Beyond Afghanistan’s ‘Graveyard for the Living’

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

An Afghan security officer on duty outside the Karte Sakhi mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 20, 2019

After forty years of war, it can be hard to remember who all your enemies were and why. Fawzia Koofi, a former deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament who has struggled through the tides of rising and falling regimes, recalled the day when her father’s body was brought back to her village. Her father, Abdul Rahman, had also been a member of parliament, and after Afghanistan’s first Communist coup in 1978, led a delegation from his village into the mountains to meet with leaders of the budding armed resistance, the Mujahideen.

Instead of opening a dialogue, Rahman was kidnapped and murdered by the rebels as an alleged agent of the new regime. The shock of this act, and fear of the new brutality beginning to unfold, meant none of the villagers would go to collect his body. Rahman’s sister, devastated and outraged at the indignity of his being denied a proper Muslim burial, trekked into the mountains, with two reluctant male relatives, to retrieve his corpse.

The dark procession that returned Rahman to his final resting place is among Koofi’s first memories. To this day, she doesn’t know exactly who murdered him or why. These men with guns, angry and wild with new-found power, have been agents of chaos and indiscriminate killing for so long now. The very idea that there is a method behind the madness has long ago receded. The plagues that still daily befall Afghans—drought, locusts, infant deaths, tyrants, explosions—appear more the workings of a capricious deity than the political machinations of modern powers.


I’ve been going to Afghanistan since 1993 as, variously, a humanitarian aid worker, a legal adviser, a researcher, and a US government official. And I returned once more to Kabul last month to hear from Afghans who, I’ve found, have for the most part remained vibrant survivors despite the scars they carry, after decades of conflict, of grief, guilt, and sacrifice. The scale of loss over forty years is enormous on the individual level, and calamitous at a societal level. In that time, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been killed, more than one third of the entire population were either internally displaced or became refugees, and millions more have been casualties of malnutrition, land mines, and a lack of access to even the most basic health care.

But statistics don’t make peace, people do. This year has seen the most serious efforts since 2001 to get the US, regional countries, Afghan leaders, and the Taliban to sit down to discuss a future without war. Until the meltdown in Washington, D.C., over Trump’s Camp David invitation to the Taliban on the 9/11 anniversary week, it looked as though a breakthrough leading to the first round of peace talks between the Afghan government itself and the Taliban was imminent.

With potentially drawn-out Afghan presidential elections starting September 28, heightened violence, and a loss of trust on all sides, the resumption of peace talks is now in doubt for the foreseeable future. If the stalled negotiations do pick up again, the Afghans will return to the table weighing their gains and losses, and having reassessed how much more they are willing to sacrifice for a chance to set the tightly knotted enmities far enough aside in order to move forward. But making peace may be harder—or at least less probable—than continuing to fight. Even before President Trump’s bungled diplomacy undercut months of patient effort by his envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the notoriously doctrinaire Taliban have shown little taste for compromise. Their rhetoric, which always tends toward the histrionic, is now triumphalist.

Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad attending the Intra Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha, Qatar, July 8, 2019

Sitting in a darkened office in the heat of summer, Masood Karokhail, executive director of an NGO working on tribal politics, told me that the insurgent group sees itself as the victor, with little incentive to give ground: “The Taliban say, ‘We have defeated the strongest military alliance of all time, with faith.’ Why would they come down from that?” Having, in their view, liberated Afghanistan from the “infidels and their puppets” at enormous cost these last eighteen years, the Taliban believe that they will again assume the mantle of divinely guided rule. And if not handed it willingly, the Taliban believe they can take it by force. According to a former senior Afghan national security official who asked not to be named given the sensitivities of the process, the Taliban think: “If we force out the US, who is the Afghan government?”

