TBILISI/KABUL -- "I can't get off social media these days," says 29-year-old Sharifi.
The signal may be in and out. Keeping digital devices charged is a challenge amid constant power outages. But millions of Afghans, especially the urban young, are like so many other people in the world of 2021: addicted to their screens.
Except that what is keeping Afghans online these days is the fate of their country, as the Americans retreat and the Taliban advance, vowing to impose their Islamic Emirate. "I keep looking at the news," continues Sharifi, who works as a finance manager for a Kabul-based construction company. "Another bombing, another district fallen to the Taliban."
Gul Rukh, 24, a trainee teacher, has experienced the result firsthand. In June, the Taliban swept into her district in the western province of Ghor, choking off the tentative freedoms she had grown used to and her career hopes. "Now the Taliban are in the district, they have closed schools and hospitals, and stopped women from working," Gul Rukh said via WhatsApp when she briefly got a signal. By simply sending that message she risked Taliban punishment as they typically ban phone use in areas they seize.
America is ending the longest conflict in its history by pulling out of Afghanistan, after 20 years of fighting. But the country it is departing has already been at war for more than twice as long. And the situation America leaves behind -- with the Pakistan-backed Taliban resurgent and the U.S.-backed government on its heels - could yet mean another round of Afghanistan's "forever'' war.
Some 600 to 1,000 U.S. troops -- the Pentagon won't say exactly how many -- remain in Kabul, guarding the airport and its embassy. But with the U.S. earlier in July having quit Bagram Air Base, the nerve center of its military operations since 2001, the latest superpower to tangle with Afghanistan has signaled it has had enough.
Many Afghans feel betrayed: "The United States and NATO propped up an entire generation of Afghans on Western liberal-democratic values and against the Taliban," said Tamim Asey, a former Afghan deputy defense minister. "But they are now abandoning them high and dry, and asking them to fetch for themselves."
There are many who see close parallels with the way things ended when an exhausted Soviet Union admitted defeat in 1989. Then, too, the security forces were dependent on the superpower's support. Then, too, people were asking how long the government would survive. Moscow's support kept then-Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah in power three more years -- until the Soviet Union itself collapsed. A recent U.S. intelligence assessment reportedly gives Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his administration as little as six months. Some also see parallels with Iraq, and the way U.S.-trained forces collapsed in the face of the Islamic State group's advance in 2014.
While some U.S.-trained Afghan government forces have been fighting hard, the Taliban have been able to march into many districts without firing a shot, then quickly post pictures on social media. Footage has recently emerged appearing to show Taliban fighters executing U.S.-trained commandos last month after they had surrendered in the western province of Faryab. Though in this case, the Taliban have claimed the video was a fabrication.
Taking the capital or other big cities might still be beyond the Taliban. But that conjures fears of a bloody stalemate and civil war. The biggest losers are likely to be people like Sharifi and Gul Rukh, Afghanistan's young people, who dared to hope that a better, more stable future was possible. At least two-thirds of today's population of around 35-40 million are under 25; more than half have been born since the 9/11 attacks that prompted the U.S. invasion and led to the ousting of the Taliban.
They have helped create the outlines of a country that is visibly, materially and philosophically different to the Afghanistan the U.S. invaded in 2001 -- and now far more connected to the outside world.
Some have risen in the corridors of power, serving as deputy ministers, presidential advisers and senior diplomats. Others have become successful academics, journalists and lawyers. Some have set up companies. Yet there is an even larger number with better qualifications but no job -- and who now see their country fracturing around them.
Since President Joe Biden in April ordered a complete U.S. pullout, the Taliban has gone on a blitzkrieg, with reinforcements from Pakistan helping the movement seize swaths of territory north and south of the Hindu Kush. The government still controls the main cities, but from the borders with Iran in the west, to China in the east, Taliban flags are now flying again.
Tens of thousands of young Afghans have left already, a brain drain of the wealthiest and most qualified heading to Asia or the West. And every day, hundreds of the poorest young Afghans try to smuggle themselves over the border into Iran, hoping to find work there.
If this turns into a full-blown refugee exodus, it will be Afghanistan's neighbors in Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia who will carry the main load of sheltering them.
"We were raised on Western values"
Tamim Asey is among the standard-bearers of this new generation. When 9/11 happened, he was at high school in Pakistan, a refugee living with his family, and remembers the "horror" of seeing TV broadcasts of the planes hitting the twin towers in New York.
