Nearby, inside a tent covered with posters of revered Shiite figures, six volunteer guards plan their night patrol in Dasht-i-Barchi, the heart of Kabul’s Shiite community — one that is increasingly under siege.
Now it is the Islamic month of Muharram, a sacred time for the Shiites that peaks Thursday with Ashura, marking the death of revered Shiite martyr Hussein in 680 A.D. It is also a date favored by the extremist Islamic State group to unleash terrorist attacks against a community it sees as heretical.
“We don’t have guns, only sticks and flashlights, but if we see a suspected suicider, we are all ready to run and hug him tightly. That way if he explodes, he will kill only one person instead of many,” said Ali Hassan, 22, one of the guards.
These informal self-protection measures reflect the growing fear, desperation and anger at the government among Kabul’s Shiites, most of them minority ethnic Hazaras, after a dozen terrorist attacks this year on Shiite mosques, education centers and other sites in the capital have killed 180 people and wounded more than 400.
They are not the only ones worried. The rise in insurgent attacks across the country has all Afghans feeling increasingly insecure. More than 400 soldiers and police officers have died in the past two weeks, while civilian war casualties have reached a record high of 1,692 this year, according to a new United Nations report.
“The government has failed to protect us. We are doing what we can, but it is not enough,” said Mushtaba Saqizada, 18, who works at the Maiwand gym and said he watched a bomber shoot his cousin in the head before detonating his explosives. “They should give us weapons or let us buy them to protect ourselves.”
This week, heavily armed police convoys have been cruising the main streets of Dasht-i-Barchi, where rhythmic dirges boom from loudspeakers and religious banners fly from every rooftop and bus. But residents say it is not enough.
Aside from the persistent violence racking the country, Afghanistan is also experiencing an extended political crisis, in part stemming from accusations of tampering in the preparations for parliamentary elections Oct. 20. In the past month, protesters have shut down numerous provincial election offices, provoking clashes with police and raising concerns that the elections will be postponed or canceled.
Another potential source of trouble comes from the former leaders of ethnic militias that once fought the Taliban and are now suspicious of President Ashraf Ghani’s peace overtures to their enemy. In his haste to end the 17-year insurgent conflict and hold successful peace talks, they fear he will make too many concessions.
Long marginalized by Ghani, a member of Afghanistan’s dominant Pashtun ethnic group, these groups are flexing their muscles — and possibly sending veiled warnings — at a time of government weakness and turmoil. Ghani’s top security aide suddenly quit last month and is now expected to challenge him in April’s presidential election.
“The Ghani government today is like a wounded beast. The lions are circling and so are the hyenas,” said Haroun Mir, a private analyst and former government adviser.
One startling episode came Sept. 9, a national holiday commemorating the 2001 death of anti-Taliban militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik and national hero. Across the capital, rowdy displays of gunfire by Massoud loyalists turned into aggressive violence, with roaming armed mobs attacking people and a bomb exploding in the city center. Police were slow to intervene. By evening, seven people had been killed.
The growing alarm about government instability — and the possibility of failed or delayed elections — has spawned a frenzy of meetings and proposals among the political elite. There is talk of forming an interim government and other alternatives. But cooler heads argue that even if flawed and fraud-ridden, parliamentary elections must be held to keep a semblance of democratic progress advancing.
“We have a constitution, and we can’t put our foot too far outside it,” said Mohammad Umer Daudzai, an influential former cabinet minister. Although a tough critic of Ghani, he said that some opponents have gone too far, risking the collapse of elections and the government, as well. Most responsible leaders, he said, agree that “we can’t afford to let Afghanistan slide back into chaos.”
First, though, the country must get through Muharram — especially the highly emotional, religiously sensitive period around Ashura later this week, when security officials say bombings and other attacks by the Islamic State are extremely likely.
In Dasht-i-Barchi, the mood in the past few days has been a mixture of defiance and devotion. People are bracing for violence but calmly observing the public rituals of their faith that will expose them to it. They are frustrated with the limited official response but are organizing to compensate for it.
Last year, the government approved the hiring of local guards for Shiite mosques, trained the recruits and distributed 600 assault rifles nationwide. Five months ago, it established a new police district in western Kabul. The terrorist attacks, however, have continued, hitting a voter registration center, educational facilities and the wrestling gym, where two journalists also died.
In a meeting with Shiite community elders after several attacks, Ghani said that their sorrow “is the sorrow of the entire Afghan people,” according to an official statement. The president promised that “fundamental actions will be taken for the security of western Kabul as an area facing high threat.”
Hamid Reza Kohi, the district police chief, said last week that his efforts had brought down the crime rate and that his men were working around the clock to prevent attacks, but also that “the bloodthirsty enemy is seeking to target people. Any area people gather is under threat.”
Meanwhile, dozens of local Hazara men — retired security guards, muscular young bodybuilders, taxi drivers and fighters just back from serving with Iranian forces in the Syrian civil war — are willing to pick up a gun and protect their community from what many are calling a “genocide” against their religious and ethnic minority.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Shiite Hazaras have used education to overcome the long-standing discrimination against their ethnic group, but in the face of a threat to their very existence, they are now arming themselves as well.
“The strategy of Hazaras is to move in parallel,” said Zulfiqar Omid, a Hazara leader who is running for parliament. “It means a pen in one hand and a gun in the other.”