Last Exit from Afghanistan

Dexter Filkins
The New Yorker
1 March 2021
Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?
As American troops depart winding down a twentyyear intervention Afghans are forced to reckon with the question of...
As American troops depart, winding down a twenty-year intervention, Afghans are forced to reckon with the question of whether their government can stand on its own against the Taliban.Photograph by Adam Ferguson

On the night of August 14th, Fawzia Koofi was on her way home to Kabul from the funeral of family friends. Koofi, forty-five, is one of Afghanistan’s leading advocates for women’s rights—a former parliament member who, in the twenty years since the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban, has carried on a ferocious public fight to reverse a history of oppression. She and her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Shuhra, were riding in an armored car, as they often do. A second car, filled with security guards, trailed behind. The guards were necessary; in 2010, Taliban gunmen had attempted to kill her.

As they neared Kabul, her driver pulled over to get gas, and Koofi decided to switch cars. “Sometimes the armored car feels like a prison,” she explained, when I visited Afghanistan in December. As they left the gas station, she saw a car behind hers, seeming to track its moves; she was being followed. While she watched, a second car veered into the road, blocking the lane. Koofi’s driver accelerated and swerved onto the shoulder, but, before he could get clear of the blockade, men in the other car opened fire. Bullets smashed through the windows and tore through her upper arm. The assailants sped away. Koofi was rushed to the nearest safe hospital, forty-five minutes away, where surgeons removed a bullet and set her shattered bone.

A month later, Koofi was due to represent the government in peace talks with the Taliban—the latest in a decade-long series of attempts to end the Afghan conflict. As she prepared, the mood in Kabul was unusually fraught. A wave of assassinations had begun, which has since claimed the lives of hundreds of Afghans, including prosecutors, journalists, and activists. Officials in Afghanistan and in the U.S. suspect that the Taliban committed most of the killings—both to strengthen their position in talks and to weaken the civil society that has tenuously established itself since the Taliban were deposed. “They are trying to terrorize the post-2001 generation,” Sima Samar, a former chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told me.

The peace talks began last September, in Doha, Qatar, a Persian Gulf microstate that sits atop the world’s largest natural-gas field. For seven years, Qatar’s leaders have hosted several of the Taliban’s most senior members in luxurious captivity, housing them and their families with all expenses paid. At the opening ceremony, delegates from the Taliban and the Afghan government gathered at the Doha Sheraton, in a cavernous convention space staffed by an army of guest workers. When Koofi walked into the lobby, she saw a group of Taliban negotiators. They were staring at her arm, which was still in a cast. Koofi smiled at them. “As you can see, I’m fine,” she said.

Despite Koofi’s assurance, the Afghan government was in a precarious position. For decades, it had been buttressed by U.S. military power. But, as Americans have lost patience with the war, the U.S. has reduced its presence in Afghanistan, from about a hundred thousand troops to some twenty-five hundred. Seven months before Koofi went to Doha, officials in the Trump Administration concluded their own talks with the Taliban, in which they agreed to withdraw the remaining forces by May 1, 2021. The prevailing ethos, a senior American official told me, was “Just get out.”

Afghanistan presents Joe Biden with one of the most immediate and vexing problems of his Presidency. If he completes the military withdrawal, he will end a seemingly interminable intervention and bring home thousands of troops. But, if he wants the war to be considered anything short of an abject failure, the Afghan state will have to be able to stand on its own.

At peace talks the delegate Fawzia Koofi was often the only woman in the room.
At peace talks, the delegate Fawzia Koofi was often the only woman in the room.Photograph by Adam Ferguson for The New Yorker

For Koofi and her fellow-negotiators, a question hangs over the talks: How much of the American-backed project, which has cost thousands of lives and more than two trillion dollars, will survive? Before the U.S. and its allies intervened, in 2001, the Taliban imposed a draconian brand of Islam, in which thieves’ hands were cut off and women were put to death for adultery. After the Taliban were defeated, a new constitution opened the way for democratic elections, a free press, and expanded rights for women. Koofi worries that the Taliban leaders, many of whom were imprisoned for years at Guantánamo, do not grasp how much the country has changed—or that they view those changes as errors to be corrected. “I want their eyes to see me, to get used to what Afghan women are today,” Koofi told me. “A lot of them, for the past twenty years, have been in a time capsule.” She hopes that a deal can be made to keep the Americans in the country until a comprehensive agreement brings peace. But she fears that the talks won’t be enough to save the Afghan state: “Even now, there are some people among the Taliban who believe they can shoot their way into power.”

