Hassina Sarwari is waiting to go home. She fled her city when the Taliban captured it more than a month ago. They ransacked her house, burned down her office and stole her laptop and passport.
Sarwari is a prominent women’s rights activist from Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan.
Afghan government forces have since regained control of the city, but she says it’s still too dangerous for her and her children to return. She’s heard the Taliban are threatening to execute her in public.
For now, Sarwari is taking refuge in the Afghan capital, Kabul, though she still doesn’t feel safe.
“Even my children have been threatened because of me,” she says. “Everyone is worried about me.”
The Taliban victory in Kunduz and their significant territorial gains this year have shocked many in Afghanistan. Fourteen years after a U.S.-led invasion supplanted the Taliban, and after many billions of dollars of American investment, a painful question is asserting itself: Is Afghanistan falling apart?
Certainly, deep anxiety is taking hold there, and it’s driven by many more issues than the Taliban.
To see that, you only have to step into Kabul.
The United Nations no longer allows staff to walk the streets. Homes and offices have long been heavily fortified. The concrete blast barriers and swirls of razor wire are even taller and thicker these days. There are many guards, and many guns.
Two military helicopters pass low overhead. Some people here call these “Kabul cabs.” Foreign diplomats and military officials use them to get around town, avoiding suicide bombs and traffic jams.
Not far away, a man caked in black dust is sewing up big sacks of coal. Kabul’s preparing for winter. Coal merchant Zelgai Samadzada says his sales this year have plummeted.
Everyone’s worried about the future, he says. “Afghanistan is heading towards a crisis. Every day, it’s getting worse.”
When President Obama recently announced that the few thousand U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan will stay on for now, many Afghans were relieved. But Samadzada says this doesn’t address the real problem, which he sees as Afghanistan’s divided and ineffective government.
“We don’t see the need for the American presence,” he says, “We need our own powerful and sovereign government.”
In Kabul’s teeming outdoor money market, men clutching bundles of cash mill around, waiting for buyers. Anxiety’s creeping in here, too.
The national currency, the afghani, has dropped 12 percent against the dollar in a year. Currency dealer Mohammad Fahim says a lot of storekeepers now convert their daily earnings into dollars every night.
“This is wartime,” he says, “No one trusts the afghani currency.”
Across town, a throng of protesters blockades the Ministry of Labor. The Afghan government says the unemployment rate is about 25 per cent, though it can’t be sure because many areas aren’t under its control.
Anxiety about jobs runs very deep. At least 120,000 Afghans are believed to have migrated to Europe this past year. One protester, Hussein Binesh, was tempted to leave, too. Staying home has got him nowhere in his job hunt.
A Kabul University graduate, he says he’s been looking in vain pretty much every day for two years. Now more than ever, getting a job is about who you know, he says.
“The basic problem is this,” he says. “I haven’t any connection with a member of parliament or a minister or a person who has power.”
Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who was the foreign minister and national security adviser in Afghanistan’s previous government, is also anxious about what’s going on. He says when he left office last year, the street price of one Kalashnikov was about $500, but now it’s risen to $1,500.
“Why is that the case?” he asks.
Spanta discovered the answer recently, when he went back to his hometown in western Afghanistan and met local leaders and tribal elders.
“All these people have begun to buy guns and ammunition,” he says.
Spanta’s also noticed something else. He says there is “a kind of tendency here in Afghanistan of building militias, a revitalization of warlordism in Afghanistan.”
The return of private militias led by Afghan warlords weakens the authority of the state, he says. And a weak state “means a failing state.”
Ashraf Haidari, director-general of policy and strategy at Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry, dismisses any suggestion of a weak state.
“Absolutely not, no,” he says. “This is not a failing state. This is a succeeding state. We have a strategy. We have a plan. We have policies that have been strengthened, based on the experience of the past 14 years, based on lessons learned.”
Despite widespread public anxiety about jobs, security, an ailing economy and the return of warlords and militia, Afghanistan has made a lot of progress since the U.S. and its allies drove out the Taliban. There are new roads. Many more people are getting educated. Life expectancy’s up. Infant mortality’s down. People here don’t generally believe the Taliban could take control of the entire country.
Yet Haidari says they are anxious that those achievements are being jeopardized because the international community is gradually withdrawing from Afghanistan, and it’s just too soon.
“That is why it is important for the international community to stay the course,” he says, “to help us build on what we have together achieved over the past 14 years at a cost of thousands of international forces, and probably tens of thousands of Afghan forces and Afghan civilians.”
Sarwari, the woman’s right’s activist, takes a bleaker view. She, too, saw people arming themselves in her home city, Kunduz, before she fled.
“It will cause big tension in Afghanistan which finally will lead to civil war,” she warns. “A small argument will cause killings and revenge.”
It’s worrying, she says. “We Afghans don’t have any hope anymore.”