Last exit from Afghanistan | New Yorkers

Then in 2014, a U.S. soldier showed up at his cell and told him he was being transferred to house arrest in Qatar. He and four other Taliban leaders were replaced by Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who had been taken prisoner five years earlier. Khairkhwa did not know much about Qatar, but his guards assured him that it was a Muslim country. As it turned out, life was easy there; his wife and children joined him and he had an apartment, all expenses paid by the Qatari government.

Just as Khairkhwa was settling down, he was summoned again: he had been elected to negotiate on behalf of the Taliban for an Afghan peace settlement. Shortly afterwards, he met for the first time with his American colleagues – diplomats instead of soldiers. “Suddenly I was negotiating with the same people who had imprisoned me,” he said. “It’s a very strange feeling.”

US troops gather for an operation at Forward Operating Base Kalagush in Nuristan in 2008. In the coming years, the US force in Afghanistan grew to about one hundred thousand soldiers. About twenty-five hundred are left.Photo by Adam Ferguson

In the current negotiations, US observers noted that the Taliban detained at Guantánamo appeared to be struggling to stay focused. “Their physical and mental resilience has clearly been affected by their time there,” the other senior U.S. official told me. Still, their team was daring. Before negotiators could work on substance issues, they had to draw up a code of conduct. The Taliban proposed that disputes be settled solely by Sunni Muslim case law. Government delegates insisted that Afghanistan’s Shia Muslim population was also represented. “We made it clear to them that we stood for the diversity of our community,” said Sadat Naderi, one of the negotiators. The Taliban – whose members had massacred Shiite civilians before 2001 – stormed out of the room.

Eventually, they returned to the negotiating table, but it did not go much better. “They told us we were dolls of the unbelievers,” Naderi recalled. “They told us the war was over.” Khairkhwa suggested to me that the 2020 peace agreement with the United States had established the Taliban as victors in the conflict. “We defeated the Americans on the battlefield,” he said. Hafiz Mansoor, a former Afghan government minister, accused the United States of giving the Taliban the impression that it had won the war: “By concluding the agreement, the United States legitimized them.”

In meetings, the two sides shouted at each other; Taliban leaders said the Afghan officials represented an illegitimate government, backed by infidels and bankrolled by Western money. “They were so arrogant,” Nadery said. “They thought they were just there to discuss the terms of surrender. They said, ‘We don’t need to talk to you. We can just take over.'”

Since 2001, the main arena of conflict in Afghanistan has been in the countryside: the government held the cities, while the Taliban fought to control the villages and towns, especially in the southern part of their heartland. But by the beginning of this year, the paradigm had begun to fall apart. The Taliban were fortified across the north; their shadow government had begun to creep into the cities.

In January, I visited the Qalai Abdul Ali district in western Kabul; it crosses the national highway which runs south to Kandahar. Taliban fighters, characterized by black turbans following down their backs, strolled through the streets. A decade ago, when there were nearly one hundred and fifty thousand American and NATO troops in the country, such a scene was unthinkable.

In Qalai Abdul Ali, the government was mostly in hiding. A group of police officers crawled down behind the Hesco barricades. The real authority, the locals said, was a Taliban called Sheikh Ali, who took me on a drive in the neighborhood. “I’m the mayor,” he said as he got into my car.

While we were driving, a truck from the Afghan army drove through without stopping. Police and other security agencies were not technically banned from the neighborhood, but those who entered risked attack. As Ali and I drove past a large, abandoned house on a hill, he pointed out the window and said, “Last year, we killed a judge who lived there.” We passed a tangle of twisted metal. “Here you can see we blew up an NDS vehicle” – a truck from the National Directorate of Security corresponding to the FBI

Ali, who was gentle but confident, told me that the Taliban in Qalai Abdul Ali collected taxes, provided security and patrolled the streets. Every truck that drove through – hundreds a day on the highway – had paid a toll to the Taliban. He presented a receipt for payment from a driver who had recently carried a truckload of detergent from Faryab province. The receipt, marked “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, was complete with a contact phone number and an email address. “The government is full of thieves,” Ali said. “We are the right authority.”

