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Watch Part 3
Targeted assassinations against civil society create a climate of fear in Afghanistan
Last year, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban that would have U.S. and NATO troops out of Afghanistan by May 1. But with the U.S. presence in the country about to enter its third decade, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are stalled, and violence remains high. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.
And now to Afghanistan, where the U.S. presence is now 20 years old.
Last year, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban that would have the U.S. and NATO troops out of the country by May 1. Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are now stalled, and violence remains high.
As special correspondent Jane Ferguson and producer and cinematographer Emily Kassie tell us, as part of a series of reports, however the Biden White House deals with America's longest war, one thing is sure. The Taliban think they have already won.
Taliban fighters roam freely in the Tangi Valley, on the border between restive Logar and Wardak provinces. The winding roads are just a couple of hours' drive South from the Afghan capital, but this is Taliban territory and has been since the Americans left the valley years ago.
Now these men anticipate the final phase of their departure across the country.
Mawlawi Tawqul (through translator):
The new president of America must take all his forces out of Afghanistan. He should respect the agreement that has been made. If they don't leave, we are ready to carry on. The mujahideen is not tired of war. Joe Biden should take all their forces out and leave us in peace.
It has been over a year since we last traveled into rural Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban. We came back to find out how the deal with the U.S. is playing out, after 20 years at war with America.
They came and met us. Now they're just leading us in this way. They actually greeted us with gunfire. That's to send a message to the area that the guests have arrived.
Morale here is high. We found local commanders relaxed, jubilant even, and with a clear message for President Biden.
There is no difference overall between Trump and Biden. They are both Americans, and so we see them as infidels. Trump was trying to get something done quickly and get the forces out. Joe Biden has to do the same thing. He must respect the deal.
That deal promises every last American and NATO soldier will be out of Afghanistan by May 1, in exchange for the Taliban agreeing to break ties with al-Qaida and negotiate a peace deal with the Kabul government, led by President Ashraf Ghani.
In reality, they have been peace talks only in name, with the Taliban increasing its attacks on government forces since signing with Trump's team one year ago. These men don't seem to be taking those negotiations seriously.
We all know Ashraf Ghani and his whole government were brought here by the Americans, and they follow the orders of the Americans. After the Americans leave, they cannot do anything. They cannot carry on.
Our leaders have already said there will be no more fighting, and they will bring an Islamic system of government.
The Taliban insist on calling any future government of Afghanistan the Islamic Emirate, the same name as the regime they led here in the late 1990s, before being toppled by the U.S. after 9/11. These men see their leaders as ready to simply take over, with no room for compromise.
The rest of the world should treat us as a government. The emirate is alive now, but once it comes to full power, everyone will accept and respect it. They will treat us the same as any other country.
Taliban leadership says it wants Ghani to step down, but he and his vice president have vowed to continue to the end of his term.
Would you support that if it meant peace?
The only thing I support will be an election. I prefer to…
Well, that would be…
I prefer to die with 100 bullets in my chest, but not compromise the value of elections. That's why we fought.
Not everyone in the Kabul government can agree on this issue. Dr. Abdullah Abdulllah, who served until last March as Afghan chief executive, below Ghani, oversees the negotiations for the government. He ran against Ghani in two highly contested presidential elections.
Finishing term shouldn't be a priority if it is balanced against peace, durable, dignified peace, acceptable for the people of Afghanistan.
And I am sure, while President Ghani today has responsibilities as the president of the government to perform, lead the government and the state, at the same time, if he sees there is a solution that is acceptable for the people of Afghanistan, finishing the term might not be a priority.
There is growing concern that the Taliban have no interest in peace at all, that they may be simply going through the motions to help America save face as it departs, and could still decide they can topple the government when the U.S. leaves.
My biggest concerns will be that, if Taliban calculation, or calculus, is based on the fact that, OK, we participate in the negotiations, without making compromise, and continue the talks, get the rest of our prisoners released, and then, by such a time, the time for the presence of the U.S. troops will expire, according to the agreement that they have.
