Two men sit together; one holds a gun

Hassib Habibi (left) sits with his friend Ali Wardak, an Afghan American businessman from the same province, after meeting with other members of the government and young Afghan businessmen in Kabul on June 6. Ali Latifi for Foreign Policy

KABUL—When Hassib Habibi enters a room, it’s easy to be intimidated. His black turban and traditional perahan tunban outfit are accessorized with an AK-47 that hangs from his shoulder. Physically, he looks every bit the stereotypical Taliban fighter, and he knows it.

Once he starts talking, though, a different man emerges. The 31-year-old deputy director of economic cooperation at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs—one of the men most responsible for attracting foreign investment to a pariah state under a pile of international sanctions and opprobrium—eschews the fire and brimstone that characterize most Taliban harangues. He speaks in quiet, measured tones even when he’s on about something he’s absolutely sure of, like the justice of the Taliban’s 20-year fight against Western occupation.

Put simply, he comes off like most other 31-year-olds in Kabul, and with good reason. For much of his life, Habibi alternated between studying in the Afghan capital and returning to the battlefields of his native Maidan Wardak province, before he was rounded up and sent to the notorious Bagram prison for more than four years. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August freed him and ultimately made him a senior diplomat.

In many ways, Habibi is the embodiment of the paradox of today’s Afghanistan, once again run by the Taliban after 20 years of U.S. efforts and occupation. By all accounts, Habibi would fit in at any hip Kabul cafe where his peers quote the Canadian rapper Drake, UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, and tech bro Elon Musk. But he also speaks at length about being called to jihad and his Islamic duty to protect his nation against an infidel occupier.

“There were so many people like me, we were everywhere,” said Habibi, when we spoke in June, of how others like him hid in plain sight in Afghanistan’s urban centers over the last two decades. On Aug. 16, 2021, the day after the Taliban returned to power, the streets of the Afghan capital were awash with cars waving black-and-white Islamic Emirate flags and blaring Taliban devotionals from their speakers; men who would have been at the bootleg DVD shop, the shisha bar, or the barber the day before were suddenly cruising the streets of Kabul acknowledging, if not welcoming, the fall of the Islamic Republic.

Fighters hold Taliban flags

Fighters holding Taliban flags gather along a street during a rally in Kabul on Aug. 31, 2021. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Many onlookers said it was just an inevitable reaction to yet another regime change in a nation that has gone from monarchy to republic to communism to jihadism to the Taliban to a facsimile of Western democracy back to the Taliban in just a 50-year span. But Habibi believes those sights were visible proof that lots of people in Afghanistan thought like him all along.

“From the traffic police to the president, whoever you had to deal with, they just left you with anger and disappointment,” he said of the former Afghan Republic. “You would pray that God would never put you in a situation where you would have to come face-to-face with that government and its corruption.”

Habibi is now a prominent face in an Afghan government that has plenty of problems of its own. Its human rights record over the past year has been abysmal, civil rights have raced backward, and the country is broke and hungry. His job is to attract the kind of international investment that could begin to rebuild a war-shattered nation—but that seems like an impossible task when Kabul is in the hands of hard-line religious rulers.

He may have bitter memories of imprisonment by the Western-backed government and its foreign benefactors, but Habibi said he’s willing to put that behind him to bring money into the country. Having studied business in India, he knows the importance of bringing investment back to Afghanistan, and he has made it his primary goal. His ministry has reached out to Afghan investors and urged them to bring their money back to their own country. He is also now willing to sit at the same table as his American jailers, so long as they agree to invest and if they acknowledge the Islamic Emirate operates according to its interpretation of Islamic law and Afghan cultural norms.

“In every meeting, we stress to the people, Afghan or foreign, that now is the time to restart their businesses in Afghanistan. We are willing to work with them, if they work with us,” he said.

He has to do all of this while also proving that his appointment to such a key post will not end up like the government of former President Ashraf Ghani, which was often criticized for putting educated young people in charge of key economic, security, and educational portfolios with little tangible success. 

Nowadays, Habibi often finds himself running into others like him in the city. In late May, at a friend’s office across the street from an eatery once popular with Kabul’s crowds of reporters and nongovernmental organization workers, Habibi made friends with a doctor who now has a high position in Kabul’s municipal government. The doctor regaled them with colorful stories of university, where he battled a girl from Herat to be valedictorian. Few in the room dared bring up the irony that a current official of the Islamic Emirate spoke so openly about being in a mixed-gender class, considering the Emirate before and now has gone to great lengths to ensure that university classrooms would be gender-segregated.

