Ghazaal Habibyar’s trembling hand hovered over her mobile phone, unable to type the numbers. “I was afraid to hear bad news,” she recalls of that morning in Kabul when she heard there’d been an explosion close to her young son’s school.
“Why should we have to choose between educating or protecting our children?” asks the 38-year-old mother of two – a former Afghan deputy minister of mines and petroleum. That day, her six-year-old son was sitting safely in class.
This is how the day begins now in Kabul – the time of day in a time of war that is most worrying of all. Afghans call them “the danger hours”.
“There’ve been blasts before me, and blasts behind me,” says 22-year-olduniversity student Sadeq Alakozai. “Every day we wonder whose turn it will be.”
One morning, a magnetic “sticky” bomb slapped on a minibus took the life of a popular TV presenter at the same time Alakozai and his friends were driving to work on the same street. Another morning, a district security chief was assassinated in a blast so strong it flipped the police car upside down at a busy roundabout just before they reached the same corner.
From 7.30am to 9.30am, when the diesel fume-soaked streets of the capital are choked with traffic as government employees go to work, is the time to avoid, if you can. Every day someone somewhere in Afghanistan is picked off: journalists and judges; civil servants and scholars; activists and academics.
Many of the victims came of age in the two decades since the Taliban were toppled from power in the US-led invasion after the 9/11 attacks; their lives are being cut short as the last of the US-led Nato forces deliberate over a departure date and the Taliban boast of victory.
The Taliban’s path back to power could either run through accelerating moves by President Joe Biden’s team to negotiate a political way out of war, or what many fear could be the most blistering of battles this summer in a country which has already lived through more than 40 years of pain.
No one takes responsibility for this wave of assassinations. The Afghan government blames the Taliban. The Taliban accuse the Afghan government, which is also under fire for not being able to protect its people. And, in a time of rising insecurity and impunity, anyone with a gun and a grudge can exploit the moment.
Many see a concerted campaign by Taliban supporters to kill off or frighten away what is described, in shorthand, as the “gains of the last 20 years”: educated, ambitious women; a vibrant media; an active civil society.
“They claim these realities were created under the US military occupation and are like foam on top of water, which goes away as soon as you touch the waters underneath,” says Tamim Asey, a former deputy defence minister who now chairs the Institute of War and Peace Studies in Kabul.
Afghans have developed tactics to try to avert the worst: leaving home at different times each day; some days not going out at all; sending just one child to school at a time.
And some now anxiously question if there is still a place for them here. “Afghans worry about their future because they may end up leaving the world if they don’t leave Afghanistan.“ Alakozai explains as we sit in a newly opened Kabul coffee shop in a government-owned hotel. With his jaunty bouffant hairstyle, this young man with a sharp suit and a sunny smile symbolises an impressive twentysomething generation which never lived through the chaotic civil war of the 1990s and the harsh Taliban rule that followed.
The thirtysomethings who came into their own just before them also had choices to make during the years after 2001, which brought new opportunities for work and study when the world came to Afghanistan’s door.
A decade ago, Habibyar was offered a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in economics at Oxford University in the UK. “I turned it down because I wanted to stay in Kabul to try to make a difference in my country.” Now the economist says she would choose the subjects of Islam and women’s rights if she ever decides to further her studies. But she wants to stay put. “I don’t want my children to call another country ‘my country’,” she says.
When we hear their stories, we are reminded of our own stories of rushing to hospital, identifying the bodies, hugging the families
Lotfullah Najafizada, TOLONews TV
With warnings circulating of hitlists, some of the best and brightest have already packed up. Others have taken temporary refuge wherever they can obtain visas, and still more have no choice but to stick it out.
Last week, it was the turn of three Afghan female journalists, all aged in their 20s, in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Shahnaz Raufi Mohmand and Sadia Sadat were killed by gunmen trailing them in a rickshaw as they headed home from the Enikass TV station. Their colleague Mursal Wahidi met the same fate at about the same time; she was shot in the head and chest at point-blank range in daylight as she walked down the street.
The Islamic State group, which also has a foothold in Afghanistan, proudly announced these murders as its work.
Another young journalist, Nadia Momand, posted on social media a photograph of herself and Haya Habibi, sitting behind microphones in the station’s dubbing studio to show they were still alive. Momand, in a black headscarf and tunic, and Habibi, all in pink, seemed to exemplify the dreams of the most educated, connected generation in Afghan history.
But 21-year-old Momand’s father put a stop to it. In messages exchanged on social media, she tells me she wanted to work, but the lack of security wouldn’t allow it. “I don’t want to see you in a coffin,” her father had admonished her, saying: “If you give me assurances you will come home, I will give you permission.”
