In Mazar-i-Sharif, we met General Sami Alizai, the commander of the 209th Corps. (He has since been promoted to lead the Afghan Army’s special-operations corps.) An ethnic Pashtun from the south, Alizai signed up in 2004 and went on to graduate from the Joint Services Command and Staff College, one of the United Kingdom’s élite military academies. A typical U.S. officer of Alizai’s rank is in his fifties; Alizai is thirty-five and exudes restless confidence. “It was a tough fighting season,” he told Miller. “There are a lot of Taliban dead.”
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.
“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!”
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.
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.’ ” ♦
This article has been updated to include Ali Farhad Howaida’s full name.
Published in the print edition of the March 8, 2021, issue, with the headline “Last Exit.”