour news channels will provide a full day of terror coverage. The city stops for a couple of hours as police cordon off the road, the bodies, body parts and injured are taken away, and the road is hosed down of blood, bone, fleshy bits. And then people venture out again to get on with their lives.

Afghanistan’s war provides a convenient cover for corruption on a breathtaking, truly head-spinning scale. Stop by a new café for a spot of lunch – a burger, homemade ice-cream and freshly ground coffee – and the well-travelled, hard-working owner might introduce you to a friend of his, perhaps a banker who can tell tales of theft at the country’s border ports involving numbers that dwarf the GDPs of some small states. “Can the government not do anything to stop the theft?” I ask. “Most of the time, the thief is the government,” he says. Officials here buy and sell their jobs, like the mandarins of old China, because there is so much money to be made.

Yet in the midst of the country’s third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the hospitals don’t have enough oxygen, price-gouging is sending the cost of masks and hand-sanitiser through the roof, and government figures for infections and deaths prompt doctors to tell me that the real numbers are likely many times those reported. “People are dying for lack of oxygen, the hospitals and clinics can’t cope with the numbers of people turning up,” an ENT specialist at a Kabul public hospital tells me. “I think the numbers are much higher than the Ministry of Public Health says, I think at least 500 people a day are dying in Kabul alone.” On that day, the ministry had said that 36 people died nationwide from Covid-19. Truth is, no one knows.

Many here don’t even know if their country will survive intact as the Afghanistan we know today. Ethnic and regional leaders are using Ghani’s weakness to threaten to go their own way, with their own private armies, and fight any return of the Taliban – and, by implication, the venality and corruption of Ghani’s government. In the north, the former vice president and leader of the Uzbek minority, Marshall Abdul Rashid Dostum, is using democracy to rally his supporters against the president’s choice for governor of Faryab province. The threat is being taken so seriously, officials say, that Kabul has reached out to the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkey to ask that they do not support Dostum – which they always have done and probably will continue to do, quietly. In the meantime, lucrative border checkpoints are being firebombed – a message of what’s at stake.

In the lush and leafy Panjsher Valley, an hour’s drive from Kabul, the son of the national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud, is building a base, after being feted by the French government a few months ago with the sort of pomp usually reserved for presidents and prime ministers. Ahmad Massoud is 32 years old, a well-educated, erudite Tajik man who is taking advantage of the confidence vacuum here to position himself as a future leader of all Afghans. His father fought the Taliban until their Al Qaeda allies killed him on 9 September 2001. That day is now a national holiday in his name. His face appears on posters and billboards wherever you go. Many young Afghans across the spectrum of ethnicities and sects are breathing deep of the young Massoud’s fresh air, seeing him as one of them. Some of course do not, notably Pashtuns whose people dominate the government and economy. But the government is so threatened that officials can’t find enough adjectives to deride him: upstart, loser, pretender, phoney…

America and its Nato allies and partners are packing up their military bases to end almost 20 years of war here. The deadline set by President Joe Biden is the 20th anniversary of the event that started it all, the 9/11 attacks. But it will be all over well before that, probably by August. At least, that’s when the reporters from the US military newspaper Stars And Stripes expect to be gone.

The Australian embassy has closed, many of the Europeans are considering it and so some will probably follow along behind, while others will consolidate inside the compound that houses the European Union’s mission. Even Britain is said to be considering safer digs, though there is no safer place in Afghanistan than the fortified “Green Zone” embassy district in Kabul. No one I’ve talked to here even knows where the Aussie embassy was. All its closure did was send shivers through an already panicked populace.

One visitor to my home told me to make sure I had a route out of this landlocked country that didn’t include the Kabul International Airport, as the Taliban are expected to storm it any day. “Why would they do that?” I asked her. The Taliban have what they’ve been desperate for since they ran Afghanistan for a woe-begotten five years between 1996 and 2001 – political legitimacy, thanks to former US President Donald Trump. He bypassed the Kabul government we’ve been fighting and paying to support, and did a deal directly with the Taliban, ostensibly to end the “forever war”. Now everyone talks to the Taliban. Why would they put that at risk by storming the airport and killing diplomats as they flee, Saigon-style? “Oh, I guess,” she said. “Maybe not.” Definitely not. But that doesn’t stop the idiotic narrative of an imminent Taliban return.