But behind the bluster lies a more uncertain path for the Taliban. After all, they are “still sitting in caves avoiding drone strikes or under the thumb of Pakistan,” as one Western diplomat told me. A former Taliban official I met told me he’d learned his English in “Bagram University”—his euphemism for imprisonment at the large, infamous US military base north of Kabul. An archipelago of detention facilities from Guantánamo to Rawalpindi has both hardened and frightened many in the Taliban leadership. So long as the US and its allies continue to pay for the arming and salaries of the Afghan government security forces, the war could drag on for years. Even the brutal Soviet-backed President Najibullah survived for three years after the Red Army withdrew, and would likely have kept going had the Soviet Union not collapsed and its patronage disappeared.


The Taliban also remain deeply unpopular among a vast majority of Afghans, especially in urban centers where a new world that has blossomed since the Taliban and al-Qaeda were chased back into the hills after September 11, 2001. These changes to Afghan life are big and small, cosmetic and structural, but together they create a legacy of progress, The Achievements,as many in Kabul call them. Young Afghans participate in elections and social media, go to new cafés springing up all over, and dance in neon-festooned wedding palaces with the gusto of young people everywhere. The incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, a technocratic former World Bank official who is popular with young urban Afghans, is leading in pre-election opinion polls. The Taliban may have little sympathy for the mix of rights and freedoms, consumerism and conveniences, established under the government in Kabul, but their popularity will make them hard to dismantle.


The changes for women may be the most profound, and the prospect of any reversal the most alarming. Through the opening of educational opportunities and scholarships, through reserved seats in parliament and myriad civil society organizations, through posts as news anchors on national TV and leadership in national institutions like the Human Rights Commission and Afghan Red Crescent, women have not only returned to view in Afghanistan but are a driving force in its rebirth.

The extraordinary thing about sitting with women like Najiba Ayubi, the managing director of one of Afghanistan’s largest media companies, is that it isn’t extraordinary. Ayubi has worked her way up determinedly to help create a truly free and professional news media. Once, as she was about to publish a damning report about past atrocities, she received simultaneous calls from two of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords. Trying to suppress the investigation, one of the callers—a sitting vice president at the time—told her to stop trying to “make dead things alive again.”

Today, the press is under attack more than ever. Afghanistan was the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2018. Entering Killid Media’s offices requires passing around blast walls and through heavy steel gates. Inside, the compound is bustling, looking like an Afghan version of Broadcast News, with Ayubi’s land line and several cell phones in a constant state of agitation. Just as she pours us tea (no discussion is possible without it in Afghanistan), a huge bomb goes off not far away, rattling the building and its occupants. They are trained to expect complex attacks involving suicide bombers and gunmen who rush in behind them, and staff went scurrying as we were ushered up to a makeshift safe-room. Once Ayubi made sure the attack was elsewhere—it proved to have been an attack against a nearby police facility, leaving fourteen dead and 145 wounded—and that her people were covering it, the conversation turned to stopping the war. She worries that these “twenty years of change have been slow, but it will look sudden to the Taliban.” Ayubi accepts that “peace has a price! I just don’t want it to be too expensive.”

It is perhaps in talking to these women that one sees both the hope for peace and the dilemma involved in realizing it. “I would never talk to the Taliban if it were my personal choice,” Koofi told me. “But we need to move forward.” When the Taliban were in charge last time, she said, “Kabul was a city with human beings but they didn’t breathe.” We can’t allow another “graveyard for the living.” Shaharzad Akbar, the new chairperson of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, relayed to me that a colleague had told her the goal of the negotiations should be to “give the Taliban fish, but not the rod.” She believes that “we must keep the institutions, the constitution. We can’t keep starting from scratch.”


In 1978, Shahmahmood Miakhel was a university student, and went to a protest march with some friends. “It wasnew for us to see a demonstration against the government.” The situation was much more fragile than he had understood. Two days later, the communist faction that organized the protest led a coup against the government. The initial idealism quickly turned to misery.


“The new regime failed to govern the country due to their inexperience and ideology,” he told me. “They started to dismiss experienced government officials and arrest them.” Shahmahmood’s father, a civil servant, was forced to flee into the mountains to avoid arrest by a zealous new district governor. Their valley, which would become an infamous center of resistance to the Soviets (and the Americans), was fire-bombed. The family fled again, this time to Peshawar, Pakistan, and there Shahmahmood became a journalist. “Since then I have witnessed countless moments of fighting, killing, and tragedies.”

