KABUL — The play was meant to be an abstract, artistic meditation on violence, performed in the French Cultural Center for an audience of high school students and invited guests. It was called “Heartbeat: The Silence After the Explosion.”
Partway through the production, ominous music surged and half a dozen actors collapsed slowly on the stage, moaning faintly and calling to each other. Sounds of an explosion and shattering glass tore through the theater, followed by a brief silence.
For a split second, Faiqa Sultan, a young artist in the audience, thought it was part of the play. Then she started screaming.
“I stumbled outside and there were bits of flesh and blood on my clothes,” Sultan, 21, recounted recently. “Now I am afraid to be alone. When I hold a glass of water, my hand shakes. When I have to cross the street, I run.”
As for the cultural center, she added, “I don’t think anyone will dare go back there now.”
The Dec. 11 suicide bombing, in the prestigious center at an elite high school near the presidential palace, was a Taliban warning against Western-backed cultural and civic movements in the Afghan capital. Four people were killed instantly and dozens were wounded. A fifth victim died in a hospital Saturday.
The Soviet conflict and civil war of the 1980s and ’90s shattered Kabul’s civic life, and when the Taliban took power in 1996, it shut schools and attempted to destroy many historic artifacts, simply because they were not Islamic. Now, as insurgents attempt a comeback, they have proclaimed all Western civilization as an enemy to be crushed along with foreign troops.
In a statement, the Taliban denounced the play as an “insult to Islamic principles” and “propaganda against Jihad, especially martyrdom operations.” The group vowed to continue targeting media and civil society activists who “broadcast against Islamic values and are busy in immorality.”
Even after weeks of terrorist attacks on foreign compounds and aid agencies, security facilities and politicians, the strike at one of Kabul’s best-known institutions — a symbol of French influence on Afghan culture and education since the 1920s — came as a shock. Yet despite its chilling effect, civic leaders dismissed the idea that the Taliban can roll back the revival of international culture and democratic ideals.
“Historically, Afghanistan was always a moderate Muslim society, and today its people are against Talibanism,” said Abdul Hamid Mobarez, a prominent writer, commentator and former minister of culture and information who lived in France as a refugee during the civil war and Taliban eras. “They have no chance of succeeding.”
On the surface, city life has gone on as usual, with constant traffic jams and cart vendors shouting in crowded bazaars. In poorer districts, the main security concerns are a surge in street crime and a growing narcotics trade.
But in affluent residential and business areas, the wave of targeted terror has created a spookier feeling. Uniformed and plainclothes police guard almost every intersection, and everyone has a story about the friend who was en route to a building that came under siege, or whose house was a block from an explosion.
“The sense of terror is absolutely present now across the city,” said an Afghan official of a U.N. agency who asked not to be named. “People have a new feeling of coming together against a common enemy, but they are also angry at the lack of security and leadership. They feel if we had a proper government in place, this wouldn’t be happening.”
Some of the blame is focused on President Ashraf Ghani, who since taking office Sept. 29 has not named new heads of the national intelligence police or the Defense and Interior ministries, nor the rest of his cabinet. Critics say this has left a dangerous void in combating crime and terrorism, especially as NATO forces finalize their withdrawal from the country.
Ghani has repeatedly promised to begin naming top officials, but his aides said it has taken time for Ghani and his former rival, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, to put together a team that balances ethnic, political and professional demands.
But some analysts said that a new bureaucracy was unlikely to put a serious dent in the Taliban’s aggressive campaign.
“The enemies of Afghanistan are doing this on purpose to give a bad name to the new government,” said Moeen Marastial, an independent politician who served on Ghani’s campaign team. He said the wave of attacks is mainly a response to the security agreement signed between the U.S. and Afghan governments this fall that allows 10,000 U.S. forces to stay through next year.
Yet although its principal target remains Afghan and foreign troops, the Taliban clearly intends to keep attacking civilians involved in liberal and artistic pursuits, which it views as immoral activities imported from abroad. Most newspapers, galleries, and musical and academic programs in Kabul have international backing.
“From now on,” the Taliban declared after the theater bombing, “people who are on the payroll of westerners and are trying to implement Western cultural goals . . . will be seen the same as Western military invaders and will be targeted.”
As the list of civilian assaults grows, the response from victims and activists has been a mixture of fear, camaraderie and defiance. Several people involved in producing “Heartbeat” have gone into seclusion. A pioneering cafe where young men and women listened to poetry and music together has been shut down.
Sultan, who helps run a women’s art gallery hidden behind a nondescript office door, said that she was planning to attend a friend’s calligraphy exhibit opening last week but that her family begged her not to.
One of the best-known victims of the recent terror spate has remained openly defiant. Shukria Barakzai, 42, is a liberal member of parliament and an outspoken supporter of democracy and women’s rights. On Nov. 16, a suicide car bomber rammed into her armored vehicle as she was being driven to work, and the blast killed three bystanders. She survived with burns on her head and hands and is recovering in a high-security police hospital.
“I thought it was a dream until I felt my scarf and my clothes burning,” Barakzai said from her hospital bed last week. “They used some explosive chemical, and my vehicle was totally destroyed. It is only by magic that I survived.”
Though she needs help walking, Barakzai said she refuses to be cowed by the assassination attempt. She sent her children back to school and insisted on returning to parliament for several important meetings, which included casting her vote for the U.S.-Afghan security agreement.
“When I went back to vote, I had to cross the exact spot where I was attacked,” she said. “If I could face that, I can face anything, I don’t know who was behind this, but I won’t let them stop me.”