Call to prayer music rattles my guesthouse long before sunrise. Fight dogs spat warning growls from a nearby pen. Military helicopters whir overhead as they shepherd American and Afghan officials above the jutting mountains, a safer route than the often bombed city streets of Kabul. These are the first sounds of morning. Each day, I wake in a discreetly located home above a tucked away girl’s school. In order to glimpse a snapshot of daily life, I have foregone the guesthouses catered to foreigners with blast walls and armed guards. Even with robust fortification, many are closing due to attacks and kidnappings. The trick is to blend in, to stay invisible.
I move through corridors of the city with a tight knit group of Afghan business leaders. They seek to stabilize the economy, thus breaking dependency on foreign aid. They walk a fragile line. They must build networks with trusted government workers, with the international business community, with young students and professionals. All share a vision for a better Afghanistan. With Taliban power on the rise and American money and troops pulling out, they are working to secure the reigns against a ticking clock.
This October marks 15 years since American forces began a bombing campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The next U.S. president will inherit America’s longest war despite President Barack Obama’s former intentions to pull out all troops before he left office. Between August of 2010 and March of 2011, the number of U.S. forces peaked at 100,000. Now 8,500 forces remain. Their presence supports the Afghan Coalition Forces responsible for protecting Afghanistan, as U.S. and international forces continue to withdraw. The political climate is hot.
A recent report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction cites corruption within President Ashraf’s Ghani’s government. Ghani responded by reaffirming he’ll curb corruption, to which he has referred in past interviews as “a cancerous lesion threatening the survival of the state.” After U.S. investment of nearly 850 billion dollars and thousands of military and civilian deaths, the country bends toward the status of a failed state.
Furthermore, the threshold between the increasing influence of the Taliban and the shaky Afghan government grows thin. According to the U.S. Defense Department, 30 percent of Afghanistan is Taliban controlled. But estimates from conversations I have with Afghan locals put that number higher.
There is an increasingly conservative attitude toward venturing into public spaces. In March, the Taliban threatened their so-called spring offensive, pledging to launch large-scale attacks against the government and any western backed organization. They’ve made good on that threat. A steady torrential of suicide bombings, gun attacks and targeted kidnappings plague the capital. In response, more concrete blast walls and private security ensconces embassies and compounds where foreign contractors live and work.
A soft spoken South African man who works for AMG Contractors thumbs through pictures on his phone, showing me comfortable living quarters not unlike an expensive college dormitory. Ping pong tables, flat screen TVs and barbecue equipment fill his compound surrounded by layers of chain link fence and blast walls. His job is to fix battered military vehicles. He lingers on images of gnarled and charred trucks that get carted to his site. For five years, he’s done 10-month stints. He spotted a newspaper clipping for the position promising higher pay than he made in his home country and signed up right away. If the scorched trucks conjure feelings around his proximity to the war, he doesn’t say so. For him, it’s just a job.
Upon arrival at Kabul International Airport, I meet a group of men from the U.S. State Department. They, too, express a sense of removal from public life. A pilot for Air Wing, the branch responsible for the helicopter rides that wake me in the morning, grabs my bag and walks me past airport security to meet my driver. “I’ll be right back,” he tells a group of young 20-to-40-somethings waiting to be escorted to a compound. “Maybe,” they half joke.
These just some of the many encounters I have, brushing up against stark juxtaposition between civilian life and heavily guarded private life. On an afternoon drive through a city district with local contacts, we pass CIA housing located around the corner from an Afghan Intelligence building. And both are a stone’s throw from an exceedingly opulent mansion run by a warlord. Private guards toting Kalashnikov rifles parade the rose bush lined perimeters. I’m told to keep my head down and absolutely not to take a picture, though the temptation is difficult to suppress. A bizarre trifecta of disparate powers in close proximity.
For the duration of my stay, roughly a week, I meet with young professionals and students whose work and education spans business, economics, computer science and medicine. They are working tirelessly to arrange the puzzle pieces into a brighter picture of their society. When I ask a woman currently focused on teaching girls to code about her concerns for the ensuing years, she pauses, and a complex array of emotion crosses her face. “These are difficult times,” she says. “My life has seen so many difficult times. But this is my country and I am dedicated to it. I love my country.”
Cayte Bosler is a journalist and social innovation researcher based in New York City.