‘The Taliban Have Tracked Me’
In Logar province, just outside of Kabul, fear of a Taliban takeover rises.
POL-E ALAM, Afghanistan—Shaima Zargar, director of women’s affairs in Logar province, just south of Kabul, says that up until a year ago she dressed pretty much as she pleased. She certainly never wore a chadari, or burqa, the forbidding blue shroud that the Taliban forced all women to wear the last time they were in power.
Now, Zargar puts a burqa on wherever she goes.
“The Taliban have tracked me. I’ve been actively followed. I’ve received direct threats, and it’s all been over the last year,” Zargar said of the period since the Taliban signed an armistice with the Trump administration. That fear has only grown in the last few days since U.S. President Joe Biden announced he was pulling all U.S. troops out by the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, and NATO followed suit.
Her greatest fear right now is violence and a sense it may be impossible for under-equipped local government forces to hold off the Taliban, said Zargar, whose office has worked hard to ensure the rights of Logari women. “We’ve fought back against cultural practices and prejudices, but none of that matters if families are afraid to send their daughters to school due to fear of bombs and mines,” she said.
That fear is borne out in the numbers. According to the United Nations, the first quarter of 2021 saw a 37 percent increase in civilian casualties among women.
“The number of Afghan civilians killed and maimed, especially women and children, is deeply disturbing,” said Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.
In recent years, the United States has sought a “conditions-based” withdrawal from Afghanistan. From George W. Bush to Donald Trump, every president who has presided over the war has made reference to these nebulous conditions, which kept the resurgent Taliban on their toes.
All that changed last week when Biden officially announced the total pullout of U.S. forces, saying: “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result.”
But the lack of promising or stabilizing conditions is what worries most ordinary Afghans, since they are the ones actually living those conditions on the ground, including rising insecurity, a stagnate economy, and increased civilian casualties.
One need not look far from Kabul for proof that after two decades of foreign intervention, the situation in Afghanistan remains grim and the Afghan National Security Forces are left with an uphill battle. Logar province is a clear example of the kinds of challenges the Afghan government will be left to contend with from Sept. 12 onward.
With few economic prospects besides agriculture and some mining, which has seen the Taliban joining hands with local strongmen to illegally excavate chromite, security remains the primary concern.
“In Logar, everything is fighting. Always fighting, never development,” Abdul Qayum Rahimi, the provincial governor, said after listening to numerous voice messages from the province’s beleaguered security forces.
That insecurity has permeated every level of Logari society. Members of the Afghan National Security Forces say though the security situation has only worsened over the last year, Logar province still receives little attention from the central government and lacks basic supplies to hold the Taliban back.
“I asked for 15 kinds of ammunition and arms. I haven’t even gotten half of them yet,” said Samiullah, a police commander from Logar who has also served in provinces across the north and west of the country. He said when the guns he asked for arrived, only four of the 12 were usable.
“The enemy has mines and drones, and I can’t even get proper guns to my men,” said Samiullah, who like other military and police interviewed for this article did not want his full name used.
Other military sources said they lacked guns, ammunition, and even walkie-talkies. One fighter in a local uprising outpost outside the capital said it has been weeks that his men have had to ration their bullets.
This lack of basic weaponry, said Bilal, a soldier originally from the northern province of Takhar, has created a situation where the Taliban are able to enter and walk around the capital with ease. Bilal also said he has not been paid for the past eight months, even as the situation in Logar continues to become more dangerous.
“I will fight for my land to my dying breath, but how long can someone wait for what is rightfully theirs?” he said.
The 25-year-old soldier said he is lucky he is still single and his five brothers can support their family in Takhar, but he knows he’s not the only one who has gone for months without their pay. “I’ve talked to other soldiers and police. Most of them say they haven’t been paid two, three, even six months,” he said.
That, in turn, has led Afghanistan’s army and police officers to abandon their posts, Bilal said. “They don’t just desert the post; they take their weapons with them.”
Bilal said even if those runaways don’t hand their weapons to the Taliban and other armed groups, the arms they keep create a shortage for security forces on the front lines.
Nor is the current government able to ensure resources are distributed equally. “You will have one checkpoint that is fully stocked and then another one only a couple of kilometers away that has nothing. It makes no sense,” Bilal said.
All these facts appear to undermine efforts made by the Afghan government. In the days since Biden’s announcement, Afghanistan has tried to assure almost 40 million nervous Afghans that foreign troop departure won’t lead to a doomsday scenario.
“Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along, and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted shortly after Biden’s announcement.
Other Afghans worry about what future governance will look like. One of Zargar’s deputies, Belquis Siyar Sadat, said she is less concerned with the United States’ presence in the country than about proposals for a potential interim government as part of talks with the Taliban. “The presence or the absence of the U.S. after 20 years is irrelevant,” she said. “What truly matters is that the republic continues.”
Sadat said she fears she, and other women across Afghanistan, could be out of work if an interim government comes to power. “How do I know they will guarantee the opportunities and authority I have now?” she asked.
For the time being, Rahimi said Sadat and other women in Logar shouldn’t have to worry about employment prospects. “I promise you; I will fill every vacancy in the governor’s office with women,” he said.
Zargar said she is appreciative of Rahimi’s vision but fears that without security, it will be an untenable proposition. “Right now, 80 percent of girls drop out of school before the 12th grade, and it all has to do with security,” she said.
Official statistics are even more dismal. As of December 2019, at least 64 schools in Logar were closed due to insecurity. In Pol-E Alam, the provincial capital, and Mohammed Agha, the district closest to Kabul, gunmen were seen closing down schools in late 2019. Those closures, combined with gender discrimination, mean at least 50 percent of girls in Logar province have been unable to attend school.
“If there was security, believe me, the women of Logar would push and fight and lobby until they made up at least 50 percent of the provincial government,” Zargar said.
Such statistics are even more disconcerting given the emphasis the George W. Bush administration put on women’s rights in the weeks leading up to the 2001 invasion.
This is why both Bilal and Samiullah said the government must make a greater effort to support the men and women risking their lives for the nation if they want to eliminate the country’s enemies. All of the sources Foreign Policy spoke to said the February 2020 agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban has done little to curb violence in the country. This has raised questions about how genuine Washington has been in its efforts with the Taliban, especially when it comes to a nationwide cease-fire the government and people of Afghanistan have been pushing for.
Bilal said if Washington can’t be genuine about its intentions in Afghanistan, it may be better if the U.S. troops just packed up. “If we can get the Afghan people to unite as one, there is no enemy we can’t defeat,” he said.
Despite the setbacks, Rahimi remains undeterred. He insists on meeting with the people directly whenever he can. “It’s a challenge. I thrive on challenge,” he said after stopping to visit and take selfies with a group of young men playing a spirited volleyball game not far from the provincial headquarters.
“I will not let the people of Logar down,” he said.
Ali M. Latifi is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. He has reported from Qatar, Turkey, Greece, Washington, and more than a dozen provinces of Afghanistan. He has worked with Al Jazeera English, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Deutsche Welle.