First came the killing of Afghan armed forces in Kabul. The slaying of government employees followed, and then of religious figures. Then journalists and civil society activists were threatened, killed, and many pushed to flee the country.
Amid peace negotiations and dim hopes for ending the war in Afghanistan, a wave of killings has shocked and terrorized the country. As politicians and insurgents met in 2020 to talk about peace, back in Afghanistan the violence continued, including what many see as outright assassinations.
The wave of assassinations is silencing critics and cutting off independent voices. With so many journalists and civil society activists being killed, others have left the country and even more are self-censoring, appearing less on national TV talk shows, and posting less on their social media pages. In the absence of civic and civil discussions, violence dominates the national discourse.
A creeping sense of insecurity spread in Kabul in early 2020, as magnetic bombs and execution-style assassinations claimed the lives of government armed forces and state employees. The killings then shifted, with religious figures targeted. The religious council of Afghanistan said that 90 religious figures have been assassinated in the past year.
The wave of assassinations then expanded to Afghan intellectuals, particularly journalists and civil society activists. In a country of 35 million people, the majority of whom are uneducated, the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan reports that five human rights activists and six media workers were murdered in just four months, from October 1, 2020 to January 31, 2021.
The assassination campaign against journalists and civil society activists ramped up as peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban progressed in Doha, Qatar in the last quarter of 2020. The overriding uncertainty about the future, coupled with the assassinations, sparked an intense fear among the Afghan population, not just in the communities of journalists and activists.
“Initially, we were thinking that we will risk bigger gatherings in provinces about the peace process. Now with both violence and these targeted attacks, I don’t know if that is possible,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “All those who were killed have something in common: They had platforms and spoke against violence and totalitarianism and for rights and freedoms.”
In each of Afghanistan’s past conflicts, intellectuals have been the targets of intolerance and violence. Intellectuals – journalists, professors, activists – have long driven national discourse around the country’s evolving politics, offering civic discussions as a means to resolve political disputes. But as conflict continued, in past wars and the current one alike, intellectuals were murdered or forced to flee the country as violence became the dominant means of settling political disputes.
Mir Akbar Khyber, a left-wing activist and intellectual, was assassinated outside of his house in Kabul on April 17, 1978. The mysterious assassination – for which some blamed the government and others rival left-wingers – contributed to the communist-led coup that took place shortly thereafter. The Afghan communists then systematically waged a campaign against Afghanistan’s intellectuals.
The victims were religious figures, rival communists, activists, loyalists of the previous government, and others who opposed the new communist regime. One victim was Mohammad Musa Shafiq, a former prime minister under King Zahir Shah who had served from December 1972 to July 1973 and opposed the communist government. Among his legacies, Shafiq institutionalized religious tolerance between Shiites and Sunnis in Afghanistan and is thus credited for saving Afghanistan, for much of the past 40 years of conflict, from sectarian war.
In the armed resistance against the communists, those who sought non-violent resistance and undertook independent political activities were threatened and killed. Hunted by the communists inside Afghanistan, scores of Afghan intellectuals were also systemically silenced in refugee camps in Pakistan.
In a 1991 report, Human Rights Watch documented how a number of factions of the mujahideen were responsible for human rights abuses. These included “kidnappings and murders of Afghan intellectuals who have been outspoken in their independent political views, Afghans associated with Western relief agencies based in Pakistan, and other Afghan refugees, particularly those associated with political groups who support a secular or moderate political position.”
The report also claimed that the Pakistani government was unwilling to stop the campaign. One victim was Reza, a 16-year-old student who disappeared on his way to home from school in Peshawar in June 1990. His family supported a political group.
In tandem with the campaign against intellectuals, Afghanistan was sliding into a civil war which lasted from 1992 to 1996, when the Taliban took over. Until the end of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan’s intellectuals remained at serious risk.
Although there have been killings of journalists and civil society activists throughout the last two decades, as the U.S. and NATO backed a central government in Kabul, in 2020, the pace of assassinations increased dramatically just as peace was appearing on the horizon.
In essence, the very same peace negotiations that were meant to shift Afghans from settling political disputes with violence to solving such matters via discussion have sparked a terrible rise in violence. And once again, it’s Afghanistan’s intellectuals, which the country desperately needs, who have suffered.
The assassination campaign is dragging the country back into a pattern of violence as political discourse. Those being killed are those with platforms, those with voices which they have used to declare their opinions, dreams, and desires for Afghanistan’s future. Without them, the peace negotiations settle into a power-bargaining exercise, talks between powerbrokers with hardly any consideration of public opinion.
“To make public input, you need civic space, that people have some sense of safety about public gathering, engaging with media,” said Akbar, the chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who lost a colleague in an assassination and advised colleagues to reconsider media engagement due the assassinations. “The less outspoken voices you have from inside Afghanistan, the less constituents you have to put pressure on both sides.”