The United States has spent more than a hundred and thirty billion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan. The effort has been beset by graft and misrepresented by Presidents and commanders, but in Kabul the effects were evident. High-rise apartment buildings remade the skyline, and the streets filled with cars; foreign aid helped create new jobs, and women began going to work and to school. After decades of civil war and repressive government, the capital became a rollicking international city. Diplomats, aid workers, and journalists gathered at a French restaurant called L’Atmosphère and a Lebanese place known as Taverna; after hours, they stumbled over to the bar of the Gandamack Lodge, named for a site where nineteenth-century Afghan tribesmen massacred British invaders. The Taliban were gaining strength in the countryside, but the cities flourished.

These days, assassinations and bombings have driven most of the foreigners away. Taverna closed in 2014, after a Taliban attack there killed twenty-one civilians. As American and nato troops have departed, blast walls, barbed wire, and armed checkpoints have risen to provide a semblance of security. The few Western visitors mostly stay at the fortress-like Serena hotel, even though American officials warn that the insurgent Haqqani network, an adjunct of the Taliban, is scouting the place for people to kidnap. At night, the streets are quiet. Twenty years into the American-led war, Kabul feels again like the capital of a poor and troubled country.

On a frigid evening in January, I paid a visit to Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President. I got out of my taxi at the edge of the security cordon, about half a mile from his office, and trekked past concrete barricades, armed guards, and machine-gun nests. At the center of the defenses is the Arg—a nineteenth-century castle, replete with towers and parapets, which houses Ghani’s administration. Inside, guards searched and X-rayed me, then confiscated my voice recorder and my phone. I was led to a waiting area, a chilly room with rock walls and marble floors, and finally to the office of the President. Ghani was at his desk, wearing a mask, alone. “Welcome,” he said.

Ghani, who is seventy-one, was born to an educated family near Kabul and went abroad as a teen-ager to study. He taught anthropology at Johns Hopkins and then spent a decade at the World Bank, in Washington, D.C., helping developing nations strengthen their economies. After the U.S. invasion, he returned to Afghanistan and threw himself into the reconstruction. Ghani has the cool demeanor of a technocrat, but he spoke passionately about giving up a stable career to work for his country. “I made my decision to come home, and I never looked back,” he said.

Ghani’s Presidency has been a long struggle. He came to power in 2014, in an election marred by fraud. He promised to unite the country but instead watched it deteriorate around him, as more American troops departed. When he won reëlection, in 2019, fewer than two million Afghans cast ballots. In the past year, he has seemed increasingly aware that his country’s future is being decided far from Kabul—first in the Trump Administration’s negotiations with the Taliban over an American withdrawal, and then in the Afghan government’s talks with the Taliban over the potential for peace.

When Trump decided to reach out to the Taliban, in 2018, he chose as his envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned diplomat and a native Afghan. Khalilzad had known Ghani since high school, when they played basketball together. But the two found themselves at odds over the country’s direction, and their relationship soured. In January, Khalilzad arrived for a visit, and Ghani declined to see him.

Trump was clearly desperate to make a deal that would allow him to say that he had ended the war. When the Taliban refused to include the Afghan government in the talks, the U.S. did not insist. The senior American official told me, “The Trump people were saying, ‘Fuck this—the Afghans are never going to make peace anyway. Besides, who cares whether they agree or not?’ ” As the talks progressed, Trump repeatedly announced troop withdrawals, depriving his negotiators of leverage. “He was steadily undermining us,” a second senior American official told me. “The trouble with the Taliban was, they were getting it for free.” In the end, the two sides agreed not to attack each other, and the Americans agreed to withdraw.

The Taliban had to meet a list of conditions, including preventing terrorists from operating out of Afghanistan and refraining from major attacks on the country’s government and military. But the prospect of insuring a total pullout was appealing enough that the Taliban began rooting for Trump to win reëlection. In one of the odder moments of the U.S. campaign season, they issued an endorsement of his candidacy. “When we heard about Trump being covid-19-positive, we got worried,” a senior Taliban leader told CBS News. (The group subsequently claimed that it had been misquoted.)

