Photo by Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images
Traffic moves through the old city in November, 2012, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
KABUL, Afghanistan — I wondered, approaching Kabul over the snow-shrouded Hindu Kush mountains, what the story of the moment would be in the teeming city below.
It had been six years since I’d last visited Afghanistan’s capital, a short visit then that included an interview with President Hamid Karzai as part of the last of six long reporting assignments since 9/11— that one stretching from Paktika and Gardez in the southeast to Herat in the west.
Mike Taibbi / NBC News
A spectacular view over the snow-covered Hindu Kush peaks on the way into Kabul.
More than 11 years had passed since my first Afghan assignment, over the Kyber Pass from Pakistan and then into Jalalabad days after the Taliban had fled; the arc of America’s longest war.
"Not much different," offered my seatmate, a senior NATO official from one of the 40 countries remaining in the coalition that has alternately steered or suffered through Afghanistan’s bloody march toward stand-alone status as a reconstituted nation.
"You’ll see some new construction under way in the city, but on the surface it’ll be little changed from what you saw before."
Driving to our quarters, I found myself playing an old game: peering at the cars huffing and puffing along the city’s crowded streets, I counted the number of women drivers. And got the same answer I’d counted on most days, 11 years ago.
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That so few women drive — cars, bicycles, any conveyance where they are unaccompanied by men — is a relatively small fact of life here but it’s emblematic.
Afghanistan is still waiting for the changes that will signal that a threshold has been reached, and a fundamental change in the status of women, and in their prospects after the 2014 withdrawal of most coalition combat troops, is one of the changes that matter.
Mike Taibbi / NBC News
Kimberly Motley, an American lawyer, has been living and working in Afghanistan for the past five years as an advocate for abused women.
It’s women who will suffer most after the withdrawal, said Kimberly Motley, an American lawyer living and working in Afghanistan for the past five years as an advocate for abused women.
"I’ve been surprised that it’s been mostly men now clamoring desperately for a way to leave, when it’s women who will be affected so profoundly," she said.
With NATO forces gone they’ll have far less protection, she told us, while even under the limited protection that now exists there have been attacks against women so savage as to have commanded headlines worldwide.
It’s been a consensus in the international community that this poorest and most corrupt of countries may yet be welcomed fully as a sovereign nation, but only when its women are treated with dignity and as equals under law and custom. While serving as secretary of state in 2001, Colin Powell stressed that women's rights were “non-negotiable.”
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As for negotiations for peace and reconciliation with the Taliban, they are, for all practical purposes, non-existent. A handful of self-described representatives of Taliban leadership have set up office space in Doha, Qatar, and overtures have been made with the goal of starting substantive talks.
"But here’s the problem," a highly placed Western diplomat told me, asking that he not be identified. "Karzai only wants face-to-face discussions with the Taliban, at the negotiating table — and not with interlocutors who may or may not represent Mullah Mohammed Omar and the true Taliban leadership. He’s not interested in discussing theoretical possibilities, if nothing of consequence is going to happen."
The Taliban, meanwhile, seem uninterested in discussing any possibilities short of a return to complete power in Afghanistan.
Said Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, one of the Taliban's "negotiators" in Doha, there will be a "snowball effect" after the 2014 withdrawal, the Taliban waiting patiently to make their move.
"Anything short of a total victory,” he said, “is unacceptable." There’s a saying here, attributed to the Taliban: "They have the weapons; we have the time."
Still, the Western diplomat said, "We’ve opened a door in Doha, and hopefully there will be an answer and real negotiations might begin."
I reminded him of the timeworn political cliché, "Hope is not a strategy."
He smiled. "Well, it’s more than mere hope," he said.
The diplomat talked about advances on the periphery of the central questions about peace talks and post-2014 security: an imminent new mining law that will encourage foreign investors to ante in for a stake in the trillion dollars in copper, iron, gold and oil reserves within reach beneath this country’s battered landscape; advances despite notable setbacks in the training and readiness of Afghanistan’s army and national police forces; real improvements in the prospects for some women — in medicine, law and even the armed services.
"It’s not just hope," the diplomat repeated.
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An old friend named Shirzad came by to visit on Saturday. He had worked for NBC News in the past and asked that we not use his family name for security reasons.
We talked about the days and months just after 9/11, when we first met, when in his home city of Jalalabad the Taliban had suddenly fled under the punishment of American bombing raids, and the eventual insertion of American special forces chasing Bin Laden and his surrogates through the mountains and caves of Tora Bora.
There were so many signs of optimism then: little girls lining up giddily to go to school, some women braving the markets having shed their burqas, talk among the men about a new future when none had seemed possible for so many years.
Rahmat Gul / AP
More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.
But that future had not arrived, Shirzad said. The Taliban were a "shadow government" in so many villages and neighborhoods, in control by implication and threat, just waiting.
"My family, and many of those I work with, we have been threatened with death." So he’s leaving, he says, having spent months negotiating a labyrinth of paperwork to gain approval to take his family of nine to the U.S. and take his chances there if he can.
His brother, with his family of eight, is trying for the same option. "It is the only way for me," he told me. "The local police, they will not protect us when NATO soldiers are gone — many are Taliban or support them."
He offered a sad smile: "No more for me, in Afghanistan."
What there is, he said, is corruption and danger in every direction. Away from Kabul there were still drug lords ruling over fiefdoms fueled by flourishing poppy fields. Even in Kabul, he said, travel can be treacherous, trust unwise.
And attorney Motley has more clients than she can handle.
And 30 local police died in a two-day period last week in three suicide attacks for which the Taliban claimed credit.
And President Karzai complains about not getting enough American weapons and support, while at the same time ordering that American and NATO forces withdraw from a Kabul suburb because of unconfirmed rumors of harassment and attacks against civilians.
And in my third trip through the streets of a city I hadn’t seen in years, I looked again for any women drivers.
And couldn't find a single one. Again.