TIME Afghanistan

The Taliban’s New Campaign of Fear

Afghan women leave a rally for Presidential candidate Dr. Zalmay Rassoul and Vice Presidential candidate Habiba Sourabi, in a stadium in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan
Lynsey Addario for TIME Election Fever Women leave a political rally held in a stadium in Mazar-i-Sharif in the country’s north.

As Afghanistan goes to the polls, Islamic fighters are stepping up their reign of terror. Can they be stopped?

Farhad Seddiqi wasn’t in the mood to go to the Serena, Kabul’s finest hotel. It was March 20, and Seddiqi, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament, was looking forward to a quiet evening with his family. But it was the night before Nowruz, the Persian new year that’s also celebrated by many Afghans, and some friends and colleagues persuaded him to meet them at the Serena–a decision that Seddiqi will question for the rest of his life.

After a stop in the hotel’s upscale gym, Seddiqi’s group went for the buffet dinner in the restaurant upstairs. Still hoping to eat later at home, the politician served himself a little fish and sat down at a table in the smoking section next to one occupied by four young men. He asked a waiter for some bread. One of his friends picked up a vegetable from a plate, saying, “Is this a cucumber or a pickle?”

Suddenly another friend yelled at the adjacent table, “Don’t shoot!” By the time the attack was over, nine of Seddiqi’s fellow guests had been shot dead by the four young men, who had slipped past the Serena’s layers of security with small guns in their shoes (and who were eventually themselves killed by hotel guards). Among their victims were a prominent Afghan journalist, Sardar Ahmad, and his wife, their 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, and four foreigners. The couple’s youngest son survived gunshot wounds. When the men opened fire, a bullet flew past Seddiqi’s face. He ran toward the kitchen, one of the attackers close on his heels, grabbed a crate of what he thinks were bottles and launched it at his assailant. “I thought, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but let’s do this,” he said a few days later, sitting in his home office in Kabul. The attacker fell backward on the floor with a crash of broken glass, and Seddiqi made his way to a safe spot in the hotel. Now he keeps a pistol in his pocket. “If I had this then,” he says, “I could have done something.”

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Serena attack, part of their bloody campaign to disrupt presidential and provincial elections that start April 5. The hotel was chosen for its high profile–it is a highly guarded haven for well-heeled Afghans and foreigners, including, that day, international election observers–and for its symbolic value. If the guests of a five-star fortress in the heart of the capital aren’t safe, who is?

March marked the first month in over a decade when no U.S. service personnel were killed in Afghanistan. But it was a deadly month for Afghans–and especially for the millions of residents of Kabul. After the bloodbath at the Serena, the Taliban launched three suicide attacks in the capital, two on offices of the Afghan election commission and the third on a house used by Roots of Peace, an American NGO that works on agricultural development.

For many in the capital, the uptick in violence is a foreshadowing of what is to come at the next landmark awaiting Afghanistan: the withdrawal, by the end of this year, of most of the approximately 53,000 troops in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. Afghan forces officially took charge of the nation’s security last summer, but it is far from certain that they are ready to face down the Taliban and other militant groups after most Americans and other foreign troops leave. Polls show Afghans continue to pin their hopes on a democratically elected government. Under the constitution, outgoing President Hamid Karzai cannot run again; the front runners for his job are veteran politician Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul. The Taliban are not especially interested in who wins: bullets and bombs, not ballots, are their ticket to power.

Afghanistan has been here before. In 1989, after the Soviet Union ended a decadelong occupation, the country went into a period of unstable and weak national governments that were unable to halt a civil war fought mostly along ethnic lines. Seven years later, the Taliban–an alliance of Islamic clerics, students and former fighters against Soviet occupation–rolled into Kabul. Immediately they imposed their radical interpretation of Islam on the country: violations of Shari’a were harshly punished; movies, music, even kite flying were banned; women were confined largely to their homes, girls forbidden to go to school. Once urbane and cosmopolitan, Kabul became the scene of public floggings and lynchings.

Since being ousted in the fall of 2001, the Taliban have conducted a stubborn and brutal insurgency, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the country, where they are particularly strong. But as the violence of March shows, they can bring their campaign of terror to the capital too. “The takeover of Kabul would be a perfect victory,” says a Taliban commander based in the city who goes by the nom de guerre Shah Muhammad.

While few believe that the Taliban have the muscle to seize Kabul, there’s little doubt the violence will persist, even escalate. “Why would the Taliban want peace right now?” says Bill Roggio, managing editor of the Long War Journal, a U.S. website that tracks the war on terrorism. “[Foreign troops] are leaving. The Afghan government is–and is perceived as–weak and corrupt. The Taliban are winning.”

