Afghan women look at the skyline of Kabul in September.
In a mosque on the outskirts of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, a preacher crowed to assembled men and boys: The Taliban, with their primitive guns, brought foreign forces to their knees, he said, and the Afghan government is next.
"America with her rich and modern weaponry knelt down to us mujahedeen. So how will you defy us?" shouted the preacher on a sunny Friday in late October. He only permitted NPR to use his family name, Mazloum, and requested the mosque's name and its precise location remain anonymous, so it would not be targeted by Afghan government forces.
"The world is realizing the power of Islam and the mujahedeen, but not a few stupid puppets here," Mazloum said, referring to the country's Western-backed government. "Soon, Allah will grant us the Islamic government that our nation deserves."
The Taliban once lurked on the outer fringes of Kampany, a busy Kabul district with unruly traffic and roads that peter out into the countryside. But in recent weeks, they have been openly preaching in the district.
It is one of the ways the Taliban have been emboldened since signing a deal with the United States that will lead to American and allied foreign forces withdrawing from Afghanistan by spring 2021. Already, U.S. forces have downsized from 12,000 to 4,500 since the deal was signed in February. President Trump ordered the forces cut back to 2,500 troops by next month, largely cementing the withdrawal before Joe Biden assumes the presidency on Jan. 20.
The drawdown is being accompanied by peace talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan's government. On Monday, the architect of those talks, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, said the two sides would take a 20-day hiatus. Even if they are to succeed, they may take months, likely years, to negotiate.
But few are optimistic, because as foreign forces withdraw, the Taliban have waged violent attacks on Afghan government forces across the country, despite pleas to stop. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became the latest senior U.S. official to call for "an immediate reduction of violence" following a meeting with Taliban leaders on an unannounced trip to Qatar on Thursday.
Yet the Taliban's violence continues, and there are signs that the government is losing control over Kabul.
Streets empty after dark
The city's jammed streets empty out after dark, residents fearing militants and criminal gangs. Dozens of rockets slammed into the city in two incidents in November and December, killing more than 10 people.
Shadowy assailants target security officials, judicial workers and journalists, with no militant claiming responsibility for the attacks.
On Tuesday, the deputy governor of Kabul was killed by a magnetic bomb attached to his vehicle.
ISIS fighters, who were dormant for months, did claim responsibility for two deadly attacks in recent months: On Nov. 2, they stormed the Kabul University campus, killing 35 people, mostly students. A week earlier, on Oct. 25, one of their suicide bombers detonated himself outside a tuition center, killing 24 people.
Taliban inside the gates
The preacher publicly vowing to restore the Taliban's harsh version of Islamist rule over Afghanistan was yet another show of defiance around the capital. Mazloum wore the white garb of a Taliban cleric as he addressed a crowd who gathered in late October to celebrate a dozen young men who had memorized the entire Muslim holy book, the Quran.
Among the crowd were preachers from neighboring mosques. Young loyalists distributed Taliban glossies, including Trench, which highlights — and exaggerates — the exploits of the insurgents. Others directed traffic around the mosque.
"The Taliban are not only at the gates of Kabul, but inside the city gates," said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan researcher at the International Crisis Group. He said it was "as ominous as it sounds and as terrifying as it indeed is, in many scenarios for a security environment, for the protection of minority communities, and so for many other reasons, it's certainly alarming news," he said.
Across a tributary of the fetid Kabul river from Kampany, other Afghans watching the rise of the Taliban say they are arming themselves.
The sprawling neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi is predominantly made up of Hazaras, a Shiite Muslim minority, who are targeted by Sunni militants.
In recent years, ISIS fighters have battered the area; but during a pitched phase of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, before the U.S. invasion, it was the Taliban who targeted them.
They say they aren't waiting to be targeted again.
"When our houses are not safe, when our educational academies are not safe and our mosque are not safe, we have to make plans," said Mustafa Nikzad, an activist for Hazara rights. "We have active groups in the area, and if we are attacked, they are willing to defend us."
Nikzad said several militias had formed in Dasht-e-Barchi, with more than a thousand gunmen between them, their members purchasing weapons on the black market.
He said one of the largest militias was "Fedayeen Baba Mazari" and one of its leaders, Jayhoun, had his men patrol religious Shiite gatherings, which are often targeted by Sunni militants.
"Recruitment sped up"
Murtaza, a 29-year-old clerk who practices martial arts, said several strongmen were trying to recruit young men through gyms dotting the area. He asked to use only his first name because he did not want intelligence officials to identify him.
Murtaza said the groups began forming after militants beheaded a 9-year-old Hazara girl in 2015. "But this year, recruitment sped up. They're equipping themselves with weapons more quickly. It feels like this process will accelerate," he said.
Afghanistan's government also funds some local gunmen in Dasht-e-Barchi, largely to guard mosques, although there are complaints it is not enough.
"Naturally, we are disappointed," Mohammad Daud, 42, a guard assigned to protect the Imam Zaman mosque on a side street of Kabul, said of the government's response. He said the community asked the government two years ago to help them defend about 100 Shiite mosques in the area but only received weapons and paid fighters for 16. "The mosques still don't have security guards, there are still threats and the people are still coming to the mosque to pray. They are 100% at risk."
The mosque where Daud is stationed has blast walls, a watchtower and a guard to search worshippers. It was targeted by an ISIS suicide bomber in 2017, killing 39 men, their names etched in the court yard. The mosque still receives ISIS threats, as recently as late November, Daud said.
Afghanistan's government, meanwhile, says it is trying to keep the country safe. "Our forces will be here to face the threat that the Taliban and other terrorist groups are posing," said Javid Faisal, a political adviser to the Afghan National Security Council. He added that the government is arming local communities under the army's command structure, as part of its efforts to strengthen security.
To stay or go
None of this seems to reassure many Afghans, and young idealistic graduates who once believed they would help build their country are eyeing the exits, like Shakira Yazdani. She's 22 and studies law at Kabul University. She is a graduate of business administration and was hoping to become a commercial arbitrator in Kabul.
"I have never been interested in living abroad," said the young woman. "But if the situation in Afghanistan gets worse — we wouldn't have any solution or any other choice, but finding a way to go outside Afghanistan to live in a peaceful environment."
Yazdani said she began thinking seriously about leaving, at least for a few years, after the ISIS attack on Kabul University. She was on campus and had to flee. Some of her friends were killed.
"This country has invested in me and I have to pay it back," she said. "But the increase of violence in Afghanistan really put me in a doubtful situation, whether I can live here or not."
Another law student at the American University of Afghanistan, Ali Yaqubi, 24, echoed Yazdani's hesitations. He had planned to run his own business and enter politics — to help his community in Dasht-e-Barchi. He also has a degree in public policy, works as a consultant and volunteers in a charity that helps street children.
Now though, he said, "if I have the opportunity, legally to go to other countries, I would definitely go. At least to have security and to be alive."
Yaqubi spoke to NPR in a cafe near his office in central Kabul. "You can't guarantee a minute, even here," he said. A few days ago, "there was a rocket attack next to this café."
But for now, he's in Kabul. Every morning, his mother gives him money to give to poor people on the street — so they'll pray for his safety. That follows a Muslim belief that God hears the prayers of the oppressed.
Yaqubi said he doesn't really believe it will do anything, but at least it makes his mother feel like he is safe.