Jawed Kohistani was not surprised that someone would try to kill him. In November, the Afghan intelligence service sent him a letter warning that militants planned to murder him and other political analysts, including the prominent commentator Ahmad Saeedi.
On 24 November, after receiving the letter, Kohistani called Saeedi to warn him, but the phone rang out. He was too late. Minutes before the call, Saeedi had been waiting in a car for his wife to come out from a dentist appointment. He was fiddling with the car radio and looked up to see a clean-shaven young man in a suit on a motorcycle aiming a gun with a silencer at him. The man shot Saeedi twice in the face.
He survived but his hearing and sight were damaged. Speaking to the Guardian a day after his return to Kabul from India, where he had undergone surgery and skin transplants, he said: “I was shot less than 100 metres from the ministry of interior. Nobody targeted me but the government.” One bullet, he said, remained lodged against his cheekbone.
The attempt on Saeedi’s life is part of a string of attacks on prominent analysts, journalists and commentators in the Kabul. While Saeedi points his finger at what he claims are a “fifth column” of sympathisers within the government, Kohistani, who is renowned for cultivating sources within the insurgency, believes the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network is behind the attempted killings.
“They are more afraid of us than they are of military generals,” he said.
Two weeks after Saeedi was shot, Kohistani’s turn came. He narrowly escaped when his neighbours, armed with guns, fought off three masked men lurking in his garden.
According to Nai, an independent Afghan media organisation, at least seven political analysts have been targeted in the past month. All have been critical of Pakistan, and have talked openly about fissures in the Taliban at a time when the movement is suffering a deep leadership crisis.
One of Nai’s own media analysts, Sediqi Tawhidi, also found himself on a hitlist.
Tawhidi normally leaves his Kabul office at the same time but on a recent day he went home early. His driver dropped him off, parked the car and went to pray. The driver was inside the mosque when he heard the blast. “The bomb was under the back seat where I normally sit,” said Tawhidi. He thinks the explosives were timed to go off at a time when he would normally be travelling home.
In a public profile always comes with risks, but the atmosphere appeared to take a turn for the worse in October. During the siege of the northern city of Kunduz, the Taliban declared TOLO and 1TV, two national broadcasters, legitimate military targets after they reported on sexual abuse and violence allegedly committed by the militants.
“They think [the channels] are paid by foreigners to work for ‘the crusaders’ against Pakistan and Taliban,” said Kohistani.
Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi declined to name culprits behind specific attacks while investigations were ongoing. He said all Afghans were terrorist targets. “But of course there is a more imminent threat to public figures,” he added.
Afghan media and public debate have gone through an enormous transformation since 2001. While there was hardly any independent press during the Taliban’s rule, there are more than 100 television stations and 250 radio stations throughout the country today.
The US has spent more than $100m (£68m) supporting free Afghan media, but as some of those gains may be at risk. According to Nai, 2014 was for journalists in Afghanistan since 2001.
Kohistani blamed the government for failing to curb insurgents in the capital. “The Taliban are not getting stronger. It is the government that is weak,” he said.
Another analyst, Toofan Waziri, was shot at in his car after talking publicly about how the reported death of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor would fracture the movement. He said sources in the Taliban had previously told him they did not like his outspokenness.
“I don’t feel as safe as I used to,” he said, adding that he was worryied that the rise in attacks might cause some commentators and journalists to self-censor. “I have seen analysts change the way they speak.”
“Security was better under [Hamid] Karzai,” said Tawhidi, who under the previous government received intelligence warnings about possible attacks. “But this time nobody informed me,” he added.