A Desire for Democracy

It’s not quite that simple. Afghanistan has changed since the Taliban were in power, and most Afghans are happy with the changes. As messy as their democracy is, it is popular. It’s 10:30 in the morning a week before the elections, and the voter-registration station at a girls’ school on Shah Shaheed Street in Kabul is packed. A throng of men crowds the heavily guarded metal gate outside the school. The officer in charge says as many as 700 people a day have been showing up, waiting for hours to get the voter-registration cards that will allow them to cast their ballots. Inside the school, on the other side of a gray cloth serving as a partition from the men, women surge toward the door of the registration room. Mohammad Musa, who moved to Kabul from nearby Logar province for work, will be a first-time voter. He sits patiently on a bench in the registration office to get his card. “I’m going to vote for somebody who is a good person and who can lead the country,” says Musa. “When I was living in Logar, things were safe. But it’s worse now. It’s getting worse all over.”

The same day in another part of town, two suicide bombers blast open the compound gates of one of the offices of the election commission. Another attacker rushes into the courtyard and is shot multiple times by a policeman on duty. As that suicide bomber falls forward, his vest detonates, leaving a crater in the ground and plastering blood and body parts around the yard and onto the compound’s yellow walls. Other attackers rush into the office building and launch a sustained assault that lasts for hours. By the time the last assailant is killed, two election workers are dead along with a visiting provincial-level candidate and two cops. The following morning, surviving employees come to the shattered building to gather their things before they go to their colleagues’ funerals. Mursal Nazar, 24, started working as an election trainer only three months ago. She says she will persevere. “I can’t leave my work midway,” says Nazar. “I have to see it to the end.”

Despite the escalating violence, or perhaps because of it, a palpable streak of determination has been building in the run-up to the vote. In a recent survey by the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, or FEFA, 92% of respondents said they supported the idea of elections; among those who didn’t plan to vote, most said it was because they weren’t registered, not because they feared the Taliban. Women, perhaps mindful of the consequences of the Taliban’s return, are especially invested in the vote: 81% said they would pick a candidate based on their qualities and programs, vs. 12% who said they would vote for the person suggested to them. During the candidate registration period, more than 300 women signed up to run in provincial-council elections. “We’ve always been ignored,” Habiba Sarabi, who is running for second vice president on Rassoul’s ticket, tells TIME. “This is the opportunity to show that women can be in a position of power.” Says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies: “A month ago, no one even thought there would be elections. Now you can see the momentum.”

The presidential candidates have been in full campaign mode, whizzing around the country from rally to rally to shore up support. The U.S. and its coalition partners have studiously avoided indicating any preference among the candidates; to do so would only lend credence to the Taliban’s claim that the election is a foreign-influenced farce. In a tribal culture, the ethnic composition of each ticket–the candidate and his two vice-presidential choices–will be a major factor in voters’ decisions. The front runners are hard to distinguish from their promises: more security, better governance. But thanks in part to freshly feisty media, says Rahmani, “the candidates have to provide a plan, to convince people. That’s very new.”

Getting through the elections is the first hurdle. More than 6,000 polling centers around the country will be open on polling day. Some will be relatively easy to manage. Others will be under threat from the Taliban and their associates. “Security is the biggest concern on the day of the poll,” says Ahmad Nader Nadery, FEFA’s chairman. “[Insecurity] facilitates fraud.” After the previous presidential election in 2009, about 1.5 million votes were disqualified out of 6 million ballots cast, according to the election commission. With several candidates in the field this time around, high levels of vote rigging could lead to a protracted power struggle.

When the next government takes office, the list of its challenges will be long. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries. While ever more people are moving to the cities, the vast majority of its 31 million inhabitants still live in villages. Endemic corruption, an aid-dependent economy, high unemployment, weak rule of law, poor public services–they all remain to be tackled. (Education for girls is one of a few areas where Karzai can boast significant success: nearly 40% of the country’s 8 million–plus students are now girls, according to the U.N.) Security concerns trump everything else, though. Some 73% of potential voters surveyed by FEFA named peace as a top issue for them. Infrastructure and health care were lower priorities at 22% and 18%, respectively. “I hope we reach a level of security in Afghanistan where we don’t need to spend too much money on the security forces but more on education and reconstruction,” says presidential candidate Rassoul. Without greater safety, however, it will be impossible for millions of Afghans to move forward with their lives.

You don’t have to leave Kabul to see how true that is. Charahi Qambar camp, a dense, low-slung enclave of mud houses roofed in tarps on the outskirts of the capital, is home to some 850 families that have fled southern Afghanistan, especially dangerous Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. One young man, who would not give his name for fear of reprisal, moved to Charahi Qambar from Helmand a few years ago. A little over a year ago, he went home for the poppy harvest to earn some money. After a day’s work extracting opium resin from ripe pods, he was talking to fellow workers about the things he had been hearing in Kabul, like the importance of sending kids to school, when a group of armed Taliban burst into the room, accusing him of being a government spy. He was blindfolded, handcuffed and beaten before being released hours later. Eventually he made his way back to Kabul and the relative safety of the camp. “I’ll die before I go back to that wild place,” he says.

Who Guards the Guards?