Residents of the neighborhood were not necessarily happy to see the Taliban take control, but they did not trust the government either. A former police officer named Sultan told me that in the years after 2001, he had thrown himself into his job, inspired by the local police chief, whom he considered competent and honest. But his colleagues blackmailed bribes from the locals; to be hired, he said, he was forced to hand over several months’ salary. Meanwhile, stories of corruption and illegal activities spread among the country’s leaders. They included bacha bazi-a tradition, practiced by warlords in the nineties, of keeping boys as sex slaves. Sultan showed me a video, which was circulating on social media, of a former Afghan official looking at a dancing boy. “It makes my heart black,” he said. Sultan gave up his job a year and a half ago after the Taliban assassinated the local police chief. Now he worked as a minibus driver. The Taliban patrolled the highway at night, all the way to Kandahar, saying, “The road is safe now.”

On the second floor of a house on Qalai Abdul Ali’s main street, I was sitting with three Taliban – middle-aged men who said they had been fighting since the Americans first arrived. The leader of the group called himself Hedyat; he had a scratched gray beard and leaned against a pillow and looked at me with narrowed eyes. Hedyat said succinctly that Taliban fighters had moved into the neighborhood two years ago from Wardak, an adjacent province. “The Taliban control the whole of Wardak now,” he said. “We can bring people from all over the country.”

These days, he said, Qalai Abdul Ali was so confident that the Taliban used it to stage attacks in other parts of the capital. “Oh, yes,” cried one of the other Talibs. Hedyat told me that his local group complied with the ceasefire with the Americans. But when I asked about making a deal with the Afghan government, he smiled scornfully. “We do not share power with anyone,” he said.

Freshta Kohistani was fifteen when the Taliban government fell and she thrived on the new freedoms. For the next two decades, she became an advocate for the poor in her ancestral province of Kapisa, north of Kabul, where she helped families find food and medicine. She carried herself in a defiantly modern way, driving her own car, walking around in jeans, smiling and asking direct questions to powerful men. She used Facebook to publicly demand better conditions; she divorced her husband when he discouraged her activism. “You can not imagine someone as brave as Freshta,” her brother Roheen told me. “She confronted our stupid traditional society.”

For years, Kohistani received threatening text messages, but she ignored them. So about a year ago, a group of men with knives surrounded her, and one of them chopped her side as she fled. In December, Kohistani asked the government to protect her. “I’m not a scared little girl,” she wrote in a Facebook post. But she was worried about what her family and her colleagues would “do in this ruined country after I left.” Twelve days later, as she and her brother Shahram were driving in Kapisa, two motorcycles pulled up next to them, and a man in the back shot them both and killed them. When I arrived at Kohistanis’ home, the family was still greeting mourners. Freshta’s father, Najibullah, said he was not sure who killed her, but that her death was similar to many others in recent months. “They are killing the elite,” he said.

“How long are we going to stand here so you can avoid talking to your neighbor?”
Cartoon by Yinfan Huang

As the United States negotiated its withdrawal with the Taliban, US officials made it clear that they expected suicide bombings and other massacre attacks to end. In their place, the Taliban appear to have launched a campaign aimed at terrorizing the educated elite, just as the Afghan government began its own negotiations. More than five hundred Afghans have been killed in targeted attacks in the past year, many of them shot or hit by “sticky bombs”, explosives placed under cars. Among them is Malala Maiwand, a female journalist in Jalalabad; Pamir Faizan, a military prosecutor; and Zakia Herawi, one of two female Supreme Court justices killed. A deep unrest has permeated the cities of Afghanistan. “I feel like I’m in a dark room full of people and I do not know who is beating me,” an official named Ali Farhad Howaida told me in Kabul.

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