Sixteen years later, Asey became deputy defense minister in a new post-Taliban Afghanistan and now runs a Kabul-based think tank. "Many of us learned English ... and got scholarships which we would never have had access to without the international presence in Afghanistan," he said. "We were raised on liberal, Western values such as human rights, women's rights and freedom of the press."
Less high-profile is Zuha, 32, whose life has also transformed in the past two decades with the easing of social restrictions on women, at least in urban areas, like her home in the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif. The fall of the Taliban allowed her to complete school. Then she got a scholarship to study in India and now teaches English at a private college. She supports her whole family with her earnings. "During the Taliban government, women were not involved in decision making. Now women are even working in the security forces, an incredible improvement."
Since the U.S. pullout began, Zuha is no longer so confident. Violence and criminality in Mazar-i Sharif have risen, she says, in a city that used to be viewed as relatively safe. The Taliban have taken many districts in surrounding rural areas. Zuha says she is far warier than she used to be about leaving the house. "To take care of myself, I always cover myself outside when going to my job or the market and take my husband to drive and accompany me."
In November 2001, as the Taliban fled Kabul, forced out by U.S. airstrikes and Afghan militia forces on the ground, women were filmed celebrating as they threw off the burqas they had to wear outside their homes. Now the head-to-toe garments are commonplace once more, and there are reports from areas the Taliban have taken that they are beating women who venture outside unaccompanied.
In the past, Zuha had also worked with American organizations, making her a potential Taliban target, and so she had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa to move to the U.S. After initially being accepted, Zuha says she has not had a response "for the last 2 years." Facing criticism over the backlog of some 18,000 cases, President Biden recently promised to "streamline" the process. For Zuha, this is little comfort as the Taliban keep encroaching around her city.
Afghanistan has developed since 2001 but nothing like what one would expect from the vast sums spent there. U.S. taxpayers alone have forked out more than $2.2 trillion for the war effort, according to one recent study. "We do have big buildings, but we don't have our own electricity to light these buildings," notes Mohammad Fazil, who graduated with a civil engineering degree and now works for the Kabul municipality. Afghanistan relies on importing electricity from neighboring countries, also rendering it vulnerable to attacks. As the Americans were slipping away from Bagram, the capital was into its second week without electricity, its worst outage in years, after a series of transmission lines were blown up. Most people can't afford to run the large generators that keep "normal life" functioning in the wealthier parts of the city.
The post-2001 opportunities have come with many "miseries," Asey of the Kabul-based think tank said. What progress has been made is at risk from a Taliban movement that has been able to regroup, exploiting both its sanctuaries in Pakistan and the failings of the U.S.-backed government.
"People like me are dead men walking"
The past few months have been a harsh awakening, said Janan Mosazai, who was a journalist with the BBC during the initial U.S. invasion before going on to become Afghanistan's ambassador to China and Pakistan. "The illusion was created that the U.S. would stay forever," he said, adding that the country could now be "at a point of no return" if no peace deal can be arranged.
"Almost all of my friends have left the country," Asey said, insisting he plans to stay. "I and a couple of others, in spite of having the opportunity, are holding the fort here and argue that if we leave then who will represent our generation. Only bad guys will fill the vacuum."
At the same time, he is sympathetic to those who have already gone. "Honestly, one cannot blame them because of the threats they and their families face."
With their profile and background, people like Asey and Mosazai are seen as prime targets for the assassins who have gone after politicians, intellectuals and anyone else regarded as having a liberal, "Westernized" identity. Asey reckons he has been threatened at least 20 times. "People like me are dead men walking," he said.
Rarely are these targeted attacks claimed, but the Taliban are the most likely perpetrators, in a systematic attempt to intimidate and demoralize their staunchest opponents in the post-2001 generation. And it has accelerated the brain drain.
This writer has witnessed it too. Dozens of Afghans I have worked with over the past 20 years have either left or are getting in touch, looking for advice on how to leave.
"More than half my relatives have already left the country," said 30-year-old Feroz, who lives a short drive from Bagram Air Base.
Feroz won a scholarship to study English in India but cannot find a job back home. When the power is on, he says he is on social media, keeping in touch with the news and with his many friends and relatives who have made it abroad.
This new, connected Afghanistan is global, with new refugees following developments back home while sharing tips on how to leave.