Shahmahmood eventually returned to Afghanistan, and today he himself is a governor—of Nangarhar Province, home to the crucial Khyber Pass border crossing into Pakistan, as well as the Tora Bora caves where al-Qaeda fought its last stand. The province is one of Afghanistan’s richest—and most contested—pieces of territory: a Silk Road hub where traders have made fortunes and empires last stands. Proximity to Pakistan is a mixed blessing for the people of Nangarhar. Since 1979, Pakistan has played host to a succession of Afghan rebel movements and other extremist groups, from the anti-Soviet Mujahideen to the Haqqani network to the Taliban—and many in the latter’s leadership, known as the Quetta Shura, still reside there. This provision of sanctuary and support from Pakistan (and Gulf allies) has been a major factor in keeping the Afghan war going.

Shahmahmood is an optimistic social media presence, tweeting about traffic, raids on bomb-making safe houses, elections, corruption, and the superior ice-cream in the provincial capital. His busy schedule involves a constant round of meetings with village elders and local dignitaries, touring construction sites, and so on. He’s found his calling in trying to show people that the government cares about them and can get things done. This puts Shahmahmood in the Taliban’s crosshairs; the group has a long-running campaign of assassinating local officials, to disrupt the government’s work and intimidate other civil servants.

Even so, Jalalabad, the provincial capital, is bustling, safer than it has been in ages. “We’ve driven the Taliban out of almost every district in this province—including one they’ve held for twelve years.” Shahmahmood said. From his personal experience, he noted, the scale of US armed forces staying on is far less important than continued financial backing and hardware, especially for the Afghan government’s own security forces. “You can see that Afghan forces took responsibility for the war after 2016 and have proved that they are capable,” he said. With enough support, government control of parts of the country like Nangarhar can endure, in his view, in part because the Taliban does not have a strong foothold among the people, but will take advantage if “corruption and tribal infighting creates space for them to come in.”

For years, his message to the UN, NATO, and the Afghan government has been: “the Taliban are not strong, the government is weak.” Yet he, too, is ready to include the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghan political life. Last year, the district governor who tried to arrest his father in 1978, driving them from their home for decades, was a guest at Shahmahmood’s house. “How else can we make peace? We need such kind of tolerance now.”


Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan employees of the Independent Election Commission checking biometric devices in preparation for the upcoming presidential election, Kabul, Afghanistan, September 16, 2019

One question—so fundamental yet so uncertain—permeated every conversation I had in Afghanistan: Do the Taliban want peace? Will they really share power, or are they simply stalling for time? Years ago, in the early days of the US-led war in Afghanistan, American military commanders would joke that “we have all the watches, but the Taliban have all the time.”

The sharpest impetus for the progress on peace this year, and the greatest threat to its unravelling, have both come from the same source: President Trump. For months, people in Kabul have fretted about the “Tweet of Damocles”: a sudden social media announcement from Trump that the US military is pulling out. This anxiety loomed behind the frenetic vigor with which Ambassador Khalilzad has pursued the negotiations. The expectation of a withdrawal sooner rather than later also explains why the Taliban appear, so far, to have given up very little, yet stand to gain so much.

In the end, it was a different set of tweets from Trump—calling off his high-stakes bid to engineer a historic photo op at Camp David with the Afghan president and Taliban leaders—that has now thrown the entire strategy into doubt. Will his unfulfilled 2016 campaign promises and the American public’s growing exhaustion with the “forever wars” push Trump to draw down US forces by November 2020 without a deal? Or will fears of a growing ISIS threat in Afghanistan, or of a government collapse, force Trump to keep troops in Afghanistan unless or until the Taliban makes serious concessions?

Trump’s unpredictability poses a dilemma for the Taliban: their policy of “strategic patience,” waiting it out on the assumption that the Americans’ will to underpin the Kabul government with blood and treasure will eventually run out, now faces severe tests. The specter of a Syria-like breakdown and the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan haunts the Taliban as much, if not more, than it does the Afghan government. And the US air offensive against the Taliban over the last two years has been relentless, dropping three times as many bombs per year over the last two years as fell during Obama’s second term.

