New wave of Afghans seek a way out as fear grips Kabul

The capital’s citizens are caught in the middle again as the Taliban responds to increased US military pressure in its rural heartlands

Even six years ago, the words rang hollow. The Taliban’s “momentum has been reversed”, the UK’s General Adrian Bradshaw insisted to a room of incredulous journalists at the Nato headquarters in Kabul.

Violence was rising across Afghanistan, slowly yet undeniably. But the US and its allies had a war to end, a 2014 deadline for their departure, and a withdrawal under way; reality took second place to the schedule set by Washington.

At the end of last year, with deaths, attacks and Taliban control still on the rise, the top US general in Afghanistan told another room of journalists – possibly once again disbelieving, although this time I was not among them to judge – that “the momentum is now with the Afghan security forces and the Taliban cannot win”.

One of the most tragic aspects of nearly a decade covering conflict in Afghanistan is how intractable the war has become. After 17 years, the west still appears convinced that superior funds and military power can deliver victory, while the Taliban are equally convinced they can wait Nato and its allies out.

“The days of… the barbaric invaders on the pure soil of our country have come to a close, Allah willing, due to your 13-year jihad and sacrifices,” the group told its fighters in a 2014 statement.

And despite both sides intermittently embracing the idea of peace talks, both seem more focused on entering any negotiations from a position of military strength than finding a way to the table.

The price is paid by ordinary Afghans – who are dying in their thousands as civilians caught up in the conflict – and by fighters on both sides of the frontline, whose deaths generate no less grief merely because they signed up for war.

The scale of the attacks and the nature of the targets are damaging the hope that is a vital ingredient for strengthening a battered economy and pursing peace.

Map highlighting the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan

As those with money to leave increasingly do so – heading to Turkey or India, or risking their lives to try to reach Europe – there are ever fewer talented Afghans to work on rebuilding, and ever fewer options for those left behind. Many young men sign up to fight, on either side, simply to feed their family. “If you live in Afghanistan for all these years, you just realise it is going nowhere,” said Borhan Osman, an analyst with peace campaigners International Crisis Group, based in Kabul.

“At this point I see a whole wave of people leaving their country, especially the young and the educated, and it’s not that much to do with actual day-to-day security dynamics – more the overall erosion of hope in the future, the [lack of] confidence about prospects of peace.”

When I first worked in Afghanistan, in 2009, furious debates about corruption, civilian casualties and the other problems of the war were animated partly by a sense that the country could trace a path out of the conflict – if Afghans and their foreign allies would correct their course.

Current president Ashraf Ghani based his bid for power in part on the fact that, in his previous life as an academic, he had ostensibly written the guidebook for that recovery – a slim volume called Fixing Failed States.

Once in power, he struggled, mired in bitter political feuds and hampered by a weak economy, entrenched corruption and spiralling violence. Yet even as the war gathered pace in the rest of the country, and Taliban control expanded, the capital seemed relatively insulated.

There was violence, but it was infrequent enough that millions of residents could maintain a semblance of normality. It was a heavily militarised normality, bounded by blast walls and fear, but students still went to school and university, and people started businesses. Western nations still sent asylum seekers home, arguing that the capital and other areas were safe.

The aftermath of a suicide car bomb blast in central Kabul that killed 40 people recently.
The aftermath of a suicide car bomb blast in central Kabul that killed 40 people recently. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Yet over the past year the mounting pace of attacks, culminating in three that killed nearly 200 people last month, has shattered even that illusion, sparking protests from Afghans who wonder how they can trust a government unable to secure even its own capital.

When insurgents hit the Inter-continental hotel, they crippled a vital national transport link, killing pilots and other staff from a national airline. Flights with Kam Air are often the only way to travel between parts of the country now separated by Taliban or Isis territory.

Other recent attacks have hit the popular and well-respected American University of Afghanistan, a cultural centre and the headquarters of Roshan, Afghanistan’s biggest mobile phone company. A massive bomb hidden in an ambulance also killed more than 100.

The chaos and despair caused by these incidents may be one reason the Taliban targeted Kabul, Osman said. It showed their reach and capacity at a time when they are under increased pressure in their rural heartlands.

Since US president Donald Trump decided to boost troop numbers on the ground, Afghan forces and their western allies have responded to the Taliban’s growing reach and the rise of Isis by stepping up attacks and airstrikes: these have taken out leaders and reduced insurgent reach. American control of Afghanistan’s skies makes it impossible for the Taliban to launch a conventional military assault on Kabul.

But as the long years of this war show, even a much higher western military presence cannot guarantee security for the capital or peace for the country it is meant to govern.

Even in cities such as London and Paris, intelligence agencies find it impossible to prevent all attacks, and Kabul is many times more crowded, a short drive from insurgent strongholds, and dotted with Taliban supporters or sympathizers.

If the US commits to staying, and the Taliban remain determined to wait out its presence, all that remains for Afghans is the prospect of many more years of a war that has been grinding on in various permutations for nearly four decades. Little wonder they are losing hope and fleeing.


Emma Graham-Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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