"I am at home most of the time now"
Feroz is also an avid reader, his favorites books range from Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" to Rudyard Kipling's "Kim," a novel set in a past era of great power competition in South Asia.
Recently, the news he reads online has become all too real. Five neighbors were killed in a rocket attack the day before he spoke to Nikkei Asia, as the Taliban tried to take his district. Kabul is an hour's drive away.
Across the country, residents have awakened to find government forces gone and the Taliban dishing out harsh punishment to those who do not follow their new rules. "The Taliban demand food and collect ushr [taxes] from us every day," said Raziq, a civil society activist in another district of Ghor Province that recently fell. "They beat us if we don't do what they say."
Phone videos of Taliban fighters whipping people who do not give them food, or women who go out without a male relative, have been doing the rounds on Afghan social media. It is not always clear if they are old or new videos, but the fact so many are sharing them is a reflection of the widespread foreboding that the worst of Taliban rule is spreading across the Hindu Kush.
In many areas, they have already set up their own local administrations, complete with so-called shadow governors, often leaving government officials in place. Those left in place may still draw their salaries but they answer to the Taliban. At the time of writing, fighters had taken over four major border crossings -- with Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
Some of these crossings are reportedly already in operation, with trucks moving again, except with customs duties now flowing to the Taliban.
In the capital, life on the surface looks much like it has in recent years as markets throb and traffic grinds through endless checkpoints. But options are dwindling, nerves fraying. Fahim, 23, has been hunting for a job since graduating two years ago with a computer science degree. "Because of the security situation," he said, "I am at home most of the time now."
A deadly new COVID surge is killing far more people than earlier waves as it adds further misery and destroys escape plans. Sharifi, the construction company finance manager, had been saving his earnings with the eventual goal of trying to move to Europe. But his whole family has gone down with COVID-19, including his parents, and the medical bills have emptied his savings.
With the economy rocked by a combination of pandemic, war and declining international aid, his employer has slashed his salary by more than half. "If things get worse," said Sharifi, who grew up a refugee in Pakistan, "we will have to return there."
Many Afghans fear history is repeating in other ways. Former mujahideen commanders, who made their names fighting Soviet troops in the 1980s, have put out a call to arms, creating new private armies or militias to stem the Taliban advance. But Afghans remember that these are the same commanders who led the vicious internecine conflict that devastated Kabul after the Soviet pullout, killing at least 50,000 people.
"These former so-called mujahideen distributing weapons among their followers in the name of supporting the government are actually making themselves ready for civil war again," said Feroz, watching from his home near Bagram airbase. "This will shed the blood of innocent Afghans once more, just like when these so-called mujahideen were fighting each other for power [in the early 1990s]."
It is a bleak picture, and, argues former Ambassador Mosazai: "The government has failed young people. There are too many young, educated people who are unemployed."
That, in turn, has provided ready recruits for the Taliban in rural areas, where poverty rates are highest. Many villages across the country have been emptied of their younger age groups. Some of these youths have joined the ranks of the Taliban, while others have tried to slip into Iran without papers to find work there to support their families.
Creating space for the Taliban
But how did it get to this point? How did the Taliban go from defeat in 2001 to what its supporters are already calling victory over the Americans two decades later? And at a cost in lives of at least 51,000 civilians, around 70,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 3,580 Americans and allied personnel and an estimated 78,000 on the Taliban side, according to a study compiled by Brown University in the United States.
There are many reasons. Janan Mosazai blames the way the U.S. negotiated its pullout, conceding too much to the Taliban in the February 2020 Doha deal signed by the Trump administration. "We are here because of the U.S. decision to bypass the Afghan government and negotiate directly with the Taliban under the garb of a peace agreement."
Most controversial was the decision to release at least 5,000 Taliban prisoners, many of them former commanders, as part of the U.S. deal, helping the movement to reinforce ahead of a new offensive.
But the post-Taliban political system and power balance was shaky from the start. Under the 2001 Bonn Agreement overseen by the Americans, the Taliban was excluded while former mujahedeen commanders blamed for civil war massacres were effectively rehabilitated. Too many people were not convinced the government was working for them, Mosazai said. "Once the state was seen as predatory in terms of corruption and human rights, it created space for the Taliban," he added.
