Report

‘This is the Darkest Moment’: Afghans Flee a Crumbling Country

The educated middle classes that were meant to be the foundation of a new Afghanistan are tired of terror, insecurity, and the return of the Taliban.

Photographers, including Jawad Jalali, take shelter as a new explosion is heard while photographing an attack in Kabul in this archival photo.
Photographers, including Jawad Jalali, take shelter as a new explosion is heard while photographing an attack in Kabul in this archival photo. Courtesy of Jawad Jalali

KABUL—The dusty city below and its snow-capped mountains whizzed by in a blur. Clutching his light blue passport, Jawad Jalali’s eyes filled with tears as the roaring engines lifted the plane higher into the sky. Leaving Afghanistan wasn’t easy for the 30-year-old photojournalist. 

“War is so ugly,” he said. “It takes everything from you. Your job, your security, your hopes, and your dreams.”

After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the United States is on the verge of packing up and leaving—and it isn’t the only one. The past year, and especially recent months, have seen unprecedented violence across the country and particularly in Kabul. Since September 2020, Afghanistan has seen around 200 assassinations, an Afghan security official said. Journalists have been singled out, with 132 violent incidents in the last year, according to the Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee, with seven Afghani journalists killed and another 18 injured. Nationwide, terror attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces are as bad as they’ve been since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Last year alone, more than 3,000 civilians were killed, according to the United Nations. Civilian casualties have surged since the start of peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government. 

Residents in Kabul are now accustomed to waking to the sounds of yet another explosion, often magnetic sticky bombs attached to cars and then detonated. They try to suss out the patterns of attacks, avoid rush hours, or simply stay home. 

Even staying at home for Jalali wasn’t an option any longer. When a rocket attack hit his neighborhood in late November 2020, the steady drumbeat of assaults and insecurity pushed him over the edge. 

Jalali at work in XXXX, Afghanistan, on Feb. 13 as chief photographer for an international press agency.

Jalali photographs the new railway project in Hairatan, Balkh province in 2016 that connects the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan with the Uzbekistan border.Courtesy of Jawad jalali 

“They were landing close to my house. I grabbed my children and ran for the basement,” he recalled. “From that moment on, I knew there would be no particular front line, that anywhere—even the windows in my house—could become a direct threat to my family’s life.”

Kabul, he said, has become Afghanistan’s most dangerous city. He traded a good job, a big house with a garden, and a Mercedes-Benz for cramped quarters in Turkey. “We left everything behind, heading to a foreign country without a job, where we know neither the language nor the people. It shattered my soul.”

Like Jalali, hundreds of Afghans in Kabul have packed up in recent weeks and months. Many are journalists, government workers, human rights defenders, and aid workers—the educated middle class who the United States invested in with scholarships and education over the past two decades to help revive the country. They once lived comfortably in the Afghan capital until it got too dangerous. As the United States is giving up, it is leaving to save its soldiers’ lives. 

“This is the darkest moment since 2001,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, referring to both an uncertain future and the spike in recent attacks.

Security forces stand outside Slice Bakery in Share-Naw in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 21, 2020, where one of 23 rockets hit, damaging a delivery van and injuring several people. This attack prompted Jawad Jalali to relocate his family to Turkey.

Security forces stand outside Slice Bakery in Shahr-e Naw in Kabul, on Nov. 21, 2020, where one of 23 rockets hit, damaging a delivery van and injuring several people. This attack prompted Jawad Jalali to relocate his family to Turkey. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

The surge in violence comes as peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been stalled for more than a month, but peace talks picked up again on Monday—with a looming May deadline for the withdrawal of the last 2,500 U.S. troops in the country, under the terms of a pact worked out by the Trump administration. The Biden administration, urged by a high-level, congressionally mandated report, appears inclined to keep troops beyond that deadline. Either way, the country’s prospects look bleak.

Currently, the Taliban controls about half of Afghanistan. If the United States fails to withdraw in May, many expect an increase in violence, including against foreign targets. The Taliban said in a statement to NATO that “the continuation of occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of your and our people.” 

Jalali, background, photographs the evacuation of soldiers wounded in the battlefield in Kabul in an archival photo.

Jalali, background, photographs the evacuation of soldiers wounded in the battlefield in Kabul in an archival photo.Courtesy of Jawad jalali 

But U.S. departure carries its own risks. Many in Afghanistan fear that if U.S. troops pull out before a final deal is struck between the militants and the government, there could be a violent takeover or a descent into warlordism. The specter of the 1992-96 civil war looms large, and it threatens to undo what progress has been made in the last two decades.

“Many Afghans returned after 2001, invested in careers and lives here. Many had the means to leave after the large-scale U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014 but decided to stay and fix things,” Akbar said.What’s heartbreaking now is that those are the people leaving today. It sends a message of real despair.”

The exodus is rampant. Massoud Ahmad Niaz, 37, decided together with his wife, Brashna, to relocate the family to neighboring Pakistan. He wanted to settle elsewhere, but money was scarce and Pakistani visas were not. He worked as a mechanic for U.S. armed forces for nearly two decades. But Massoud’s special immigrant visa to the United States—a program that helps resettle families who worked alongside U.S. troops—was denied, without explanation, by the Trump administration last year.

Massoud Ahmad Niaz sits at his home with his family on Jan. 28.. Massoud, who worked for U.S. forces as a mechanic for many years says he doesn't feel safe anymore and has applied for a visa to Pakistan.

Massoud Ahmad Niaz sits at his home with his family on Jan. 28. Niaz, who worked for U.S. forces as a mechanic for many years, said he doesn’t feel safe anymore and has applied for a visa to Pakistan. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

Brashna explained that it had been months since her children had been allowed to play outside. “It’s a kind of prison for them, but we want the best for them. The violence is just too high,” she said. “I want them to experience a normal childhood, to grow up in peace.”

“I served the Americans, but they have let me down,” Massoud said, sitting in his Kabul apartment, still fretting over his flawless visa recommendation from a former U.S. supervisor and looking at photos of him with U.S. soldiers. “I barely sleep at night. An escape to Pakistan has become our only option. Afghanistan is no longer safe. If the Taliban returns, there is no place for us.”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist and photographer who reports on conflict and humanitarian crisis. Twitter: @stephglinski