In my meeting with Ghani, he seemed abandoned, like a pilot pulling levers that weren’t connected to anything. He professed gratitude to the United States, but was clearly uneasy with the deal. Recently, he said, he had ordered the release of five thousand Taliban prisoners—“not because I wanted to, because the U.S. pushed me.” He feared a security disaster, as Taliban fighters returned to the streets and American soldiers left the country. “The U.S. can withdraw its troops anytime it wants, but they ought to negotiate with the elected President,” he went on. “They should call me. I’m the elected President.”

Many Afghans say that Ghani is to blame for his predicament, describing him as remote, vindictive, and surrounded by sycophants. A prominent businessman who meets often with senior government officials told me that, when Khalilzad reported that Trump had ordered a pullout, Ghani should have tried to win over his old friend. Instead, the businessman said, “Ghani went around town announcing his intention to destroy him.” I noticed that Ghani did not have a television in his office; he prefers to read transcripts of shows afterward. “He is delusional,” the businessman said. “He has no idea what the country thinks of him.”

Before talks Ashraf Ghani warned negotiators Dont bring home a bad deal.
Before talks, Ashraf Ghani warned negotiators, “Don’t bring home a bad deal.”Photograph by Adam Ferguson for the New Yorker

Ghani was still hoping that Afghanistan would retain its place in the minds of American policymakers. “All I need from the U.S. is four or five videoconferences a year,” he told me. But the Americans have given every sign that Afghanistan is no longer a major consideration. U.S. officials now see Ghani as an obstacle to a peace deal—wedded to the status quo, which keeps troops in the country and him in power. “Each step of the way, he’s resisting,” the senior American official said.

In 2018, the U.S. asked Ghani to appoint a negotiating team; it took two years—and the announcement of a billion-dollar cut in American aid—for him to complete the process. Before the current talks began, he assembled his negotiators for a historical seminar on persistent conflicts. He walked them through Colombia’s civil war, which lasted fifty-two years; Nepal’s, which lasted ten; and Sri Lanka’s, which dragged on for twenty-five. Ghani’s message was that long wars take a long time to end. When talks were convened to end the Vietnam War, he noted, it took nearly three months just to agree on the shape of the negotiating table. Whatever pressure his negotiators felt—from the Americans or from the Taliban—ought to be resisted, he said, instructing them, “Don’t bring home a bad deal.”

According to U.S. officials, the most favorable outcome of the talks is a ceasefire and an agreement to form a transitional government, with power shared between the Taliban and the existing Afghan government. The transitional government would write a new constitution and lay the groundwork for nationwide elections.

Ghani insists that compromise is dangerous. He was chosen by the Afghan people, in an election that was open, at least notionally, to every adult in the country. Why would an elected President hand over power to a group of unelected insurgents? “My power rests on my legitimacy,” he said. “The moment that legitimacy is gone, the whole thing implodes.”

The negotiators gathered in Doha at the Sharq hotel—a sprawling beach resort, owned by the Ritz-Carlton, with high-arched buildings set alongside ornately tiled pools. It struck some delegates as a peculiar place to end a war. “You walk around the hotel and people are swimming,” Koofi said. “Women are walking around in bikinis. And then you go inside a meeting room to talk about the fate of the country.”

At first, the loathing between the two sides was so intense that they bridled at standing together in the same room. “They wouldn’t even look at each other,” a Qatari official told me. After a couple of days, they sat down in a conference room, but even then some of the delegates found their anger difficult to contain. Three weeks earlier, Taliban gunmen had killed the nephew of Nader Nadery, one of the government negotiators. Nadery himself had been arrested and tortured by the Taliban in the nineties, when he was a student activist. “I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to leave the talks,” he told me. Another negotiator, Matin Bek, had lost his father to a Taliban attack ten years before; a third, Masoom Stanekzai, had survived three attacks in which bombs blew up his car.

The Taliban had their own grievances. Among their negotiators was Khairullah Khairkhwa, who helped found the Taliban and served as an interior minister in its government. In the chaotic days after the U.S. began attacking, in 2001, Khairkhwa negotiated to become a C.I.A. informant. (He denies this.) As the talks broke down, Khairkhwa fled to the Pakistani border town of Chaman. He was captured, put on a plane, bound and blindfolded, and flown to the newly opened prison at Guantánamo Bay. “The flight was endless for me, a journey to Hell,” he told me.