Talking to the Taliban, though, makes it just as clear as talking to officials in the government that there is no plan, no vision for peace. They are still the unreconstructed, medieval, segregationist incompetents who took over in 1996. They just have better advisers among a cabal of international supporters who help them frame their rhetoric in a way that is difficult to argue with. Yes, they say, we want peace for all Afghans. And yet they keep killing them, horrifically, and refuse to even consider a permanent ceasefire. Yes, they say, we believe in women’s rights. But, the spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid told me during a long Skype chat, men and women will be strictly segregated, and women will be forced to cover themselves in the presence of men. Yes, they say, foreigners and their money will be welcome, as long as they follow our rules.

A group of Taliban fighters have lunch in a hide out in a remote part of Khogiani district, Nangarhar province

The Taliban are run by uneducated men who peddle the world’s heroin and have taken control of much of Afghanistan’s considerable mining assets by force. They blow up communications towers and power supply lines, and extort millions from people who use roads across the country. A US newspaper report recently referred to their presence in some parts of the country as “governance”. Anyone who has being paying attention knows that what the Taliban do is not “governance” – they provide no services, they only destroy, repress, murder. They are a global mafia brand, and Trump brought them in from the cold where they belonged for eternity; Trump made them think they are winners.

The losers, as always, are the ordinary people of Afghanistan. A friend running an organisation working for peace told me that in grassroots opinion polls across the country, he finds that top of the wish list is a ceasefire. “People are exhausted, they just want the war, the violence, the killing to end,” he said. “But what they don’t want is the Taliban. No one in this country, no matter where you ask – south, east, west, in the mountains – no one wants the Taliban to come back.” The corrupt government is almost universally unpopular, too, of course, he adds, which might help explain why some parts of the country tolerate the extremists’ presence amongst them.

What people here do want is a future. A future in which they can thrive, develop and use their immense talent and drive, start businesses, be creative, support their families, live in peace. Around 70 per cent of the population here is aged under 30 – according to estimates, as there has not been a census for so long we can only guess that the population is around 38 to 40 million. That makes Afghanistan an astoundingly young country. These are the people who were left out of Trump’s direct contact with the Taliban, the people who have invested in a future of freedom, democratic development, technological advance, equality, rights. They have smartphones, and satellite television, creativity, poetry, music, hopes, plans, dreams. Yet they party like there’s no tomorrow because there might not be. The uncertainty is driving them mad.

My friend, the peace professional, also wonders, as we chat in the corner of a gathering of the like-minded, leaning in so we can hear each other over the music, if the Americans really will retrograde to zero. Look at a map, see where Afghanistan is? China to the east, Russia to the north, Iran to the west and Pakistan everywhere else. The Gulf just over there. Why would they go? The United States has said it will leave a small force of about 600 to work with the Turks to keep the Kabul airport running smoothly. Is that the footprint? Is there a CIA-style counter-terrorism presence we will never know about? Let’s face it, we agree, the Americans never really leave anywhere, they always keep the keys. Another official had pointed out that keeping Bagram Air Base, 50 miles outside of Kabul, would make sense. “What’s the cost of an aircraft carrier? Five billion? Six billion?” he muses. “Keeping Bagram would be peanuts.”

There’s logic in this line of thought. But it also betrays the need deep within Afghans for a reassurance that they won’t be left on their own again. It happened after the Soviets left in the 1980s. Then the warlords started fighting amongst themselves for territory, assets and power. Then the Taliban came along to bring some semblance of stability – along with burkas, arbitrary justice and severed hands. They welcomed in Al Qaeda, and the rest is history.

Afghan people desperately don’t want that to happen again, but they feel vulnerable. They want to stay, build their country, make it what they know it can be. And they want to do it on their own and on their own terms. They just want to know that they have friends, that those friends have their back, that their future is as bright now as it looked when the international community came in and pushed the Taliban out almost 20 years ago.

“Is that too much to ask?” one friend asks me. “Honestly,” I say, “I think it’s the least you can ask.” The real question is, what can you expect?

Main image: Taliban fighters in the district of Khogiani. The area was previously controlled by Islamic State

Photographs by Lorenzo Tugnoli / The Washington Post / Contrasto / Eyevine