KABUL — At this stage of his career, Ahmad Jawad would like to be selling the terraced estates that housed Taliban leaders before they were driven from the Afghan capital in 2001.
But the 27-year-old real estate agent hasn’t sold a house in nearly a year, and he is so desperate for money that he hopes the Taliban returns to Kabul to impose “rule of law.”
“If they can enforce the law like it was enforced during their reign, they are welcome,” said Jawad, who blames unemployment, graft and the lack of security for a collapse in Kabul’s housing market. “There was less crime. There was less corruption. There was less embezzlement.”
His words reflect a shift in the opinions held by some of Kabul’s millennials on both the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s government: Bashing the Islamist insurgency has gone out of style as frustration with the current leadership mounts.
In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, young urban Afghans were among the most vocal opponents of the Taliban, recoiling not just at its brutality, which included public executions, but also the restraints it imposed on women and its demands that men grow beards.
These progressive 20-somethings, with their embrace of technology, education and Western culture, were seen as an emblem of Afghanistan’s bright future. They also formed the backbone of an urban workforce that thrived when more than 100,000 troops and billions of dollars of relief money flowed into the country after 9/11.
Now, as the drawdown of coalition forces saps revenue from the local economy, many younger Afghans appear more open to the idea of the Taliban assimilating into, and perhaps even changing, the existing government and constitutional order.
“The current situation is so bad, I don’t care who rules the country,” said Khalid Asif, a 24-year-old technician. “There is an ugly face to the Taliban, but there is an ugly face to everything.”
The shift comes as Ghani’s government hopes to reengage the Taliban in peace talks this week. Although discussions are expected to drag on for months, the erosion of public support for the president could strengthen the Taliban’s hand at the bargaining table.
And as misery builds in Kabul, more young urbanites are reassessing some of their views.
Over the past year, the currency’s value has dropped 21 percent, driving up the cost of imported goods. The unemployment rate is also rising — ranging now from 25 percent to 40 percent, according to separate analyses from the Labor Ministry and the Afghan Central Statistics Organization.
And it’s not just a matter of economic woes. The dream of Kabul eventually becoming a more modern city also appears to be fading.
Because of security concerns, Western diplomats and contractors now shuttle around the capital in low-flying helicopters that rattle windows and nerves. Last month, Afghan officials say, militants blew up several transmission lines, cutting off much of Kabul’s electricity for three weeks.
The city of at least 3 million people doesn’t even have a mayor because Ghani and Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, have been unable to agree on how to fill thousands of vacant government positions.
Zafar Hashemi, a spokesman for Ghani, said the president understands the youths’ frustrations, especially those who have lost high-paying, albeit short-term, jobs with international contractors or nongovernmental agencies, but he said the government has been hampered by limited resources.
“A majority of the youth does understand the new reality of their country, and the government tries its best to bring about the reforms the country needs so it can utilize its resources efficiently and effectively and create sustainable programs and jobs,” Hashemi said. Still, he says that saying that youth are turning against the president is an “overestimation and exaggerated statement.”
“By suggesting that they would like to see the Taliban join a peaceful life,” he said, it doesn’t mean they want to adapt the Taliban’s ways, but they do hope for “an end to the Taliban’s senseless violence.”And interviews with two dozen young adults suggest there are some red lines limiting what they would give up for peace and economic stability.
They won’t stand for restrictions on free speech, women’s rights, the media or use of the Internet or social media, they say. But increasingly, it seems, more things are creeping into the category of negotiable.
“There is no room for negotiation about the Internet, but in terms of TV stations, they could change some,” said Nim Asad Saadat, 19, a student at Kabul University, adding that some “Indian TV shows and Turkish soap operas” run counter to “Islamic values.”
Even some Shiite millennials appear to be softening their views of the Sunni-dominated Taliban. When the group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, thousands of Shiites were killed in clashes with the government.
“We still think they are cruel people . . . but now we also see the result of this government,” said Najibullah Hamidyar, 34. “So we Afghans think if the Taliban takes part in this government, and if the situation brings peace, that is okay.”
Over the past two years, analysts say, Kabul’s young people have cycled through various stages of grief as government promises of jobs and security failed to materialize.
In 2014, younger Afghans largely backed an agreement with the United States to keep troops here, believing that would ensure long-term stability.
By last summer, however, young people made up the bulk of the 250,000 Afghans who fled the country in hopes of reaching Europe. About 150,000 of them ended up in Germany, where they are applying for asylum, according to a spokesman for the Refugees and Reparations Ministry.
Musa Fariwar, a law professor and political analyst, said younger Afghans now increasingly accept that the Taliban may return in some form.
“They see that foreign intervention has failed, and if the whole international community can’t defeat the Taliban, we have no choice but to start peace talks,” Fariwar said.
There are exceptions to the trend. Young ex-soldiers and youths who frequent Western-style gyms and underground bars are the most unequivocally anti-Taliban.
“We hate them because we know they will not let us live life free,” said Hekmatulluah, 22, who was lifting weights at Gold’s Gym. (Hekmatulluah uses just one name.)
Afghan women also need to be wary, said Fatima Hakimzada, a 27-year-old activist.
“If the Taliban accept the constitution, women’s rights, education for both genders . . . I welcome them in joining the government,” she said. “The problem is that the Taliban have not changed. . . . Women are being stoned to death in areas they control.”
But at an Internet cafe in Kabul’s upper-middle-class Taimani neighborhood, other young adults sounded more optimistic.
Noorullah Noori, 24, said he remembers as a child in the late 1990s “being scared just seeing Taliban leaders” in his Shiite neighborhood. Yet Noori, whose logistics business has seen revenue fall by 90 percent in three years, says he’s ready to forget the past.
“I would never accept them to be the full government, but they can become part of the government,” he said, adding that if they do, “they may stop this brutality.”
The inclination to forgive was also apparent during a recent visit to Shar-e Naw Park, which draws a mix of hashish smokers and young men playing volleyball, soccer and cricket.
Baryalai Ragheb, a 20-year-old ethnic Tajik who was reading a book on a park bench, said the Taliban had killed his uncle and cousin and then, after he was born, kidnapped his father and held him for two years.
Despite his family’s ordeal, he said, Afghanistan’s young people “have a responsibility to move the country ahead” by reconciling with the Taliban.
There is one big condition, however.
“The only thing I will give up to the Taliban is the blood already spilled by my family,” Ragheb said. “We will never give up freedom of expression, women’s rights or the Internet.”
Sharif Hassan and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.