At Guantánamo, Khairkhwa said, he was denied sleep, handcuffed to chairs for hours, denied prompt medical treatment, and subjected to months of interrogation. There were occasional moments of tenderness, as when a female military-police officer slipped him earplugs, hidden in a roll of toilet paper, to help him sleep. Mostly it was boring.

In prison, Khairkhwa insisted that he was merely a bureaucrat in the Taliban’s administration. American prosecutors said that he was a military commander, who had helped foment a massacre of ethnic Hazara civilians—but much of the evidence was classified. In 2009, President Barack Obama gave a speech suggesting that cases like Khairkhwa’s belonged in an uneasy category: too innocent to charge, too guilty to free.

Then, in 2014, an American soldier appeared at his cell and told him that he was being transferred to house arrest in Qatar. He and four other Taliban leaders were being swapped for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who had been captured five years before. Khairkhwa didn’t know much about Qatar, but his guards assured him it was a Muslim country. As it turned out, life was easy there; his wife and children joined him, and he had an apartment, all expenses paid by the Qatari government.

Just as Khairkhwa settled in, he was summoned again: he had been chosen to be a negotiator on behalf of the Taliban for an Afghan peace settlement. Soon afterward, he met for the first time with his American counterparts—diplomats instead of soldiers. “All of a sudden, I was negotiating with the same people who had imprisoned me,” he said. “It is a very strange feeling.”

American soldiers assemble for an operation at Forward Operating Base Kalagush in Nuristan in 2008. In the coming years...
American soldiers assemble for an operation at Forward Operating Base Kalagush, in Nuristan, in 2008. In the coming years, the American force in Afghanistan grew to about a hundred thousand troops. Some twenty-five hundred remain.Photograph by Adam Ferguson

In the current talks, American observers noted that the Talibs who had been held in Guantánamo seemed to struggle to stay focussed. “Their physical and mental resilience has clearly been affected by their time there,” the second senior U.S. official told me. Still, their team was audacious. Before the negotiators could work on matters of substance, they had to devise a code of conduct. The Taliban proposed that disputes be decided exclusively by Sunni jurisprudence. Government delegates insisted that Afghanistan’s Shiite populace be represented, too. “We made it clear to them that we stood for the diversity of our society,” Sadat Naderi, one of the negotiators, told me. The Taliban—whose members had massacred Shiite civilians before 2001—stormed out of the room.

Eventually, they returned to the bargaining table, but things didn’t go much better. “They told us we were puppets of the infidels,” Naderi recalled. “They told us the war was over.” Khairkhwa suggested to me that the 2020 peace deal with the U.S. had established the Taliban as the victors in the conflict. “We defeated the Americans on the battlefield,” he said. Hafiz Mansoor, a former minister in the Afghan government, blamed the Americans for giving the Taliban the impression that they had won the war: “By making the deal, the U.S. legitimized them.”

In meetings, the two sides shouted at each other; Taliban leaders said the Afghan officials represented an illegitimate government, propped up by infidels and bankrolled by Western money. “They were so arrogant,” Nadery said. “They thought they were there just to discuss the terms of surrender. They said, ‘We don’t need to talk to you. We can just take over.’ ”

Since 2001, the main arena of conflict in Afghanistan has been the countryside: the government held the cities, while the Taliban fought to control the villages and towns, particularly in the south, their heartland. But by early this year the paradigm had begun to fall apart. The Taliban were entrenched across the north; their shadow government had begun to creep into the cities.

In January, I visited the Qalai Abdul Ali neighborhood, in western Kabul; it straddles the national highway, which runs south to Kandahar. Taliban fighters, distinguished by black turbans that trail down their backs, were strolling through the streets. A decade ago, when there were nearly a hundred and fifty thousand American and nato troops in the country, such a scene was unimaginable.

In Qalai Abdul Ali, the government was mostly in hiding. A squad of police hunkered down behind Hesco barricades. The real authority, the locals said, was a Talib called Sheikh Ali, who took me on a driving tour of the neighborhood. “I am the mayor,” he said, as he climbed into my car.

While we drove, an Afghan Army truck passed through without stopping. The police and other security agencies were not technically banned from the neighborhood, but those who entered risked attack. As Ali and I drove by a large, abandoned house on a hill, he pointed out the window and said, “Last year, we killed a judge who was living there.” We passed a tangle of twisted metal. “Here, you can see, we blew up an N.D.S. vehicle”—a truck from the National Directorate of Security, the equivalent of the F.B.I.