The Taliban are already expanding their footprint in the wild places and will try to increase the pace when coalition troops leave. A recent independent study by the Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S. government–aided research center, concluded that they will first try to expand in areas vacated by coalition forces. After the Taliban regain their strength, the authors write, “a larger and more intense military effort will become increasingly likely.” The task of beating them back will fall to the Afghan National Security Forces, made up of some 248,000 active troops, and the 28,000-strong Afghan Local Police. Both groups depend heavily on international funding, and the security forces receive substantial help from Western forces in the way of air support, medical evacuation and training. Estimates of how many troops may remain fluctuate. “We don’t know what the 2015 footprint is yet,” says Brigadier General Eric Wesley, ISAF Joint Command Future Ops Director. “What [the coalition’s] commitment looks like will taper over time as they stand up.”

Ensuring that assistance is available will be a priority for the new President. But such help may not be available for very long. Karzai hasn’t signed a bilateral security agreement with Washington that would keep a limited number of U.S. troops in the country, albeit in a largely advisory role. Washington has suggested that without a signature, it may proceed with the so-called zero option in which no U.S. troops remain. “If there is no money and the international community goes away, members of the local police might turn,” says Alisha Ahmadzai, who commands the local police. “This will become the global epicenter of insurgents.”

The three presidential front runners all say they will sign the bilateral agreement if they come to power. “From one side, I’d say that Afghans would like their country to be secured by their own men and women rather than foreign troops,” says Abdullah Abdullah. But, he says, “Those who know and care about the country know it is out of necessity that we say we need [them].”

Even with an agreement, the coalition presence will be greatly reduced. Would that alone make the Taliban stronger? Not necessarily, says Wesley. He thinks the Taliban’s foundations are weakening, partly because elections seem on track. Another reason: as Afghans take over security, it undermines the Taliban’s claim to be ridding the country of foreign occupiers. The number of “enemy-initiated attacks” between the typically violent summer fighting seasons of 2012 and 2013 dropped 6%, according to the ISAF. Says Wesley, “I don’t know that the Taliban capacity can sustain itself.”

While you’d expect a coalition general to say that, Shah Muhammad, the Taliban commander in Kabul, expresses a similar view. “In the past year or so, there’s been less confrontation with U.S. and Western infidel forces,” he says. Fighting other Afghans is less appealing to recruits–and to the Taliban’s financiers. “Donors were giving money to fight the Americans,” says a former diplomat who served under the Taliban regime in the 1990s. “Now they are concerned about a possible civil war after 2014, and most of them don’t want to fuel a new war.”

One option: negotiations. The Taliban consist of factions, some of which have shown a willingness to talk. In 2010, Karzai set up a High Peace Council to negotiate with the Taliban. Talks were hampered by the fact that many in the Taliban don’t recognize Karzai’s administration on the grounds that he was initially installed by the U.S. Still, the council was not a washout, says Mawlawi Shahzada Shahid of its executive committee: “We showed the Taliban that the government will accept them back.” But, he adds, the council’s impact was diluted by unclear policies, insufficient dialogue with militant leaders and a lack of coordination between Kabul and the international community. “The key is to bring armed opposition within the political process,” says presidential candidate Ghani. “It’s going to require immense focus and attention.”

The government runs a formal program that helps reintegrate and provide jobs to former combatants, but some say the system is inefficient. Bashar Turabi, a former Taliban fighter in eastern Herat province, surrendered his weapons in an official ceremony three years ago. He had developed doubts about the Taliban’s cause. After he took part in an attack on a village that killed several women, he says, he quit: “I saw it was not jihad. It was a fight for power.” Since he had been a high-ranking fighter, provincial authorities helped him get a good job with the national police. But the foot soldiers who surrendered with him are still out of work. “They’re lost,” he says. “They don’t know what to do. If the government had a plan to help the ex-Taliban, I think more people would join the peace process.”

The Cost of Failure

Months like March make it hard to hold on to hope. It may have been unusually bloody for Kabul, but many other parts of the country have grown used to worse. Last year, civilian casualties were up 14%, according to the U.N., with 2,959 deaths and 5,656 injuries. Some already think it is inevitable that the Taliban are going to be a bigger presence in Afghan life, and nothing good can come from that. “I’m not pessimistic, but I’m concerned,” says Shahid of the High Peace Council. “Afghanistan is turning into a battleground.”

Afghans who want peace are fighting back in their own way. Six days after the Serena attack, a crowd gathered on a bare, rocky rise in Kabul known as Swimming Pool Hill, with a view of the capital’s sprawl and the surrounding mountains. The Soviets built the pool, and today it remains an empty concrete expanse.

But on that recent spring night, relatives, friends and colleagues held a vigil for Sardar Ahmad, the journalist murdered in the Serena with his wife and two of their children. Those present exchanged silent handshakes and hugs in a tight circle around a candlelit shrine to the family. There was a photograph of Ahmad and the two children, he and his daughter making peace signs. In front of the photograph was the word azadi, spelled out in tea lights, meaning freedom. But it was also a message of defiance to the Taliban: We are not afraid.

–With reporting by Sami Yousafzai

Lynsey Addario for TIMEAfghan security forces accompanying Presidential candidate Dr. Zalmai Rassoul and Vice Presidential candidate Habiba Sarabi, ride past a poster of contender for President Dr. Abdullah Abdullah in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, March 27, 2014.

This appears in the April 14, 2014 issue of TIME.
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