“Life has become very difficult, especially for those who would like to make a difference,” says Lotfullah Najafizada, who heads the widely watched TOLOnews TV, the first 24-hour Afghan television network to emerge after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. He and a group of colleagues travelled to Jalalabad a few days ago to express sympathy and solidarity with their colleagues at Enikass television. “When we hear their stories, we are reminded of our own stories of rushing to hospital, identifying the bodies, hugging the families,” he recalls of the many times his own teams have come under targeted attacks.
“Killing individuals will not kill the cause,” Najafizada insists. “We have come very, very far in the past 20 years and we cannot go back to the dark ages.”
There’s a new educated generation on both sides. On social media, young Taliban supporters also regret the loss of young lives, and vehemently push back against accusations that the fault lies on their side.
“This is what our war is!” exclaims the usually softly spoken minister of state for peace, Sayed Sadat Mansoor Naderi, whose office is full of research papers on lessons learned about peacemaking in conflicts elsewhere. Afghanistan’s fight is now being described as one of the world’s deadliest for civilians.
To reach the ministry charged with charting a way out of this war, you have to navigate an obstacle course which underscores how tough that task will be. The route takes you through rings of steel, along soaring slabs of concrete walls, inside the gates of the old interior ministry still painted in camouflage colours, until you reach a multi-storey building now emblazoned with birds of peace. Beyond its old, black-padded metal doors are freshly painted cream-coloured rooms, buzzing with a new sense of purpose.
At the start of last week, the US’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, landed in Kabul to resume his peripatetic shuttling between capitals as the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. Grounded for weeks in Washington, he had been assisting a new administration grappling with the deal President Trump’s team signed last year with the Taliban. It is meant to see the last of 10,000 US-led Nato forces leave by the end of April in exchange for Taliban security guarantees that many now doubt, and facilitate a peace process which has made little progress in the Gulf state of Qatar.
“The US will leave responsibly,“ says Naderi at the peace ministry. Like most government officials, he is palpably relieved that the Biden team is taking a hard look at a deal which shut out the government of President Ashraf Ghani, whom the Taliban dismiss as American puppets or “the Kabul administration”.
“War destroys like this,“ Naderi explains with a gesture resembling a sledgehammer blow. “Building peace takes much longer.”
But time is fast running out. The Afghan-born Khalilzad, kept on by the Biden team to see this through, has been energised by an expedited plan to try to end the war through negotiations. It’s still under discussion, and under wraps, but sources in Kabul say the plan is understood to include a revised earlier outline of a proposed “transitional government of peace” and an international conference that is being called a “Bonn 2”.
In late 2001, as the Taliban retreated and US-led Afghan forces advanced, Afghan representatives had gathered in an elegant castle in the German city of Bonn to forge a new interim political order. Then, the Taliban were excluded; two decades on, if they agree to this blueprint, they will make it clear they are coming to the table as victors, as their fighters control or contest a growing number of districts across a broken land.
The gathering is expected to include major powers in the region and beyond, and prominent Afghan figures including infamous warlords of battles gone by. The UN is again expected to play a role, but the venue will be different. Many are vying to host it, but the current bet is Turkey.
This weekend, Khalilzad is briefing the Taliban negotiating team based in Doha, after updating members of the government side staying in the same luxury resort on the Arabian Sea that has served, since last September, as the venue for the on-off peace talks.
“They should leave,” said the Taliban negotiator Abbas Stanikzai when I recently contacted him to ask about the 1 May deadline for foreign forces. The Taliban insist they have kept their commitments under the deal and are serious about peace, including all the rights of women provided within Islamic law.
Observers believe the Taliban may back down on their threat to intensify the war in exchange for hefty concessions, as well as the release of thousands more prisoners in government jails and the easing of international sanctions, both of which were contemplated in the February 2020 deal. Ghani will also need a great deal of persuading. In an interview last month, he conceded that his own five-year tenure mattered less than peace, but still insists he can only transfer power through elections – a demand unlikely to be accepted by the Taliban, who still speak of a “pure Islamic government”.
These are the “danger hours” in Afghanistan: on the streets where Afghans fear for their lives; in negotiations where all sides know the risk of an even more vicious civil war and, in a worst case scenario, a chaotic collapse of Kabul. The US is trapped in a vice. It wants to end its longest war and bring the last of its troops home; it wants to avoid an ignominious departure. “There’s a price for staying and a price for going,” is how one Nato official described a moment of no good options, only less bad ones.
And Afghans worry about the even steeper price they could pay for a peace cobbled together too quickly, or a war that only gets worse.
Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent and a presenter for BBC World News TV and the BBC World Service