Ali, soft-spoken but assured, told me that the Taliban in Qalai Abdul Ali were collecting taxes, providing security, patrolling the streets. Every truck that passed through—hundreds a day, on the highway—had paid a toll to the Taliban. He produced a receipt for a payment from a driver who had recently carried a truckful of laundry detergent from Faryab Province. The receipt, marked “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” was complete with a contact phone number and an e-mail address. “The government is full of thieves,” Ali said. “We’re the real authority.”

The neighborhood’s residents weren’t necessarily happy to see the Taliban take control, but they didn’t trust the government, either. A former police officer named Sultan told me that, in the years after 2001, he had thrown himself into his job, inspired by the local police chief, whom he regarded as competent and honest. But his colleagues extorted bribes from the locals; to get hired, he said, he was forced to hand over several months’ salary. Meanwhile, tales spread of corruption and illicit activities among the country’s leaders. They included bacha bazi—a tradition, practiced by warlords in the nineties, of keeping boys as sex slaves. Sultan showed me a video, which was making the rounds on social media, of a former Afghan official ogling a dancing boy. “It turns my heart black,” he said. Sultan gave up his job a year and a half ago, after the Taliban assassinated the local police chief. Now he was working as a minibus driver. The Taliban patrolled the highway at night, all the way to Kandahar, he said: “The road is safe now.”

On the second floor of a house on Qalai Abdul Ali’s main street, I sat with three Talibs—middle-aged men who said they’d been fighting since the Americans first arrived. The group’s leader called himself Hedyat; he had a scraggly gray beard and slouched against a pillow, regarding me with narrowed eyes. Hedyat said tersely that Taliban fighters had moved into the neighborhood two years ago from Wardak, an adjacent province. “The Taliban control all of Wardak now,” he said. “We can bring people from all over the country.”

These days, he said, Qalai Abdul Ali was so secure that the Taliban were using it to stage attacks in other parts of the capital. “Oh, yes,” one of the other Talibs crowed. Hedyat told me that his local group was observing the ceasefire with the Americans. But, when I asked about making a deal with the Afghan government, he smiled scornfully. “We’re not sharing power with anyone,” he said.

Freshta Kohistani was fifteen when the Taliban government fell, and she thrived on the new freedoms. In the next two decades, she became an advocate for the poor in her ancestral province of Kapisa, north of Kabul, where she helped families find food and medicine. She carried herself in a defiantly modern way, driving her own car, walking around in jeans, flashing a bright smile, and asking direct questions of powerful men. She used Facebook to publicly demand better conditions; she separated from her husband when he discouraged her activism. “You can’t imagine someone as brave as Freshta,” her brother Roheen told me. “She was confronting our stupid traditional society.”

For years, Kohistani received threatening text messages, but she ignored them. Then, about a year ago, a group of men with knives surrounded her, and one of them slashed her side as she escaped. In December, Kohistani pleaded for the government to protect her. “I am not a frightened little girl,” she wrote in a Facebook post. But she was worried about what her family and her co-workers would “do in this ruined country after I’m gone.” Twelve days later, as she and her brother Shahram were driving in Kapisa, two motorcycles pulled alongside them, and a man on the back shot them both dead. When I arrived at the Kohistanis’ home, the family was still greeting mourners. Freshta’s father, Najibullah, said that he wasn’t sure who killed her, but that her death resembled many others in recent months. “They are killing the élites,” he said.

When the U.S. negotiated its withdrawal with the Taliban, American officials made it clear that they expected suicide bombings and other mass-casualty attacks to end. In their place, the Taliban appear to have launched a campaign aimed at terrorizing the educated élite, just as the Afghan government began its own talks. More than five hundred Afghans have been killed in targeted attacks in the past year, many of them shot or struck by “sticky bombs,” explosives placed underneath cars. Among them are Malala Maiwand, a female journalist in Jalalabad; Pamir Faizan, a military prosecutor; and Zakia Herawi, one of two female Supreme Court justices who were killed. A deep unease has permeated Afghanistan’s cities. “I feel like I’m in a dark room filled with people, and I don’t know who’s hitting me,” an official named Ali Howaida told me in Kabul.