On September 11 this year, after declaring the peace talks dead, President Trump promised to “hit our enemy [the Taliban] harder than they have ever been hit before.” For this pattern of engagement, the US doesn’t need a big force of troops in Afghanistan. The pilots flying the Air Force’s armed drones can sit in trailers in Arizona. Without a peace deal, the more the Taliban come out into the open, the less safe they will be. Still, once this brief burst of presidential attention has passed, hitched, as it is, to the Fox News cycle, the US drawdown may continue regardless of any peace deal—and the Taliban will slowly but surely gain control of more territory.

It was Afghanistan’s well-heeled foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani, the son of a famous jihadist leader, who first used the V-word with me. “I’ve been reading accounts of the Paris Peace talks, and the secret deal that was made by Kissinger with North Vietnam,” he said. “Kissinger said that they should wait a ‘decent interval’ before taking the South.” The unpopularity of the war and political challenges at home exerted pressure to conclude a weak agreement. Nixon had become convinced that South Vietnam couldn’t be saved, but that too rapid a collapse would be unseemly. Was the US negotiating strategy with the Taliban really just to secure a “decent interval” between the withdrawal and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban?


In the east and south of the country, where both the Taliban and more traditional Pashtun village life still hold sway, a shift to Taliban rule may be little more than a formality. Sitting in a cramped office buzzing with flies and a feeble fan, Mullah Faizan, a former Taliban deputy minister now working for an organization that runs madrassahs in the east of the country, told me that “the fathers of children in the Taliban and government are praying together” in his province. He reminisced about the service-minded approach the Taliban took during their time running the country: “The minister of public works came to a construction site and picked up a shovel. Where is the sacrifice, the accountability, of government leaders today?”

Talking to former Taliban officials in Kabul feels a little like meeting the ex-members of a cult who still believe that the prophesies of its charismatic leader may one day come true. They are reformed, getting along in society, but they view a return of the Taliban to power with a mixture of awe and trepidation. Will they be rewarded for keeping the faith under cover or treated as traitors for collaborating with the infidels? Faizan insists that once Taliban justice is meted out and the corrupt swept from power, people will again respect Islam, law, and Afghan culture. It sounds more inquisition than kumbaya.

Some power-brokers are already starting to prepare by building strength for the conflict to come or by exploring their own deal with the Taliban. One of Afghanistan’s most powerful men, Muhammad Atta Nur, appears to be contemplating both courses. After about an hour of talking in general terms about the unfolding peace process in a grand room with stuffed chairs, painted portraits, and a flow of guests coming to pay respects, we moved to a small room, and the mood changed. Atta, a former Mujahideen commander turned warlord, provincial governor, and entrepreneur, has been a favorite with the US and other NATO generals over the years; today, he is believed to be one of the richest men in Afghanistan. Atta is the closest thing Afghanistan has to a King of the North.

In a TV interview this summer, Atta said he would sooner join the Taliban than join a government that wins a rigged election. Such switching of sides has been an important feature of Afghanistan’s recent intertwined wars, making the prospect of rapid reversals of fortune very real. Though Atta’s comments were seen by most as election-season bombast, they came at a moment when many prominent Afghans were being directly approached by the Taliban, like headhunters. “The Taliban have established an ‘Absorption Committee,’” one prominent government official explained, showing me a text message from a senior Taliban figure who asked the official what he’d want to do in a future government.

Atta told me that after so much war, he will dedicate himself to peace, and that he, and perhaps the Taliban, are both willing to make real concessions. Even if the Taliban want peace, and are willing to compromise, many Afghans believe that their country is subject to forces and agendas far beyond their control. After forty years of war, Afghans have an endless number of theories to explain why things have gone wrong for so long, and why it is so hard for them to make peace with each other.