Habibi recalled the debates he had with friends in Kabul who supported the former Western-backed Afghan Republic. He describes the encounters as tiresome exercises, but he kept at them.

“They would point to me and say, ‘People like you are the ones keeping us from advancing,’ and I’d just look right back at them and say, ‘What progress, show me one example?’ And they’d turn back around and say, ‘Because you people won’t let us, that’s why.’ It just went on like that forever.”

The circular nature of those conversations shows that over the decades, not much has changed in the Afghan conflict. In the 1980s, nearly every family had members who sided with the Soviet-backed communist government and others who took the side of the Western-supported mujahideen. Over the last two decades, there were families and friends divided between the Taliban and the Republic.

Habibi was no exception. His father, a doctor, also took part in the resistance against the Soviet occupation. He provided battlefield triage while fighting alongside the forces of Hezb-e Islami, a group under the command of the jihadi leader-turned-warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

“Growing up, I saw that my father was also a mujahid fighting for the country,” Habibi said. He grew up listening to his father’s stories about life on the battlefields of Kabul, Maidan Wardak, and Logar provinces, and knew that one day he, too, would join the fight. As he grew older, and the United States began its own occupation, he continued to see resistance fighters in Maidan Wardak—and eventually became one of them.

But there is one thing that sets Habibi apart from other educated men his age: the more than four years he spent in detention for his affiliation with the Taliban. In 2017, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency, took Habibi from his family home in the Afghan capital and sent him to prison. For years, the NDS had been accused of violence and torture against its prisoners.

Taliban escorted by security forces

Forces with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security escort accused Taliban fighters after they are presented to the media in Jalalabad on Jan. 23, 2019. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images

Habibi didn’t provide details of the torture, but he said that he and other prisoners were subject to mistreatment during his four months in NDS detention. “The Afghans were much worse, much crueler than the Americans,” he said. “The Americans would at least try and follow some kind of law, but the Afghans had no limits, they didn’t seem to follow any guidance or rules.”

Afghan intelligence forces vehemently refuted reports of abuse in NDS detention—reports amply documented by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Habibi said conditions only worsened when he was transferred to Bagram prison in the northern province of Parwan. At the time, the prison was still run jointly by U.S. and Afghan forces. 

“Bagram wasn’t fit for human life,” he said of the more than four years he spent in the notorious detention center. “Even if they kept animals in that condition, your heart would bleed. No one saw us as human beings.”

Habibi acknowledges that under the laws of the former Republic, his support of the Taliban could constitute a crime, but he said he wasn’t afforded due process or given access to his own lawyer. “It was all a show, I never saw anything true and authentic,” he said. “Even if I was guilty under their laws, did they follow their own laws in my case?” His family—including his infant son—were barred from visiting him: “My son was three-and-a-half months old when I was jailed. What was his crime that he didn’t get to see me or talk to me?”

Last summer, as districts and eventually entire provinces began to fall into the hands of the Taliban, Habibi said the word slowly started to reach the thousands of prisoners still held in Bagram. At the same time, conditions in the prison got even worse, as the water and electricity would come and go, and the quality of the food continued to deteriorate.

“It was becoming obvious that the stage was set and everything would change very quickly,” he said.

But the speed of the change caught even the detainees in Bagram by surprise. On the morning of Aug. 15, there was an uproar in the prison. Detainees said they’d seen soldiers outside start retreating. 

“A friend of mine said, ‘Come look, the guards are running!’ I couldn’t believe it, ‘You’re kidding, they wouldn’t run.’ He told me to come see for myself, and there they were, just running, exactly as he had said.”

The exterior of Bagram prison

Bagram prison in Parwan, Afghanistan, is pictured Sept. 20, 2021. Mustafa Melih Ahishali/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

By noon they were on their way out of the prison. When outside, Habibi saw his brother, cousin, and his almost 5-year-old son waiting for him. Habibi and 15 other prisoners packed into a vehicle and headed toward Kabul. There, they heard that Ghani and his closest associates had fled the country. “None of us could have imagined that the Republic would fall in such a way and that the president would just run off,” Habibi recalled

After an overnight visit to the home village to reassure his family, he returned to Kabul—not as a former prisoner, but as the embryo of the new government. “Now, we have to put our Muslim beliefs into action,” he remembers thinking.