The Taliban deny responsibility for the attacks, but Afghan officials say that many of them are orchestrated by the Haqqani network. Amrullah Saleh, one of the country’s two Vice-Presidents, told me that Taliban commanders, meeting in Pakistan, mapped out the campaign early last year. Saleh said that he passed a warning to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper before the United States made the deal with the Taliban. (The State Department says that it has no record of this.) “We told them exactly what was going to happen,” Saleh said. Pompeo and Esper were undeterred.

But not all the victims of assassination are enemies of the Taliban. In June, 2019, as Ustadh Abdul Salaam Abed was being driven to his office, a bomb blew off the back of his car and wounded him in the neck. Every week, during Friday prayers at the Osman Ghani mosque, Abed had been telling his congregation that Afghans had to reconcile. While he sometimes criticized the Taliban, he advocated dialogue; it was the government and its American supporters who were driving the violence, he maintained. At his house in Kabul, he gestured to his wound and told me, “I’m a hundred per cent certain the government did this.”

A growing number of Afghans believe that people inside the government are directing some of the killings. In August, a group of prominent former officials, many of whom are close to former President Hamid Karzai, wrote to Ghani alleging that there were “high-ranking officials who are credibly suspected of being involved in targeted assassinations.” The letter also accused a Vice-President and a deputy in the N.D.S. of “attempting to spread an environment of fear and terror among government critics and opposition figures.” A senior Afghan leader told me, “I don’t have proof, but there are people around Ghani who are determined to destroy the peace process.”

Ghani denied that anyone in his administration was behind the killings. Saleh, the Vice-President, dismissed the claims, saying, “They equated our lack of capability to stop the targeted assassinations with being complicit.” The senior American official told me that it seemed plausible that people in the government were behind some of the killings: “Why would the Taliban kill someone who supports the peace talks?” But, he added, with so few troops left in the country, the U.S. was struggling to gather reliable intelligence. “We don’t exactly know what’s going on.”

In January, General Austin Miller, the commander of nato forces in the country, flew to Doha to deliver a message to the Taliban: The assassination campaign was putting the deal with the Americans at risk. If the Taliban didn’t back off, the U.S. could resume attacks. The Taliban maintained that it had no obligation to reduce violence: “the Islamic Emirate has not committed itself to any such undertaking.”

At fifty-nine, Miller is compact, no-nonsense, and direct. When I arrived at his base, he was leading his soldiers in an hour of running and calisthenics, which, at nearly six thousand feet above sea level, were enough to tire a soldier half his age. He is a kind of living symbol of America’s post-9/11 wars. Since 2001, he has spent more than seven years fighting alongside Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he hunted members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban; in Iraq, he took part in the operation that killed the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He noted wryly that many of the Afghan leaders that he and his staff encountered, friend and foe, were already present when he first came to the region. “We’re dealing with their sons now,” he said.

Since 2002, American soldiers and officers have typically served tours of a year or less. With each rotation, new soldiers have to learn the country, and senior officers devise fresh plans. The result is that twenty years of effort in Afghanistan has meant twenty different campaigns. Miller returned to the country in 2010 and took the top job in 2018. “This is my fourth, fifth, or sixth tour,” he told me. “I haven’t counted.”

Miller arrived at the peak of the American effort, and has presided over a rapidly shrinking force. Where the U.S. once pursued ambitious goals, instilling democracy and economic development, he defined his mission narrowly: Don’t let Afghanistan become a terrorist haven. But, he said, there’s a catch. “You need a government for that.”

Students await exam results at Kabuls Marefat High School. The American intervention has been costly and often overhyped...
Students await exam results at Kabul’s Marefat High School. The American intervention has been costly and often overhyped, but it has led to notable gains in women’s rights.Photograph by Adam Ferguson

Senior officials in the Biden Administration say that they intend to take their time before they decide how to handle Afghanistan. “They’re trying to figure out the best of the bad options they inherited,” the second senior American official told me. They are conscious that, if Biden ignores Trump’s deal and decides to keep the roughly twenty-five hundred American troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban will almost certainly resume attacking them.

In January, a senior U.S. military-intelligence officer told a group of American soldiers to get ready for attacks. “We’ve been in this country for twenty years, and we may be entering the last four months. These could be the most uncertain of all,” the officer said. “Come May 1st, if we are still here, I think it’s game on for the Taliban.”

