Report

Fear and Uncertainty Grip Kabul

The Taliban pledge an orderly transition, but many residents are bracing for retribution.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
A Taliban fighter in Kabul
A Taliban fighter talks on a walkie-talkie in front of a mural in Kabul on Aug 17. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The Taliban have said they will not engage in retribution against former Afghan administration figures, but fighters from the group have been going door to door in Kabul since seizing the city Sunday, according to residents, searching for and in some cases interrogating people with perceived ties to the U.S.-backed government and others.

Gunmen are also stopping cars for spot checks across Kabul, prompting residents to remain mostly indoors and generally stoking the sense of uncertainty and panic. Some people heading to the airport earlier this week were stopped, searched, and had their passports seized and burned. (I reported from the city in the weeks leading up to the collapse of the Afghan government, leaving when the Taliban moved in.)

Most businesses, offices, schools, and universities remain closed, including shops and banks—bringing economic activity to a screeching halt. All commercial flights are grounded, and the civilian airport, trashed and looted on Monday by desperate crowds, is closed.

The Taliban have said they will not engage in retribution against former Afghan administration figures, but fighters from the group have been going door to door in Kabul since seizing the city Sunday, according to residents, searching for and in some cases interrogating people with perceived ties to the U.S.-backed government and others.

Gunmen are also stopping cars for spot checks across Kabul, prompting residents to remain mostly indoors and generally stoking the sense of uncertainty and panic. Some people heading to the airport earlier this week were stopped, searched, and had their passports seized and burned. (I reported from the city in the weeks leading up to the collapse of the Afghan government, leaving when the Taliban moved in.)

Most businesses, offices, schools, and universities remain closed, including shops and banks—bringing economic activity to a screeching halt. All commercial flights are grounded, and the civilian airport, trashed and looted on Monday by desperate crowds, is closed.

The Taliban leadership is yet to indicate how it will govern and who will lead whatever administration it forms. But senior Afghan political figures from the past two decades have formed a “coordination shura,” or council, to negotiate with the Taliban leadership in the hope of averting civil war.

Former President Hamid Karzai, along with Abdullah Abdullah, who led the republic’s peace talks team for a year of no progress, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord known as the “Butcher of Kabul,” were due to leave Kabul for the Qatari capital, Doha, on Tuesday. They were delayed by the ongoing closure of the airport but could get military transport to Doha, where the Taliban leadership has an office.

A source familiar with the political situation, who could not be named for his own safety, said the trio hope to form an interim government with the Taliban that will include all of Afghanistan’s disparate political players to prevent the emergence of an anti-Taliban insurgency, which would potentially plunge the country into years of factionalized fighting. Amir Khan Muttaqi, a former official of the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime, is believed to have met with the three men in Kabul on Monday.

“This shura will aim to bring everyone on board, all political figures, leaders of communities and regional constituencies. They will begin negotiations with the Taliban to pave the way for others to come on board to negotiate a broad-based, inclusive government,” the source in Kabul said. “If the next government is one-sided, if anyone is not included, then civil war will not end and factions will keep emerging to fight.”

Karzai, Abdullah, and Hekmatyar hope to secure Taliban cooperation to establish an interim government and ensure that violence does not resume while bringing all political, regional, ethnic, and religious players together, with the aim of staging an election “in six months to a year,” according to the source. The Taliban, however, have rejected elections and are unlikely to win a popular vote.

“Its aim is inclusivity for the next government. This is a golden opportunity for everyone, for the country to reach a political settlement and long-term stability,” the source close to the negotiations said. “The Taliban must know by now that they cannot govern the country alone; they tried that and failed. They need to bring everyone on board to make it work.”

Already, however, regional and ethnic leaders are gearing up for possible resistance to the Taliban, which swept through the country in recent months, seizing border crossings, overrunning districts and then provincial capitals, and finally entering Kabul on Sunday.

A security source said the Taliban had been determined to enter Kabul as battlefield victors, and their takeover had been enabled by the “coordination shura” trio’s decision to force Afghan President Ashraf Ghani from office, as he had become an obstacle to peace.

The Taliban had demanded Ghani leave office before they would declare a cease-fire. His refusal to resign was a source of deep frustration, not only for the Taliban but also for Afghan people desperate for an end to the violence, the source said.

“Ghani was saying he would continue to fight a Taliban takeover of Kabul, which just kept the war going,” another Afghan source familiar with the security and political landscape of the country said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Taliban was helped by Karzai, Abdullah, and Hekmatyar to put a stop to Ghani holding on to power—they collaborated to push him out.”

All three figures have lifelong involvement at the top of Afghanistan’s political structure. Karzai was president from 2004 to 2014, giving way to Ghani; Abdullah was effectively Ghani’s deputy.

Hekmatyar signed a draft peace deal with Ghani in September 2016 in what was hailed as a template for future agreements with the Taliban. His militias attacked U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2001, and they are widely believed to have joined with the Taliban’s insurgency. He fought other warlords during the civil war of the 1990s, killing many thousands of Kabul residents. He spent years in exile in Iran and Pakistan.

All three men are close to Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and effectively its leader these days. Baradar could potentially serve as Afghanistan’s new president. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has not been seen or heard from in public for more than a year; many observers believe he died last year of COVID-19.

A source in Pakistan who is close to Baradar said he was expected to arrive in Afghanistan soon to claim the victory over the United States and its allies.

As the trio of Karzai, Abdullah, and Hekmatyar plot Afghanistan’s political future, however, there are signs that leaders of ethnic communities and powerful regions could be planning their own assault on the new regime and therefore might not be so open to inclusion in a Taliban-led administration.

Ghani’s former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a charismatic Tajik who has been vocal in his condemnation of the Taliban and its backers in Pakistan, has returned to his roots in the Panjshir Valley after leaving Kabul as the government collapsed at the weekend. A photograph seen by Foreign Policy and believed to have been taken soon after Saleh arrived in the Panjshir shows him meeting Ahmad Massoud, the son of anti-Taliban resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Sept. 9 has been marked as Massoud Day ever since.

Atta Mohammad Noor, a former governor of northern Balkh province, and Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum—who together fled a Taliban advance on the key city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Saturday—emerged on social media to declare the fall of Kabul an orchestrated “conspiracy,” indicating their own defiance of the new reality in Kabul.

Meanwhile, many of the capital region’s 7 million residents feel trapped and afraid, spending their time trying to find a way out of the country, keeping essential documents related to their education and work with them, but fearful that Taliban checkpoint searches will reveal their association with the international military. Many people who feel vulnerable to Taliban retribution are changing location daily, along with their families. Some have deleted their social media accounts.

Kabul residents said crime is already on the rise in parts of the city, including robberies conducted by people disguising themselves as Taliban fighters.

At checkpoints once manned by the capital’s so-called ring of steel military-grade security, police and army have disappeared, replaced by Taliban gunmen. Some were seen with weapons and vehicles purloined from the Afghan military—supplied by the United States.

Most embassies are shuttered, except for those of China, Pakistan, and Russia. An official at the Russian Embassy, speaking anonymously, said the compound had been secured by Taliban guards who had “assured us they will secure the mission.” He said the situation was “normalizing” compared to the chaotic scenes that immediately followed the government’s collapse.

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

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