The Afghan government has broadly blamed the Taliban for the assassination campaign. The embassies of the United States and other Western countries in Kabul have said in statements that the Taliban were behind major attacks against journalists and civil society activists.
The Taliban has denied involvement in the killings of journalists and civil society activists, but not the assassinations of government employees, which it views as combatants, much as it views members of the Afghan security forces.
Amid the chaos in Afghanistan, the Taliban, the Islamic State, corrupt officials, drug lords, and others could all be involved in the wider wave of assassinations, said one former senior government official. In early March, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the killings of three female journalists.
The killings have devastated the country’s small community of journalists and civil society activists. Reporters who grew up in war and have spent 20 years covering bombings and attacks, and civil society activists who have strained to speak out about the impact of the war on the lives of ordinary people, have had their own lives claimed by the war.
Freshta Kohistani used to organize social gatherings and advocate for women rights. As the weather grew cold in November 2020, Kohistani distributed winter clothes for orphans in Kapisa and Panjshir provinces. When Kohistani was in a village gathering information about needy people, gunmen killed her and her brother in December 2020. “Life is a war,” Kohistani had written in her Facebook bio page. “Try to win the war.”
Kohistani had requested protection from the Afghan government. She was a 29-year-old mother of a son.
Yousuf Rasheed landed a career in elections in 2004, during the first election in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Rasheed ran election programs for a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization for several years before he became executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan in 2014, an election watchdog that often criticized the government’s election process. Before Rasheed was shot dead in December 2020, he criticized the government’s inadequate plan for holding four elections in 2021 at the same time.
As the killing surged, a hit-list circulated on social media pages. It included the names of 100 activists, journalists, sportswomen, models, political activists, and government employees, all of whom were labeled civil society activists. The authenticity of the list was unclear, but the hit-list and threats pushed dozens of them out of the country.
Farahnaz Forotan, a journalist and women’s rights activist, was one of the figures on the hit-list. With the return of the Taliban looming, she sparked a social media campaign to protect the rights of women in the peace talks named MyRedLine. Women and men posted on Facebook and Twitter in support of women’s rights. Then, fearing for her life, Forotan fled the country.
Others who have stayed in the country rely on self-censorship for survival. The United Nations Mission to Afghanistan said in a report that journalists and civil society activists were “excising self-censorship in their work, quitting their jobs.” Laila Haidari, a women rights activist and entrepreneur, said that she would reconsider what to tweet and take extra time to edit her tweets and her stance on social media pages.
The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee documented that as many as 301 female media professionals left their jobs in Afghanistan in 2020, due to security threats, in particular targeted killings. In addition to the financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of female media professionals in the country fell from 1,678 to 1,377.
The committee said that 132 journalists and media workers received threats and faced violence in 2020, including “killing, injuries, physical assault, kidnapping, various forms of threats, theft, verbal abuse, legal and administrative abuse.”
In late 2020, as many as 40 reporters had fled their home provinces and sought refuge in Kabul, said one reporters’ club in the capital. The reporters lived in safe houses, waiting for the security situation to improve. But many local reporters fell victim to the wave of violence.
Bismillah Adil Aimaq, editor-in-chief of Radio Sade-e-Ghor (Voice of Ghor radio), was shot to death in Ferzo Koh of Afghanistan’s Ghor province on the first day of 2021. He had received death threats and survived two assassination attempts in November 2020. After his assassination, the Afghan intelligence agency ambushed and killed a provincial member of Ghor, Ezatullah Beg, suspecting him of involvement in the killing of Aimaq. In February 2021, gunmen attacked Aimaq’s family members, killing three.
In eastern Afghanistan, four female employees of one independent news network, Enikass Radio and TV, were silenced. Malala Maiwand, a TV host, was shot to death outside of her house in Jalalabad in December 2020. Then Saadia Sadat, 20; Shahnaz Raufi, 24; and Mursal Wahedi, 20; were killed on March 2 of this year. The three women were on their way home from the office in Jalalabad when assassins opened fire on them.
Zalmay Latifi, director of Enikass Radio and TV channel, said that the outlet was forced shut down its women’s programs. It also asked its remaining six female employees to stay home, and halted hiring additional female employees until the security situation improved. The media organization says it is paying its remaining female employees, but has yet to set up the means by which they can work from home.
“We have lost an essential part of the media that was run by our female colleagues,” said Latifi, whose TV network broadcasts independent political talk shows, religious programs, and entertainment programs, including foreign movies and series in the Pashto language spoken in the eastern parts of the country. “It is a huge loss. We lost our four-year achievements within months in assassinations.”
As talks about ending the war abound, it is especially tragic that as the cycle of violence spins on in Afghanistan it catches in the whirlwind the very voices the country needs most: those who dream of peace and speak truth to power, and those who would engage and enrich Afghanistan with lively debates – rather than shake it with gunbattles and bomb blasts.