Miller told me, “If the Taliban were to attack U.S. or coalition forces, we are prepared to respond proportionally, with precision, and with capacity to spare.” But he also said that he was prepared to pull out the last of his soldiers if ordered to do so. The unanswered question—which has hung over the country since 2001—is whether the Afghan state can survive without Western troops. When I asked if he thought that the Afghan Army could secure the country alone, his answer was not reassuring. “They have to,” he said.

In early January, I flew with Miller to Afghan Army bases in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north, and near the Helmand River, in the south. Looking down on the Hindu Kush from our C-130 transport plane, I was reminded of the country’s natural beauty but also of the geographic realities that have hampered every attempt to help it stand on its own: it’s landlocked and covered by mountains and desert, with only twelve per cent of its land suitable for farming. For much of its modern history, Afghanistan has been a ward of the international community: foreigners pay seventy-five per cent of its federal budget, and American taxpayers largely underwrite its Army and its security forces, at a cost of four billion dollars a year. But, if there is any hope that the Afghan state can become self-sufficient, it resides with the soldiers who train here.

At a lunch meeting with Miller, the limitations of nato’s campaign became clear. When the season began, five of the fifty districts that Alizai’s troops oversaw were under Taliban control, and twenty-nine were “on the edge,” he said. His men had secured a dozen of them, he told Miller. But the Taliban had captured several villages along Highway 1, effectively cutting off the northern and western parts of the country. In Maimana, the capital of Faryab Province, the local government’s control extends barely past the city center. “You can only go to the end of the bazaar,” he said. Several local leaders had been assassinated.

“What do you think is happening?” Miller asked.

“The Taliban are trying to set up a network here,” Alizai said. “We don’t know who they are.” It was a conversation that might have taken place fifteen years ago.

The 209th Corps is assisted by sixteen hundred nato troops, who help with training, and by an American Special Forces team, which provides both training and protection in combat; if an Afghan unit comes under attack, the Americans can call in a plane or a drone. (In one of the more unusual aspects of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, the United States is allowed to protect Afghan forces from attacks. In practice, that means almost daily American air strikes and drone attacks; when I visited Helmand Province, the U.S. had carried out two drone strikes that morning.) The U.S. team was highly competent; all of its twenty members were seasoned, with some having served a dozen combat tours, and many spoke Dari and Pashto. But Alizai worried that the West’s commitment might be coming to an end—or that it might become too small to matter. Over lunch, Miller told him bluntly that he didn’t know what the future would bring. “You know where we’re at,” Miller said. “It’s just not clear.”

The 209th, budgeted for fifteen thousand troops, was fielding barely ten thousand. Even though the Army guarantees employment, in a country where jobs are scarce, Afghan officers struggle to find recruits; young people are often reluctant to leave their families for long tours. Alizai was undeterred. “I think we can get it up to ninety per cent soon,” he told Miller.

Alizai said that he was trying to contain the militias of two local warlords: Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Vice-President, and Atta Mohamed Noor. Both men befriended the Americans in 2001, and both fight the Taliban. But they operate more like local fiefs than like agents of the government. Dostum has been accused of murder, rape, torture, and mass executions. “I will try to bring them in,” Alizai told Miller. “Once we pay them, we can influence them.” But there was little sign that this time would be different.

Alizai told me that, despite all the problems besetting the Afghan Army so late in the American era, his sponsors shouldn’t give up hope. “It takes time to build an army, brother,” he said. “We are trying to train the right people. We started from nothing. Please be patient.”

At the Sharq hotel in Doha, Fawzia Koofi was often the only woman in a room full of male negotiators. At first, she told me, some of her Taliban counterparts refused to speak to her. At a lunch meeting, two Taliban seated across from her asked her to move to another table. A third Talib at the table stared at the floor, unwilling to meet her gaze. Koofi picked up a plate and offered him a kebab; the Talib took it and smiled. “Miss Koofi, you are a very dangerous woman,” he told her. They have been talking ever since.

By the time I arrived, in late December, the negotiators had begun to relax. “They let their hair down,” the senior American official told me. The government delegates found that the Taliban, though often hostile in groups, were friendlier one on one. The harsher rhetoric began to fade, and on some afternoons I saw Taliban and government delegates walking together through the Sharq’s gardens.

