Kabul, Afghanistan – A fog of uncertainty looms over Afghanistan.
Everywhere you go, from a sports lounge in the capital Kabul to a field in Logar province, everyone asks the same question: “What’s going to happen?”
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People have tried to answer that question, but the sad, scary truth is, we simply will not know until we get there.
That lack of a clear answer haunts the population, who are afraid of any scenario that does not lead to a true peace.
The other night, a government official said something along the lines of: “There’s no reason for people to be hopeless, it’s become a buzz word.”
Sitting there on his patio, I looked back at my recent trips to Logar, Parwan, Herat and Nangarhar and said, “No, people are hopeless. They’re terrified.”
I was reminded of something my cousin’s nine-year-old daughter, a talented artist and BTS superfan, said in Pashto one night: “We’ll just stay here and die.”
She was born well after the Taliban were driven from power in a US-led military invasion in 2001.
She studies at a well-known private school her mother teaches at. By all accounts, she should be the literal poster child for the so-called “gains of the last 20 years”. And yet, even she feels an encroaching fear that politics has made her and her family helpless to escape.
Yes, war is sadly nothing to new generations of Afghans, but right now, people feel lost at sea. As if they, and the country, are drifting aimlessly. They do not know if they will drift towards a deep, dark abyss of further violence and war or some semblance of peace.
Those who have the means are choosing not to take the risk of waiting it out.
As one journalist friend said to a group of us: “I was here when the Soviet tanks came rolling in. I saw it myself. Why would I wait around to see if Kabul is taken over again, I have to get my family out now.”
In recent weeks, I have had family and friends in Kabul and the United States call me to ask about the process of getting a Special Immigrant Visa that the United States is reportedly promising to journalists, prominent women and those who worked for the US.
Again, the only answer I can give them is: “I don’t know.”
I have not felt so powerless to help my people since I briefly lived in Turkey’s Istanbul (2016-2017), during which refugees from Nangarhar who had come to the country would call me asking for help as Ankara started to deport Afghans back to a war zone.
The truth is the country is not OK. The people feel stuck between a corrupt government that has largely failed to deliver much-needed basic services and a brutal, violent, oppressive Taliban.
That became clear to me after meeting with anti-Taliban uprising forces in Parwan, Logar and Herat over the last month. Those forces were fighting for a Republic, not necessarily the current leadership, and more importantly, against Talibanism.
Some people, including powerful legislators and former officials, have tried to guilt Washington into reversing its decision to withdraw by August 31.
Again, though, in speaking to average people in five provinces over the last month, it has become very clear there is very little love lost between the people and the US, a nation that had devastated so many local communities with its failed policies, bad-faith support of corrupt leaders, air attacks, drones and night raids.
What people are angry at is how the US is leaving, with no real conditions on the government or the Taliban.
Calling out the Taliban
In recent days, foreign embassies, including the US, have issued statements calling out the Taliban’s recent string of violence, something which some officials, still eager to please the foreigners, have commended.
The people, however, are left to wonder where these condemnations and calls for an end to the violence were when US officials sat across from the Taliban in Doha to negotiate a peace settlement.
That pact saw the group agree not to target foreign forces and officials, while their bloody campaign against Afghan security forces, officials and civilians continues unabated.
This combination of uncertainty and anger has left a toll on the psyche of millions of Afghan people.
When I travelled to Herat in the lead-up to the Eid al-Adha holiday, I saw a different city. One where security forces and uprising members had set up checkpoints on the way to districts we used to travel freely to only two years ago. One where the once bustling marketplace behind the famed Masjed Jame was virtually empty.
This was the first time in the eight years I have been travelling there, that people asked me if I was sure I wanted to go to Herat.
“What if the airport closes while you’re there,” a journalist asked me just before I had booked my ticket.
Two days later, when I was sitting in Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, his words rang in my ears the entire time.
‘This is what war does’
Being there this time, I was not thinking about whether to take a rickshaw or walk about 40 minutes to buy a khamak dozi, a highly-valued hand-embroidered fabric that can sell for up to hundreds of dollars.
Instead, after all these years, I realised how flat and wide open the city is.
Just how easy it would be for the Taliban to rain rockets on the historic sites, the government buildings and the markets and wreak havoc on the ancient city.
This is what war does, it traps you in a cage that becomes more and more confining with each passing day. It robs of you of mobility even in a country full of rivers, mountains, deserts, lush greenery and historic sites. It takes your family. It leaves you in a constant state of alert. It strips holidays of their joy.