KABUL, Afghanistan – Shortly before midday Tuesday in Kabul’s Shar-e-Naw district, hundreds of young women – joined by hundreds of men – stormed toward Afghanistan’s presidential palace in vehement protest against the Taliban’s rule.
“Death to Pakistan, Death to the Taliban, Death to the ones who cheated our country,” they chanted.
But as the momentum built, the Taliban quickly dispersed the crowds in minutes by firing endless bullets into the air, prompting scores of demonstrators to flee in various directions, disappearing amid the throngs of shopkeepers and curious onlookers.
The mass movement marks one of several that have unfurled in the transformed city in recent days, with the latest one spurred by both Afghan women incensed by their reduction in rights and those angered not only by the Taliban’s incursion into the last remaining province of resistance – Panjshir – but by concerns of Pakistan’s involvement in the fight some 80 miles north.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, arrived in Kabul during the weekend to meet the Taliban leadership under the formal guise of helping to mitigate the formation of the new Islamic Emirate of the Afghanistan government. The visit of the powerful intelligence figurehead marks one of the most publicly visible to date, cementing Pakistan’s growing influence over the neighboring nation.
Nonetheless, the chaotic protest moment was met with weary sighs from street vendors and other passersby, who all appear to have grown accustomed to the unrest and uncertainty that has gripped the country not only in recent weeks but for years on end.
Tuesday’s demonstration, according to the demonstrators and security analysts, was triggered by a statement released Monday by Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the Panjshir-based National Resistance Forces (NRF). Massoud called on supporters both inside and outside the beleaguered nation to “rise up in resistance for the dignity, integrity and freedom (of) Afghanistan.”
Other eyewitnesses described the demonstration as being comprised mostly of women, with most expressing upset toward Pakistan.
“We’re tired,” one protester lamented to me later, sheltering inside a bakery after running from authorities. “This is the only thing we can do now.”
However, Taliban intelligence authorities on the street – who belong to the group’s elite forces – offer a different take on the situation.
“We talked to some protesters, and they did not know why they were even there,” a Taliban Commander told me as a cluster of his Special Forces gathered, stressing that they were being paid the equivalent of approximately $10 to $20 USD by a “special Massoud organizing group” to cause unrest.
A medical representative at Kabul’s acute-care EMERGENCY hospital, located at the site of the protests, affirmed to me afterward that nobody was admitted with bullet wounds. Still, six individuals were rushed in with other injuries related to the event. Early reports Tuesday also indicated that dozens of demonstrators – including women – were detained in the aftermath and camera equipment confiscated. Local Afghan news station, TOLONews, wrote on Twitter that their cameraperson filming the demonstrations was among the arrested.
“We are hopeful that there won’t be any more,” the Taliban commander continues, downplaying the number of activists that had gathered. “We want to tell the women that they have nothing to worry about. We will give them jobs.”
Another Taliban patrolling officer, who sat hoisted with a PKM on the back of an armored truck, concurred that no one was hurt and that they would “solve all the women’s problems.”
Yet the morning’s mayhem did not deter the women. Around 3:30 p.m., another protest proliferated through the same Shahr-e-Naw district, filled almost entirely with women appearing to be in their twenties. The hundreds of women amassed in small packs on street corners, armed with hand-written signs and shouting “freedom” as they began their daunting walk into the unknown and into a potential hail of gunfire and handcuffs.
“We want what we worked so hard to achieve,” a prominent Afghan women’s rights activist who was not present at Tuesday’s commotion says. “We don’t care if it costs us our lives. We have no life anymore as this is.”
The uptick in anti-Taliban commotion comes as a time when the Emirate is still in the process of forming a new government, amid escalating murmurs on in-fighting and different factions of the Taliban with different agendas and pursuits for power.
While it remains to be seen exactly when the announcement will be made and who will be issued what roles, Taliban officials have already made it clear that no women will be permitted into high-ranking positions.
Yet the visible unrest indicates that it is not only Afghan women but men too who refuse to go down without a fight.