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Afghan warlords and militias fill the security vacuum left by a weak central government
Afghanistan has suffered immeasurable loss for years on battlefields and in bombings, but a recent campaign of assassinations has shocked the country. Kabul’s middle class neighborhoods are stalked and targeted by killers, picking off a generation of professionals. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and producer Emily Kassie report.
We return to our series on Afghanistan — tonight, deep fear in the Afghan capital.
Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and producer/cinematographer Emily Kassie report.
Two female Supreme Court judges were killed.
Afghans wake up to news of more assassinations in Kabul. This time, it's two female judges killed in a brazen execution on their way to work in the morning.
Seconds after Zakaria (ph) Heravi left this house to go to work, her brother heard the gunshots.
Hajj Mustafa Heravi (through translator):
I heard the bullets fired, constant firing. My wife screamed. We all ran out barefooted.
I saw one of her colleagues was laying down and shouted at me to go check my sister. But when I saw her, she was hit here and also in the shoulders. I felt as though the ground fell away below me and the sky fell. When I saw her, I knew she was gone.
She was a Supreme Court judge and a breadwinner. Every man in this room relied on her to support them and their children. A highly successful professional at work, she was a matriarchal leader in the home.
She was a very strong person, when she left and kissed the hand of our mother and said, "I'm not sure I will be back alive."
Rooms like this filled with families gathered in shock and grief emerge across Kabul every day now. Afghanistan has suffered immeasurable loss for years on battlefields and in bombings,
But this recent campaign of assassinations has shocked the country, Kabul's middle-class neighborhoods are stalked by killers, picking off a generation of professionals.
Man (through translator):
The people in the capital are educated, bright people. Some people from the villages are uneducated, and they come and kill the educated people of Afghanistan.
The grief here is turning into anger. Bitterness runs deep.
One hundred percent this was the Taliban. From Karzai's time to now, all attacks are carried out by them. All people are targeted, police, prosecutors. She was a judge. What will the international community do? They are leaving, while the Taliban is still here.
It's not clear if the assassinations are ordered by the Taliban. No group has formally claimed responsibility.
According to a deal signed between the Taliban and the Trump administration a year ago, the last American boots on the ground here leave in less than 100 days. In the meantime, peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government are not making progress.
Journalists, judges, human rights activists, anyone with a voice and a role to play in building civil society here, is now marked for death by nameless assassins. Since the deal was signed, over 150 have been murdered. A new cold fear has descended here. No one knows who will be targeted next or why.
This should be a relatively safe neighborhood of Kabul, and one of the impacts of these killings is to remind everyone, especially professional women, they are not safe anywhere in this city.
Anisa Shaheed refuses to bow to that pressure. A well-known TV reporter for Afghanistan's Tolo TV, heading out on a story is more dangerous for her now than ever.
The Afghan intelligence services have told her militants plan to lure female journalists to interviews like this one, where assassins will be waiting.
The office is worried and calling to check on her, she tells us.
Today, she is reporting on a domestic murder case, interviewing a family who say the government and the police won't investigate. To Anisa, her job is a form of service to her people and community. But it leaves her very exposed.
Do you feel in danger when you're out here?
Anisa Shaheed (through translator):
Yes, because Kabul is insecure. And, right now, we are far away from the city. So, yes, it doesn't feel good.
But you don't stop doing it. You don't stop coming out here. You keep working. Why?
I can't not come here just because I'm scared or because I'm under threat. I can't not come here. If I don't, who will make this family's voice heard? Who will make sure their words reach officials?
The Taliban deny they are responsible for killings across the country. We traveled to one of their strongholds less than two hours outside the capital and challenged them on
Is the Taliban responsible for assassinations, in particular against female journalists?
Mawlawi Tawqul (through translator):
Whatever acts or attacks we do, whether it's in Kabul or around the country, we claim responsibility. The other attacks that have been carried out are perhaps by ISIS or someone else to create tension. The Taliban always claims responsibility for any attack they have carried out.
But the Afghan government insists it's the Taliban, not the Afghanistan franchise of ISIS.
They are so keen to prove it, they gave us access to an intelligence services prison to meet with a self-confessed Taliban member, saying he helped in the assassination of an election official.
This young man, who says he thinks he is 17 or 18 years old, is from the very same Taliban-controlled area we visited. Although he says he is willing to do the interview, we are hiding his identity, because he may be a minor and has no access to a lawyer.
Where I live, there is a lot of Taliban. They have a lot of influence. Everyone there is a part of it.
He's accused of monitoring the movements of the election official, thereby helping his cousin, a Taliban commander, assassinate the man.
They told me to follow him and watch his house, to keep track of his whereabouts, when he leaves and when he comes home. I don't support them now. I have been captured. I know my punishment.
Now his young life could be ended too, with high officials calling for the death penalty against those involved in such killings.
I want to study, to go to school. I had ambitions growing up, but my cousin destroyed everything.
He too has become a casualty in this long war.
Anger here at the Trump administration's handling of their peace negotiations with the Taliban is tangible. Since the February 2020 agreement between the American government and the Taliban, the group has not killed American soldiers for over a year, but Afghans continue to be slaughtered.
There was this promise sort of made also by the Americans who initiated this process that there would be a reduction in violence. However, what we see on the ground is the opposite. The Americans did protect themselves through the U.S.-Taliban agreement, but there was no protection for Afghans.
Shaharzad Akbar heads Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.
The feeling is this feeling of being forgotten, being — the process not being about Afghans at all. Is it about a dignified exit for the U.S., or is it about lasting peace for Afghanistan?
Like so many here, Akbar has been personally impacted by the killings. Colleagues of hers at the Human Rights Commission have been targeted and killed in recent months.
One of the biggest achievements for the past 20 years was this cadre of Afghans who were trained. Some of them received international standard education. Some of them studied here in Afghanistan.
They are the backbone of running a system of governance. And the message to them is, there is not a future for you here.
As for so people many in this city, the grief is crushing for those left behind.
I think losing my colleagues really tested my strength, really tested my faith, and really tested my hope.
But it didn't stop me. But I need to be honest that, I think if there is one thing that can really test my strength again would be something like that. I am more afraid of losing any of my colleagues than I am afraid for my own life.
And it's a horrible fear to live with, because I know I can't protect them. Sometimes, the only regret that I have about taking this job is this, that maybe I'm too young to experience this pain, to look my colleagues' parents in the eyes and tell them: "I'm sorry. We lost your child."
Back in the newsroom at Tolo TV, Anisa is putting together her story. She's defiant about keeping up her work as normal, but privately carries around the same fears as Shaharzad, that the sudden and violent loss of loved ones will continue.
I'm scared that I will lose more colleagues. We have lost too many.
When my friends see me outside, they say: "You are alive?"
Everyone who goes outside, you think they won't come back alive. It's a huge worry. I never thought we would get to the point where every day we wait for the death of our friends.
All my friends know me. They know I'm not one to be afraid. But now I know that I actually do have fear.
Whoever is behind these killings, their chosen targets seem to speak to how they view Afghanistan's future, one without the new generation of civic leaders, rights activists, and journalists, without influential, professional women.
As America stumbles out of this war, the fight for Afghanistan's future has entered a new deadly phase.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Such important reporting.
Thank you, Jane.
Watch the Full Episode
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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