Report

Afghans Caught in the Crossfire While U.S. Prepares to Clear Out

Despite ongoing peace talks, intensifying Taliban attacks on Afghans across the country are out of control—and threaten the country’s future.

An Afghan man cries beside the coffins of victims in a Taliban militant attack
An Afghan man cries beside the coffins of victims in a Taliban militant attack in Ghazni city, Afghanistan, on Nov. 9. Xinhua/Rohullah via Getty Images

When Ejaz Malikzada got home from work last Saturday, his wife was in tears and his father was so ill he had to be taken to the hospital. Both have begged him for months to quit his job, quit social media, keep a low profile, even leave the country—anything to avoid becoming a statistic in Afghanistan’s worsening war.

Malikzada, 26, works in the office of Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, the country’s former spy chief and an uncompromising critic of the Taliban. Since reaching a peace deal with the United States earlier this year, the Taliban have gone on a rampage—against Afghans.

As terrorist attacks and assassinations become more frequent—one car bombing early Saturday killed Yama Siawash, a 36-year-old former television presenter who’d just joined the central bank—Malikzada’s family fears he will be next.

The near misses are growing, he acknowledges, while his odds are growing shorter. But he remains defiant. “The more they do it,” he said of the Taliban’s attacks, “the more you want to raise your voice.”

In the two months since the Afghan government sent representatives to Doha, Qatar, to meet with Taliban leaders to discuss an end to the war, the violence has only intensified. 

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in its latest quarterly report says that “average daily enemy-initiated attacks … were 50% higher” in the July-September quarter than the previous three months, with 876 deaths. SIGAR said the “high figures are notable because they occurred during an ongoing peace process and despite Taliban commitments to reduce violence.”

Across the country, the story is the same, with attacks on Afghan forces, sieges of southern regions including Helmand and Kandahar, assassinations of officials and their relatives, and the inevitable collateral damage of dead and wounded civilians. 

Like many Afghans, Malikzada has lost friends, relatives, and colleagues in terrorist attacks over the years. He was on his way to a birthday party at the American University of Afghanistan on Aug. 24, 2016, when it was attacked by gunmen who killed 17 people. “I lost friends, teachers, a lot of the people who died were my friends,” Malikzada said. 

Weeks earlier, he was in Kabul’s Deh Mazang Square when an attack on a protest march of ethnic Shiite Hazaras killed almost 100 people. “I was in the middle of the roundabout and had to carry dead bodies and wounded people,” he said.

He wasn’t far from his boss’s office on July 28 last year when a suicide bomber detonated a car full of explosives, destroying the building and killing at least 20 people. He often used to see Fatima Khalil, 24, who worked for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in a local cafe until she and her driver were murdered in a bomb attack on June 27 this year.

“Every new attack is a reminder of past traumas,” Malikzada said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and NATO coalition that has maintained a military presence in the country since 2001 is pulling up the stakes as the United States plans to withdraw all of its troops by early next year.

“As the international community, do you even care?” Malikzada asked. “What are they going to do for us beyond offering ‘heartfelt condolences’? That does nothing. It is just empty words. It is increasing pressure on us to give up.”

When the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement on Feb. 29 that led to the talks between Kabul and the insurgents in mid-September, the Taliban agreed not to attack U.S. forces, and the United States agreed to pull troops out. 

Though the Taliban have largely avoided attacking U.S. forces, they have redoubled their attacks on Afghan troops and civilians. SIGAR noted that senior U.S. officials, including then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have said “the level of Taliban violence was ‘too high,’ contrary with the Taliban’s broader commitments in the … agreement to reduce violence.”

SIGAR’s report, quoting the U.S. Department of Defense, accuses the Taliban of exerting a calculated level of violence against Afghan security forces that “it perceives is within the bounds of the agreement, probably to encourage a U.S. troop withdrawal and set favorable conditions for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.”

There is little doubt among the U.S. military and political establishment that Taliban leaders could curtail the killing if they chose—two short cease-fires this year demonstrated “the Taliban’s ability to exert command and control of their fighters,” the report noted.

Their failure to do so could put the whole peace deal in jeopardy. The Defense Department, according to SIGAR, believes violence has reached such an “unacceptably” high level that “it could undermine the agreement.”

Few Afghans would disagree with that assessment, though they see no consequences for the Taliban’s continued attacks. The Doha talks are deadlocked as both sides play for time amid America’s own political impasse. The U.S. drawdown continues apace. Afghans continue to die.

As authority drains away from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who was excluded from the U.S.-Taliban talks, fears grow, too, that a Taliban return to power in Kabul will undermine what progress has been made since 2001 for women, rights activists, media, and minorities. 

Malikzada said he wondered if the attack in May on a Kabul maternity hospital, killing newborns and women in labor, was not enough to shut down the talks, what is?

“The purpose of the attacks is to spread fear. The odds of me becoming a target are growing, it is going to be me one day, but I’m going to keep fighting to do what I can,” Malikzada said.

“This is my home. I could leave, but why should I? I don’t see any way out of this, apart from fighting back. Leaving and giving up is not the way,” he added.

“I and people like me are the ones who are able to fight. If we leave, who picks up the fight?”

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist, author, and analyst. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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