And then, beyond that, then they will have the upper hand militarily, and then they will do whatever they want.
President Biden has inherited not only America's longest ever war, one it has largely lost, but also a peace deal of President Trump's making.
It offers little beyond promises that the Taliban will not allow al-Qaida once more to find safe haven in Afghanistan. That's a promise the Pentagon says they are already breaking.
Biden Pentagon spokesman John Kirby:
Without them meeting their commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks on the Afghan national security forces and, by dint of that, the Afghan people, it's very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement.
If they don't honor the settlement to leave, the Taliban have vowed to continue to fight, and the Afghan security forces would struggle to hold onto cities without American air support, drawing the U.S. further back into the war.
Qari Khaled (through translator):
Absolutely, if the agreement is not implemented, we will await the orders from our seniors to fight.
We are not tired. The mujahideen don't get tired. Remember, Trump himself said something like, these fighters are going to war like it's a football match.
While these power plays continue and all sides jostle for their own interests, ordinary Afghans are desperately hoping for peace. There are few places as war-weary and ravaged as Afghanistan. The conflict these people have experienced, 42 brutal years of bloodshed, through Soviet invasion, civil war, and American invasion, dwarfs even America's longest ever war.
It has robbed generations of their loved ones and made poverty an enduring curse.
As you walk around these Taliban-controlled villages and really rural areas of Afghanistan, it is striking to think of how many billions of dollars of aid money has been poured into this country, and how little of it made it into villages like this.
In one village we met Salim, our Taliban minders waiting outside while we, two women, were permitted entry. He told us he worked his whole life in the Persian Gulf city of Abu Dhabi to afford to build this house. Now he stands in front of it, pleading with us, rare foreign visitors, for peace.
Salim (through translator):
Mr. Joe Biden, we want the war to be over and the Americans to leave from here. America is good, but they need to go back to America.
I asked him in Arabic what he wants for his family's future.
School. This is my daughter. And this is my daughter. I want them to go to school.
But the Afghanistan his daughters inherit may not meet his hopes. The Taliban have recently made overtures about respecting women's rights, conscious of their infamy for the appalling repression of women when they ruled this country. But in these areas, it seems clear that little has changed in their attitudes.
The current situation with women in Kabul is bad. We will not accept this. We will only permit them to have whatever rights are specified in the Koran.
We saw no women in the street anywhere in Taliban-controlled areas, and the few we saw at all, in the local health clinic, were being carefully watched. We weren't permitted to talk to them on camera. Getting insight into their lives remains frustratingly difficult.
Meanwhile, in a nearby bazaar, men jostle to talk with us, crowding around. There is much discussion as to whether the wider regional rivalries will spoil this moment of potential.
Do you feel like peace is coming?
Yes, yes. Maybe.
Yes, but I'm not absolutely certain.
What do — what is the danger for peace? What do you worry about?
Especially Pakistan don't want peace in our country, Afghanistan, some — and other countries like Iran, Russia, and they don't want to come peace in our country.
So, the problem is outside countries?
As the Talibs gather to eat lunch and discuss the news of the day, reports in the form of voice-mails come in on the phone, this one apparently from a commander in Kabul City dismissing the vice president's new policy of increasing security cameras in the capital.
There is a feeling here amongst the fighters not of coming compromise and serious negotiations, but one of triumph, of the spoils of victory surely to come soon. This attitude is in part informed by that Trump agreement, in many ways a win-win for them.
President Biden's next move on that deal will impact the people of this country for a generation to come. With a delicate balancing act of pressure and diplomacy, he will have the fate of tens of millions of Afghans in his hands in the coming critical weeks.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in the Tangi Valley, Afghanistan.
And, tomorrow night, Jane looks into a terrifying and methodical campaign of assassinations in Kabul, the Afghan capital, targeting politicians, civil society and the public that has shaken the city to its core.
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Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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