With Pakistan's support, the Taliban recovered from defeat. Like many, Asey criticizes what he called America's "silence toward the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan." For its part, Pakistan no longer denies that it has been hosting Taliban leaders and their families not only in border cities such as Quetta, but even around the capital, Islamabad.
Still, Asey believes the austere religious movement cannot take over like it did in the past. "The Taliban victory narrative is a fiction and myth," he said. "The new Afghanistan will never accept them and their dogmatic ideology."
Mosazai, who now runs a think tank focusing on the Afghan peace process, has not given up hope of avoiding more conflict.
"It is still possible to push the Taliban to the negotiating table," he said. "The Taliban's military advances have left it stretched thin. They have lost a lot of people. If the government is united, then the Taliban will have no choice but to negotiate. But right now they see political disarray in Kabul."
"We are under house arrest"
The surrounding region plus big powers like China, Russia and the U.S. will play crucial roles. "One thing that is clear is that the region wants a peaceful and stable Afghanistan," Mosazai said. "All countries in the region are scared about the possible return of the 'emirate.' But the region has so far failed to define a framework that will see their interests accommodated."
In Pakistan, there is fear of Afghanistan's troubles spilling over once more. Some Pakistanis, especially those tied to its powerful military, have been celebrating what they see as the triumph of their long-running patronage of the Taliban. "But some in Pakistan are also scared that this will embolden their own extremists," Mosazai said.
The unfolding crisis is prompting greater urgency. Foreign ministers of all of Afghanistan's neighbors, including China, plus the U.S. and Russia, meet July 15-16 in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent in another effort to revive talks.
As they fight on the battlefield, the Taliban have been doing their own diplomatic outreach, often appealing to the same audiences. Already this month, Taliban delegations have had meetings with officials in Russia, Iran and Turkmenistan, acting as if they are a government in waiting.
Longer-term, Afghanistan's fate is likely to hinge on relations between India and Pakistan that so often boil over in the disputed territory of Kashmir. "This is deeply unfortunate and shows these two countries are still incapable of looking at Afghan peace and stability as a win-win proposition for themselves and the broader region," said one veteran South Asian diplomat who asked not to be named so he could be frank in his comments.
"The tablet makes me happy"
As the situation has deteriorated, growing numbers of young Afghans have been turning to drugs - tapping the country's ample local supplies. It is estimated that at least 10% of the population, or around 3.5 million people, are regular users, many of them women and children.
The dystopian impact is clear to see in Kabul and other cities, with hundreds of addicts living rough. America alone has plowed nearly $9 billion into fighting the Afghan drugs trade over the past 20 years, but production and trafficking has only increased -- helped by the Taliban who have turned to narco-revenues to fund their insurgency.
If this was a legal business, it could win awards for innovation and resilience. Last year, Afghanistan produced at least 6,300 tons of opium, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime -- enough to make some 900 tons of heroin -- and accounting for around 85% of the world supply.
The country is also the world's biggest hashish producer and fast closing the gap with Southeast Asian nations in its output of the highly addictive stimulant crystal meth.
In recent years, growing numbers of younger Afghans have been using brightly-colored stimulant pills called Tablet-K (pronounced Ka). Similar to the party drug MDMA or Ecstasy, it sells for between $3 to 30 USD per pill.
"I have been using Tablet K for two years," said Sara, 21, a student at Kabul University. "I use it with my girlfriends when I am upset and I want to relax. The tablet makes me very happy."
Such descriptions of modern life among young urban Afghans are anathema to the Taliban. Their leaders sidestep criticism that they allow narcotics production. And if they regain power they say they intend to ban drugs -- much as they did when they controlled the country in 2000. It is a position Sara and her friends are all too aware of. "Religious extremists are a big problem for us because we drink and use Tablet-K."
For her, it is one more reason to fear the Taliban's return. She, too, is looking for an exit - following other friends and relatives who have gone already. "I am tired of this country," Sara said.
For those already living under Taliban rule, like Gul Rukh in Ghor Province, the implications of staying are clear. "The Taliban today have worse thoughts than the Taliban of yesterday," she said in a WhatsApp message. And, she added, "We are under house arrest and not allowed to leave."
The names of some interviewees have been changed at their request because of security concerns.
Andrew North has reported extensively from Afghanistan since 2001 and was previously based in Kabul as a resident correspondent for the BBC. With additional reporting by Barakzai in Kabul and Shafi Karimi.