“We expect worse days,” says Timur Hakimyar, director of the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society and a regular manifesto contact in Kabul, predicting dark times ahead.
According to Najia Ayoubi, “these are confusing, opaque moments, in which it’s not clear who is doing what.” Ayoubi is the director of The Killid Radio, an independent radio network with offices in eight provinces. She says she feels in danger: “This is the first time in 20 years that I really feel threatened. Both myself and my colleagues do.”
Journalists, activists, members of civil society, judges, government officials—there have been many targeted killings in recent months. A deliberate strategy that serves to weaken the government, to threaten free voices, to send signals.
But this strategy is without clear authorship: “No one is claiming them. The responsibilities are unclear. We don’t know who our enemies really are, there are areas of obscurity,” Ayoubi tells us in her office in the Karte-e-Seh neighborhood.
She mentions “200 female journalists who have left their jobs” in six months, she lists about 20 radio stations that have closed down. She describes anonymous threatening text messages colleagues received on their phones. The messages read more or less like this: “Under the guise of journalism, you are spying for foreigners. We will pay a visit to you soon.” Explicit threats, from unknown senders.
These are uncertain times, Timur Hakimyar says once again. Like others, he maintains that the country is in a new phase, one of transition. A phase of readjustment of power balances, internal and external. The withdrawal of foreign troops, which has been underway for some time, has triggered new dynamics. The peace process between the Taliban and the government in Kabul is stalled, even if in the last few hours the two delegations met once again. According to official statements, both sides want to accelerate the negotiation process. But we are only at the beginning.
In the next few days, we will see the effects of the latest efforts by Zalmay Khalilzad, the envoy chosen by Donald Trump and confirmed by Joe Biden. He just wrapped up four busy days of meetings here in Kabul. There are contradictory stories circulating about him. Some say he’s a careerist on his way to the Arg, the presidential palace.
Others say he’s a naive man who has been fooled by the Taliban. Khalilzad is the one who set up the diplomatic path that led to the Doha agreement in February 2020. In the text signed by both Washington and the Taliban, the latter made a generic commitment to sitting down at the negotiating table with Kabul and considering a ceasefire. What actually happened was that they stepped up their military offensive.
“The Taliban always said they were fighting against foreign soldiers. Now that the foreigners are gone, they still continue to fight. Why?” asks Hakimyar.
Given their intransigence, beliefs that the Taliban are being maneuvered by Islamabad are growing stronger. These are only partial explanations: oversimplifications. The network of powers, authorities and responsibilities is more complex. What seems clear is the wide gap between official declarations and the facts on the ground. The Taliban are reassuring with words, but they hit hard on the battlefield.
“When you enter a diplomatic process, you first accept a ceasefire, then you discuss,” notes Najiba Ayoubi in a polemical tone. “But if you keep choosing the instrument of war all the time, if violence grows just as you are pursuing dialogue, you’re not going anywhere.”
Strengthened by the agreement with the Americans, proud to have driven out the occupying forces, the Taliban are wielding military leverage to gain advantages at the diplomatic table. “But coming to power by killing civilians, becoming president of a country full of coffins, is not a good idea,” Ayoubi says. According to Hamikyar, one must be wary of “the tricks of the Taliban,” who are highly adept at maneuvering.
Others point out that the Taliban are so strong precisely because the government is weak: its lack of legitimacy leaves a large space for Koranic fundamentalists. An agreement between the two sides is still far away.
And a signature on a deal will not suffice, explains Ayoubi: “Signing a piece of paper will not create peace. There is the political process, of course, but there is also social peace. Here we have a society that has been at war for 40 years. In the last 20 years, both the government and the Taliban have been killing civilians. The families of the victims are demanding justice. If this issue is not addressed, the conflict will resume again and again.”