“Have you heard of the largest gas field in the world, between Qatar and Iran?” Atta asked me, referring to the South Pars/North Dome formation that holds nearly 20 percent of the world’s known gas reserves. He explained that it is shared, “so whoever takes the gas out faster will be billions richer. If Qatar can spend $100 million destabilizing Afghanistan and slowing Iranian gas distribution, it’s worth it to them.” Qatar is where the Taliban have established their political offices, and where the negotiations for the US have been unfolding this year. While conspiracy theories tend to get in the way of Afghans’ own accountability and agency, there is no question that the country’s closest neighbors, especially Iran and Pakistan, have interests in whatever settlement follows the long US-led occupation.


Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images

An Afghan soldier frisking supporters before a campaign rally of presidential candidate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the western city of Herat, Afghanistan, September 18, 2019

Sharing power won’t be easy. “To make peace, you have to make peace with yourself,” says Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive and longstanding No. 2 in Afghan electoral politics. He’s concerned that the current president, Ashraf Ghani, isn’t ready contemplate the type of power-sharing that would be necessary to end the war. He should know. Dr. Abdullah and President Ghani have been in a daily tug of war for the last five years, since forming a National Unity Government after a divisive 2014 election that suffered from major fraud and, as a result, lack of a definitive outcome. While most Afghans complain about how dysfunctional such a divided government is, its composition may serve as a guide for how a peace process could bring in the Taliban. Bringing former enemies inside a bigger tent can be rancorous and ineffective, but it beats chaos and armed conflict.

I first met Dr. Abdullah when he was working for the famed Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the closest thing Afghanistan’s freedom fighters had to a Che Guevara figure, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before 9/11. Always affable and dapper, Dr. Abdullah welcomed me to his office adorned with paintings by Afghan artists and hand-carved wood bookshelves with elaborate Islamic motifs. Back in 1995, the foreign minister at the time, an arch-rival of Abdullah’s, had forbidden me to take a group of visiting diplomats to meet Abdullah. But he somehow got a hold of our itinerary, arranged a lavish lunch in a government villa, and showed up unannounced. We joked about it now, but the incident had almost got me kicked out of the country by his peevish rival.

Dr. Abdullah recalled being a medical student in Kabul after the Soviet invasion. Life seemed good on the surface for a handsome young eye doctor, going to the cinema, enjoying a liberal lifestyle. But like many others, government abuses—arbitrary arrests and rumors of atrocities in the hinterlands—drove him first to Pakistan and then into the arms of a charismatic resistance leader. Now he’s running for president again, but says he’d give up the elections for a shot at peace. He doesn’t trust the Taliban, but he is convinced that “we can find solutions”—so long as the US and Afghanistan’s neighbors also support peace.

After so much tumult, it can be hard to find heroes in the Afghan story. Dr. Abdullah is commonly criticized as a vain politician who worries more about his wardrobe than the travails of ordinary Afghans. And his party, like all the factions in this endless war, have yet to answer for their part in the carnage that has killed so many civilians over these forty years. Because so much has been taken from them, few leaders ever emerge who are willing to give up what they have—or could have—for a greater cause. I’ve heard Afghan political society likened to a barrel of crabs, each one using more energy to pull others down than to help everyone escape the pot.


Fawzia Koofi, meanwhile, was banned from running for parliament in the last election by the Afghan electoral complaints commission after she was accused of association with illegal armed groups. (She denies the allegations, and the Afghan election commission was itself subsequently fired en masse for corruption.) Since losing her husband to tuberculosis in a Taliban prison, Koofi has raised her daughters as a single mother and politician. “I often tell my girls they can’t go out on a particular day, because of a bad dream I had,” she joked. “No wonder they want to study abroad.” When Koofi was invited to Moscow to a dialogue with the Taliban earlier this year, her daughter pleaded with her not to go. “They don’t deserve your presence, your dignity,” she told her mother. But Koofi felt she had to go.

“Meeting them—actually facing them up close—was not easy,” she admitted. “The memories came flooding back.” After she lost her husband, the Taliban came to call. “They came into our home and destroyed the video tape of our wedding.” And she knows that her political career has in the past made her a target for assassination. The imperative of reconciliation is stronger, though, in her judgment—and she recited to me a Persian proverb: “You cannot wash blood with blood.”

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