In Afghanistan capital, tentacles of Taliban reach deep

An American visitor to a Pashtun wedding set off a chain of threats. The Taliban are stronger than any time since 2001, says one Western official. 

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
A band plays as Afghans from the Pashtun ethnic group celebrate a wedding inside a cavernous, glittering, segregated wedding hall in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The pulsating lights and opulent decor of Kabul's wedding halls usually offer Afghans a brief sanctuary from war and hardship. But the aftermath of a recent marriage celebration underscored the ever-encroaching grip of the Taliban on lives in the capital city, even as Taliban fighters continue to make other gains across the country.

Threats by the Taliban, who were overthrown in late 2001, remain a daily problem for any Afghan connected to Western military forces or the foreign aid programs here. Afghanistan has been shaken by their recent military successes – particularly the short-lived seizure of Kunduz last month, the first provincial capital to fall to the resurgent group in 14 years.

Many in Kabul have felt relatively sheltered from the group. But even in the bright halls of the Paris Castle wedding hall, the eyes of Taliban intelligence are watchful – ready, with a word, to arrange to intimidate Afghans who show sympathy to Western institutions.

With festivities well under way on a recent Thursday night to mark the union of two Pashtuns– the country's largest ethnic group from which the Taliban attracts the backbone of its support – hundreds of men sat more dutifully than joyously at tables, as a band played traditional music. Women remained unseen on the other side of the screen that divided the cavernous room. But then a shock ran through the room: an American reporter unexpectedly arrived, drawing the immediate attention of all.

 “They think very badly toward me, that I am a bad Muslim, an infidel, for bringing you here,” the Pashtun companion confided nervously to the American visitor.

The consequences were swift: Two days later, villagers from the wedding guide’s home province started calling his family in Kabul. They warned that he was working with a spy, “collecting information” at the wedding to “prepare a plan with coalition forces to destroy us.”

A few days after that, in the middle of the night, men knocked at the door of the family house in western Kabul. His mother lied, saying he was not home. The man moved immediately with his wife and two children to a safer location.“The Taliban have very strong intelligence,” says his Pashtun friend, who stayed in the car that night outside the wedding hall, where he says the car and its license plate were photographed.

The friend’s father, too, received calls: “Your son is a traitor who is working with coalition forces.” He also said the young man had “left his [Muslim] religion.” The warning: stop working with Americans.

“That could have just been a show of force of [the Taliban’s] very strong intelligence network, that they know what’s going on,” says a Western official about the wedding incident.

A strengthening movement

The Taliban have long intimidated fellow Afghans who work with foreigners in Kabul. But the context now has changed: Not only is there a smaller foreign footprint in the country, but the Taliban themselves are a more threatening force.

“The Taliban movement is stronger than ever since 2001,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. The Taliban have conducted more attacks in the 2015 fighting season than any previous one “by a long shot,” he said. Firefights involved more fighters, lasted longer and had more ambitious targets, he added.

The government in Kabul often “plays a shell game,” the official says, to hide the number of key district centers actually being overrun by the Taliban.

The fall of Kunduz was a jolt because Afghan security forces there vastly outnumbered the attackers. Yet they fled, leaving the Taliban to the spoils of military vehicles and hardware.

“The defeat for the government in Kunduz is much bigger than the victory for the Taliban,” says Alexey Yusupov, country director for the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Kabul. “Psychologically it is very bad … symbolically it was the first to go, and gave the impression of an Afghan security forces meltdown.”

The swift fall of Kunduz was a surprise even to residents.

“Honestly, before they got Kunduz I did not think the Taliban could get a province – they were too weak,” says an engineer who asked not to be named, but escaped in the first hours of the attack because he had worked on US and Nato-funded contracts for years, and knew he would be targeted.

Such pervasive insecurity contributed to the largest anti-government protests for years in Kabul on Nov. 11, as thousands of Afghans marched to the presidential palace carrying the coffins of seven – including two women and a girl – who were beheaded by Islamist militants in south-central Zabul Province. After that protest, President Ashraf Ghani said the “enemies … have seen that they are not able to fight our security forces face to face,” called for national unity, and promised revenge.

But for the people of Kunduz, the fight “shows the weakness of the government and they can’t be sure they will be safe anymore,” says Abdul, who was working for a US-funded program to support the judiciary in the city. Before escaping to Kabul he threw away his identity cards, which were marked with US and Afghan flags, and left behind his computer since such items could prove lethal if found by the Taliban.

Yet Abdul says he could still be targeted; copies of his identity cards were among the files looted by the Taliban from the offices of the National Director of Security (NDS).

And there may be reason to fear, if past examples of Taliban intelligence capacity are any measure.

The friend who stayed in the car at the Kabul wedding had previously received death threats. In late 2014, for example, the NDS stopped a Taliban plan to bomb an US-funded women’s workshop that he was running in the Pashtun province of Wardak, west of Kabul. Now the Taliban says they will issue a “formal warning” to him for the wedding incident.

“Always they call and say 'you are working with foreigners, we won’t leave you be, we will kill you,' ” says the Pashtun friend. “I told them: ‘My life belongs to God, and you are not God.' ”

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