Politically, Habibi knows that as the deputy director of economic cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he has been handed a huge responsibility at a young age. According to the United Nations, humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan are only 30 percent funded, with a $3 billion deficit. Until late 2021, more than 40 percent of the Afghan economy and 75 percent of the government’s budget came from international donors. Today, that investment is a fraction of what it once was, with China, Pakistan, India, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and Uzbekistan promising economic engagement in the country but delivering little so far.

Habibi said he is willing to put aside his resentment toward some of the very nations that enabled his torturers.

“We can discuss with them, because now we are confident that we are the leaders of this land, that this is our home. We have authority over this land for once,” he said.

Today, Habibi said he has no problem with any foreign country coming into Afghanistan to invest and rebuild, even Americans, so long as they do it with the actual intent of uplifting the nation. “When the government is the true owners of the country, things are different,” he said. “The Republic didn’t have true authority or decision-making ability.”

Workers load pine nuts onto a plane

Workers load pine nuts into a cargo plane bound for China at Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan on Jan. 10. About two months after the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, the export of pine nuts to China resumed. Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua via Getty Images

This sentiment has been echoed by top Emirate officials, including the supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who in an Eid al-Adha message said he is willing to work with any nation, including the United States, to help Afghanistan out of its current economic crisis.

But the biggest obstacle to Habibi’s job is the Taliban itself—and their self-made image as brutal extremists bent on turning back the clock. International sanctions, on both the current Afghan government and individual Taliban ministers, make foreign economic involvement—even for charities and NGOs—a dicey proposition.

Habibi’s first task is an attempt at an image makeover. 

“For 20 years, a generation grew up with a picture of the Talib as monsters,” he said of the animosity the Islamic Emirate must counter. “These people left behind their own life, their children, their family, their land. … They put everything to the side and even blew themselves up for the freedom and rights of their people—what more could you ask of them?”

Of course, when those men did blow themselves up, they took innocents with them, something amply documented by the U.N., local and international media, and rights groups for decades. 

Habibi insisted the Emirate’s general amnesty, declared shortly after the Taliban came to power, left the group’s former foes in safety. He is adamant that none of the former members of the Afghan National Security Forces or Islamic Republic government have faced abuse or mistreatment at the hands of the now ruling Taliban.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Numerous organizations and publications including the New York Times, Human Rights Watch, and the Washington Post have documented hundreds of allegations of the Taliban breaking the oft-repeated promises of amnesty by killing, abusing, or disappearing former security forces over the last nine months. Journalists have been hounded and hunted. There have been reports of women’s rights advocates beaten into quietude and repeated allegations of mass abuse against civilians in the northern provinces of Panjshir and Baghlan, where there is some armed resistance against the Taliban. In recent weeks, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have released reports claiming Taliban forces have responded to the armed resistance with “collective punishment,” including torture and “unlawful killings” of civilians. 

Taliban fighters hold guns

Taliban fighters keep a watch at an outpost in Tawakh Village in Anaba district, Panjshir province, on July 8. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Habibi blamed those actions on rogue actors and interlopers who are out to damage the reputation of the Islamic Emirate. “Of course there are people who use the name of the Emirate and want to make us look bad; they do things that we have no need for, nor did we come for that reason,” he said.

What the Taliban supposedly have come for—what Habibi in particular maintains is his goal—is to reverse the dysfunction and corruption of the previous governments and start delivering tangible benefits to the Afghan people. He said he’s seen enough false promises and false starts over the last 20 years to have reason to doubt the goodwill of outsiders.

And yet it is his job to woo them. In making his case, Habibi brings up toilets. The much-feared CIA-backed Khost Protection Force (KPF) is an example of behavior he wants to avoid. The KPF delivered a semblance of security in Khost and Paktia provinces, but it left local residents in fear of any run-ins with the group. It also delivered a lot of waste. When he was in Kabul and Logar provinces, Habibi said he often saw KPF convoys carrying expensive, disposable bathrooms, basically plastic port-a-potties, shipped in at great expense from Pakistan. 

“They would come from the Torkham crossing, and few Afghans realized that they were bringing disposable bathrooms from Karachi that cost thousands of dollars each,” he said. “That should have been a sign to them that they have no interest in staying here long-term.”

Now, he said, those disposable bathrooms are lying in literal waste along the road from Khost to Kabul.

“Imagine if they had put whatever they spent on each one of those into real, actual physical structures that would still be standing to this day. We just want the authority to say, ‘Come here and work.’”

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