At least 140 Afghan soldiers were brutally killed at an army base near the city of Mazar-i Sharif earlier this year. The attack hit soldiers who were at prayer, and eating their meal on the sacred day of Friday.
Their deaths came shortly after a terrorist attack on a military hospital in Kabul. In August, 50 civilians, including women and children, were killed by militants in a village in the province of Sar-i Pul.
There is something particularly chilling about these attacks on vulnerable targets, even against the backdrop of violence the country has endured since the US-led intervention in 2001. (An intervention that will continue in the wake of President Trump’s August announcement of a mission without a time frame.)
Most of the victims in the Mazar-i Sharif attack were from two provinces in northern Afghanistan – Takhar and Badakhshan – and the eastern province of Nangahar. Three years ago, these provinces were counted as among Afghanistan’s most stable regions.
Badakhshan was named in 2002 as a potential tourist draw by former president Hamid Karzai. A decade later it was thought a likely beneficiary of improved trade infrastructure. Yet instead of emerging as a lucrative trading route, the political dynamics of both Takhar and Badakhshan have become ever more violent and polarised.
Afghanistan’s merchants have so far proven themselves extraordinarily capable of working in a profoundly insecure region. That said, the difficulties of working and living in the country are only growing.
Until recently, the city of Mazar-i Sharif was referred to as a bustling and prosperous Central Asian city. But during my last visit in November 2016, merchants told me they rarely left their homes.
They were fearful of being targeted by organised criminal groups, who threaten to kidnap them or their children for ransom. Ten years ago, these same merchants would drive me to surrounding districts and villages to visit historic sites and take picnics.
Added to the miseries of people living in these regions has been an apparent influx of foreign fighters from Pakistan. A further source of anxiety are the Russian officials who have openly admitted to communicating with Taliban-aligned militants. Long suffering locals now regard government – at home and abroad – with great cynicism.
It is hardly surprising, then, that young people have been fleeing Afghanistan in significant numbers. During the course of my research in both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, I met dozens of young men from northern Afghanistan in their late teens and early twenties who had left their home villages to seek a safe place to live and work.
All of them said the levels of instability in their home districts made normal family life impossible. Yet at the same time, migration to neighbouring countries – especially Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan – has become more difficult.
Afghan refugees are rarely accorded the social respect or legal rights they once were, and sometimes are treated with outright hostility. Amid unprecedented levels of conflict and violence, Afghanistan also must deal with refugees returning home from wealthy nation states.
The introduction of a new “expat tax” in Saudi Arabia is forcing many Afghan families – some of whom have been based there for over 30 years – to either return to Afghanistan or try and move to countries like Turkey and Kazakhstan.
Meanwhile, undocumented Afghan migrants are being regularly deported from Turkey, as part of an EU-Turkey deal. If there was one thing the world could now practically do to assist Afghanistan, it would be to assure a safe and secure future outside of the country for the men and women who are fleeing their war torn home.
A glimmer of hope
Despite all of this, Afghanistan still has the resources and people required to forge the social and political relationships on which future stability depends.
In November 2016, I spent three days with a diverse group of men in Kabul. One was a Pashto speaker from Kunduz with Taliban-supporting inclinations. Another was an ethnically Turkmen merchant from a town close to the border with Turkmenistan. Two more were Farsi-speakers from Kabul who worked in security agencies and were assisting the Turkmen trader locate a loan defaulter.
Over the three days that we all met, there were moments of friction in the encounters, mostly about the various languages they spoke and the extent to which these were accorded equal respect in Afghanistan.
But there were also repeated expressions of solidarity. For instance, the Taliban-inclined Pashtun gave permission for the other men to drink some home brew spirit made from sugar cane while he enjoyed a cigarette.
At the end of the three days of detective work and socialising, which included several trips to a part of Kabul known as “Al Qaida central”, the men rose to bid each other farewell. But only after they had exchanged telephone numbers, remarking: “We can be of use to each other if we fall into the wrong hands.”
Encounters such as these are a recurrent feature of life in Afghanistan. They are a critical reminder of the subtle ways in which Afghanistan’s people handle the ever-shifting divisions and conflicts that have ripped through the country over the past 40 years. My friends’ ability to forge relations and think pragmatically, offers a rare ray of hope in an increasingly dark situation.