Kabul's New Street Politics

Protests Signal a Dramatic Shift in Afghan Politics

Women chat slogans during a protest against the killing of seven people from the Hazara community, in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2015. Omar Sobhani / Reuters

On November 11, tens of thousands of Afghan men and women filled the streets of Kabul to protest the killing of seven civilians in the southern province of Zabul. The photograph of a nine-year-old victim, a girl named Shukria, became a symbol of the kind of violence meted out by either Islamic State (ISIS) militants or the Taliban. Protesters quickly reproduced her image on banners and placards in demonstrations in other major towns. The Afghan diaspora mobilized as well, staging rallies in Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere.

The protests in Afghanistan—the largest popular demonstrations ever in the country—reflect a dramatic shift in Afghan politics. Inspired by many causes and ideologies, Afghans are mobilizing against their government on a scale that is unprecedented in the country’s history.

With the economy flagging and armed groups gaining power, public dissatisfaction with the Afghan government is on the rise, as the most recent Asia Society polling demonstrates. The currency is faltering, and unemployment is ravaging Afghan society. Meanwhile, 2015 is on pace to be the most lethal year on record for Afghan civilians since the collapse of the Taliban. Not surprisingly, a growing number of Afghans are voting with their feet: nearly 150,000 braved the dangerous trek to Europe this year.

Yet the greatest challenge facing Kabul and its international backers may be the Afghan public’s rediscovery of street politics. Recent protests build on a lengthy tradition of vocal dissent. In the late 1960s, Afghan students, intellectuals, workers, mullahs, and others began airing their grievances in public spaces in the capital. Linked to protest movements across the globe, activists championed causes that spanned the political spectrum from right to left. In 1970, for instance, young Afghans greeted U.S. Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew with a barrage of eggs and bricks and signs that read “Agnew go home” and “Stop killing Vietnamese.” Afghans never lost the habit, launching protests even under the Soviet occupation and whenever possible amid the chaos that

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