Afghanistan's brightest look for a way out as murders rise

Jay Deshmukh and Usman Sharifi
·4-min read

Days before he was gunned down on a Kabul street, democracy activist Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed had made up his mind to move his family to Turkey, joining scores of other high-profile Afghans fleeing the country.

Rasheed was killed in December on his way to work, one of at least 180 assassinations carried out by the Taliban since September across the country, according to Afghan officials.

"They first shot him in the heart, and then -- to make sure he was dead -- they shot him again and again in the head," his brother Abdul Baqi Rasheed told AFP at the family home in Kabul.

Journalists, religious scholars, activists and judges have all been targeted in a recent wave of political assassinations that has spread panic across Afghanistan and forced many into hiding -- with some even fleeing the country.

The killings have increased since peace talks were launched last year between the warring Afghan government and the Taliban -- the latest attempt to end decades of conflict.

The assassinations reflect a calculated effort to sow chaos and expose the government's inability to safeguard prominent targets, said veteran political analyst Davood Moradian.

"By weakening the Afghan state, the enemy will get closer to its ultimate objective, which is toppling the current constitutional system," he told AFP.

And he predicted that Afghanistan's "brightest" will be increasingly targeted in the months ahead.

- Women's voices 'gone quiet' -

The assassinations have been acutely felt by women, whose rights were crushed under the Taliban's five-year rule, including being banned from working.

Since the Taliban's fall in 2001, women's participation in the labour force has slowly increased, but they must contend with great risks.

After multiple sources told popular journalist Farahnaz Foroton that her name was on a hit list, she also decided to leave the country.

"I had no choice... every day we see (assassinations) increasing," she told AFP.

Another female reporter -- now in hiding -- said she was under pressure to stop working after the murder of Malalai Maiwand, one of five journalists killed since November.

"I have not seen my children for months, and given these threats and killings, my family wants me to quit," she told AFP.

Two female judges working for the country's Supreme Court and two female doctors have also been killed recently while on their way to work.

Intelligence officials linked the renewed threat against female professionals to demands at the peace talks for their rights to be protected.

"Lots of women activists and professionals then started getting threats -- some were killed. Now that voice has gone quiet," an intelligence official said.

One Afghan journalist who asked not to be named fled his hometown after militants threatened him for investigating how a local madrassa was radicalising children in the area.

After a cleric issued a religious decree -- known as a fatwa -- ordering his murder, some men were seen planting a bomb near his home.

"That's when I realised I had to either flee or risk getting killed," he said.

On Monday, the founder of a leading online Afghan news agency escaped unhurt when a bomb attached to his car blew up in Kabul.

- Sophisticated assassinations -

US officials have blamed the Taliban for the wave of assassinations and attacks, and the new administration under President Joe Biden has called for a review of last year's deal that paved the way for the withdrawal of foreign forces by May.

But the Taliban deny carrying out the assassinations, many of which have been claimed by the rival jihadist Islamic State group.

"The (Taliban) has absolutely no hand in civilian killings," the group said Monday, adding that the charges were "unsubstantiated".

Afghan intelligence officers suspect a violent branch of the Taliban known as the Haqqani network.

"It is the Haqqani network (carrying out the assassinations) for the Taliban. There is a clear understanding between all of them," an intelligence officer said.

Another officer told AFP that dozens of suspects arrested over the killings were Taliban prisoners released recently as part of the peace process.

The assassinations sometimes take months of careful planning -- to catch officials off guard -- and are increasingly more sophisticated than the formerly favoured suicide bomb.

Citing the recent murder of an Afghan air force pilot, a foreign security official said the attackers had "mapped his every moment" using a camera mounted on a drone.

The pilot had been looking for a new home and was lured to his death by assassins posing as property agents, local media reported.

Rasheed, the activist who had hoped to move his family to Turkey, was also closely monitored in the months before his murder, his brother said.

Shaharzad Akbar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said every week someone she knows was leaving Afghanistan.

"There is no future for them here -- not any time soon," she said.

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