Negotiators from both sides told me that they felt a heavy responsibility to end the conflict. Most believe that the Taliban would accept a deal under the right circumstances—that they are as tired of war as everyone else is. But many observers in Kabul suspect that the Taliban are using the talks to buy time until the Americans depart. One of the skeptics was Sima Samar, who for seventeen years presided over the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which seeks to bring modern concepts of justice and equality to the country. Samar believes that the Taliban will ultimately decide it’s easier to take power by force. “The Taliban?” she said. “They haven’t changed a bit.” In December, during a break in the talks, a video surfaced of Fazel Akhund, one of the Taliban negotiators, greeting a group of masked men at what appears to be a military training camp. As Akhund embraced the trainees, one of them cried out, “Long live the holy warriors of Afghanistan!”

U.S. military supplies are dropped at Combat Outpost Margah in Paktika Province in 2011. A decade later the province...
U.S. military supplies are dropped at Combat Outpost Margah, in Paktika Province, in 2011. A decade later, the province, like many rural places in Afghanistan, remains contested by the Taliban.Photograph by Adam Ferguson

In Kabul, Vice-President Amrullah Saleh suggested to me that pro-government Afghans would be no less reluctant than the Taliban to share control of the country. I met Saleh in 1999, as the Taliban were surging to victory in the country’s long, brutal civil war; back then, Saleh and a few holdouts were clinging to a tiny piece of territory in the northeast. In 2004, Saleh became the head of the National Directorate of Security, and earned a reputation among the Taliban as a fierce and efficient foe. In July, 2019, suicide bombers breached Saleh’s security cordon and killed thirty-two people.

Saleh argued that, if the Afghan government is forced to make a deal with the Taliban before the group forsakes violence, the peace will fail, and the group will try to reimpose its medieval vision. “Society has changed,” he said. Women have been educated, young people are connected to the wider world, English has become common in the cities. “People will not accept the Taliban,” he said. “They will not lie down. We have forty thousand Special Forces. Do you think they will let the Taliban slaughter them one by one?” He went on, “It will be another civil war.” The first, in the nineties, killed more than fifty thousand people. “But it will be worse than the last one. Absolutely worse.”

Yet the government negotiators will have to make some concessions to the Taliban, or the talks will break down, and the Western countries will likely leave the population to fend for itself. “I will fight with my claws and my teeth for the rights we have gained,” Fatima Gailani, a government delegate and an advocate for women, told me. “But there is a risk that some of these rights are going to be lost.”

One place to measure that risk is the Afghan Women’s Skills Development Center, in Kabul. The center offers training in sewing and catering, and works with a restaurant to supply jobs for trainees. It also provides a shelter for women and children escaping the difficulties of a society that, in many places, is still bound by age-old rules. Almost every day, a woman or a girl appears at the doorstep: a child bride fleeing her husband; a wife forced into an abusive marriage; a recently divorced woman whose family regards her as a disgrace and sent her into the streets. One recent morning, a young woman arrived so badly pummelled that attendants massaged her every day for two weeks. “There wasn’t a spot on her body—not one—that was not black-and-blue,” a worker at the center told me. “I wanted to scream.” The shelter, the first of its kind in Kabul, has a maximum capacity of seventy; it is often full.

One of the women who run the shelter is Mahbouba Seraj, an ebullient seventy-year-old. Born to royal lineage, she fled Afghanistan with her family in 1978, as the country disintegrated, and settled for a time in Manhattan, at Lexington Avenue and Forty-third Street. After 2001, Seraj was drawn back by the prospect of change in her homeland. Ever since, she has been sustained by a sense that outdated traditions were falling away. “There’s a lot of change here, and a lot of possibility—and a lot of pain and a lot of happiness,” she told me. “All these things used to get swept under the rug, and there was nowhere for a woman to go. Now there is.”

Would the shelter survive a Taliban regime? Seraj isn’t sure. She believes that the younger generations, which constitute most of the country’s urban population, will fight. “I have a belief in the energy and the idea and the newness and the commitment of the young people of this country,” she said. “We have doctors now, we have people with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s now. So many women and so many young people, so full of energy. They’re not going to give this up.”

Seraj is less sure about everyone else. She told me that she’d been chatting with friends recently, and they all agreed that the situation was likely to get much worse: “For the first time after all these years, I said to my friends, ‘Let’s not be heroes. At this point, we have to save our lives.’ ” ♦

Last Exit from Afghanistan