Disaffected young Afghans warming to a Taliban comeback

, — At this stage of his career, Ahmad Jawad would like to be selling the terraced estates that housed Taliban leaders before they were driven from the Afghan capital in 2001.

But the 27-year-old realtor hasn’t sold a house in nearly a year, and he is so desperate for money that he hopes the Taliban returns to Kabul to impose “rule of law.”

“If they can enforce the law like it was enforced during their reign, they are welcome,” said Jawad, who blames unemployment, graft and the lack of security for a collapse in Kabul’s housing market. “There was less crime. There was less corruption. There was less embezzlement.”

His words reflect a shift in the opinions held by some of Kabul’s millennials on both the Taliban and President ’s government: Bashing the Islamist insurgency has gone out of style as frustration with the current leadership mounts.

In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, young urban Afghans were among the most vocal opponents of the Taliban, recoiling not just at its brutality, which included public executions, but also the restraints it imposed on women and its demands that men grow beards.

‘If they can enforce the law like it was enforced during their reign, they are welcome’

These progressive 20-somethings, with their embrace of technology, education and Western culture, were seen as an emblem of Afghanistan’s bright future. They also formed the backbone of an urban workforce that thrived when more than 100,000 troops and billions of dollars of relief money flowed into the country after 9/11.

Now, as the drawdown of coalition forces saps revenue from the local economy, many younger Afghans appear more open to the idea of the Taliban assimilating into, and perhaps even changing, the existing government and constitutional order.

“The current situation is so bad, I don’t care who rules the country,” said Khalid Asif, a 24-year-old technician. “There is an ugly face to the Taliban, but there is an ugly face to everything.”

The shift comes as Ghani’s government hopes to reengage the Taliban in peace talks next week. Although discussions are expected to drag on for months, the erosion of public support for the president could strengthen the Taliban’s hand at the bargaining table.

And as misery builds in Kabul, more young urbanites are reassessing some of their views.

AP Photos/Rahmat Gul, FileAP Photos/Rahmat Gul, FileAfghan President Ashraf Ghani has struggled to keep his country afloat as coalition forces withdraw.

Over the past year, the currency’s value has dropped 21 per cent, driving up the cost of imported goods. The unemployment rate is also rising — ranging now from 25 per cent to 40 percent, according to separate analyses from the Labor Ministry and the Afghan Central Statistics Organization.

And it’s not just a matter of economic woes. The dream of Kabul eventually becoming a more modern city also appears to be fading.

Because of security concerns, Western diplomats and contractors now shuttle around the capital in low-flying helicopters that rattle windows and nerves. Last month, Afghan officials say, militants blew up several transmission lines, cutting off much of Kabul’s electricity for three weeks.

The city of at least 3 million doesn’t even have a mayor because Ghani and Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, have been unable to agree on how to fill thousands of vacant government positions.

Zafar Hashemi, a spokesman for Ghani, said the president understands the youths’ frustrations, especially those who have lost high-paying, albeit limited-length, jobs with international contractors or nongovernmental agencies, but he said the government has been hampered by limited resources.

“A majority of the youth does understand the new reality of their country, and the government tries its best to bring about the reforms the country needs so it can utilize its resources efficiently and effectively and create sustainable programs and jobs,” Hashemi said.

“By suggesting that they would like to see the Taliban to join a peaceful life, they do not necessary want the Taliban’s way of life but simply an end to the Taliban’s senseless violence.”

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Noorullah Noori, 24, said he remembers as a child in the late 1990s “being scared just seeing Taliban leaders” in his Shiite neighbourhood. Yet Noori, whose logistics business has seen revenue fall by 90 per cent in three years, says he’s ready to forget the past.

“I would never accept them to be the full government, but they can become part of the government,” he said, adding that if they do, “they may stop this brutality.”

Baryalai Ragheb, a 20-year-old ethnic Tajik who was reading a book on a park bench, said the Taliban had killed his uncle and cousin and then, after he was born, kidnapped his father and held him for two years.

Despite his family’s ordeal, he said, Afghanistan’s young people “have a responsibility to move the country ahead” by reconciling with the Taliban.

There is one big condition, however.

“The only thing I will give up to the Taliban is the blood already spilled by my family,” Ragheb said. “We will never give up freedom of expression, women’s rights or the Internet.”

About Tim Craig, Washington Post