Zarifa Ghafari says it became clear she could no longer trust her driver when Taliban militants tried to blow up her car with a rocket-propelled grenade.
I forget the loud dining room, a forkful of curry suspended in mid-air. She had already had her doubts, my guest explains. A year earlier, in March 2020, a hit squad had targeted her after the driver, Masoom, had parked the car and left to run an errand. After that she had hired an armoured vehicle and five bodyguards for her 45km commute from Kabul to the town where she worked as mayor. On the day of the RPG attack, one of the bodyguards was driving her and her fiancé, while Masoom was transporting the rest of the team; despite her order that he should stay behind as back-up, he had overtaken her vehicle.
“So we are driving like hell, so fast . . . Then once again, we are under attack and we need a clear road to get out,” she says. It was Masoom’s job to do that. “He should have told the bodyguards to come and clear the road. Or he could have cleared the road with his car. But instead he was putting the car in front of mine, he was blocking my car.”
Not for the first time, I am reminded that life-threatening danger has been a predominant feature of Ghafari’s young existence. The Afghan politician-turned-activist, who at 24 became a sensation by being appointed top official of the conservative Wardak province, is a product of America’s longest war: an educated woman who overcame family and tradition to achieve a position of power — and a survivor.
The RPG assault was one of six occasions she skirted death. Her hands are covered with burn scars caused by a suspicious gas explosion in her flat in 2019. As a young girl she was also twice severely injured by suicide bombers on her way to school. In November 2020, her father, a commander in the then western-backed Afghan army, was shot dead in front of her family home in Kabul. “Terror attacks made me Afghan,” she writes in her recent memoir, Zarifa. But, she tells me, “I don’t remember being afraid . . . I really don’t.”
Ghafari is interested in her driver’s story because, she says, it shows why many of her countrymen ended up joining the Islamist insurgents against the Kabul-based government, intensifying the chaos of the US exit from Afghanistan in August 2021. When the Taliban took over Wardak two months before that, she stopped employing Masoom, partly because she was no longer able to return to the province, and he grew bitter, she says.
“He starts from being so proud of working with me to ‘the government is not doing well’ to ‘I feel abandoned’ and then going to a position where he praises the Taliban, meets them, has fun and prays with them.”
In London to draw attention to her country’s humanitarian crisis and the plight of Afghan women under Taliban rule, my guest exudes poise — her voice cuts through the noise of the rowdy customers who have packed the India Club. Ghafari wanted Indian food and I chose the 71-year-old establishment near her hotel in the West End: this London institution has long served the Indian intelligentsia but is now under threat of eviction. But the moment we emerge from the steep flight of stairs and pick our way through the Formica tables of the dining room, I see that my choice, while not short of charm, is a mismatch. Wearing a long pink silk dress and coat, flowery headscarf and golden high-heeled shoes, Ghafari is dressed for a setting grander than the India Club.
As soon as we are seated, she orders, in Hindi, pani puri to share. She says she longs for her favourite dish, which she associates with Panjab university in Chandigarh, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, to which she won an Afghan government scholarship at 16.
When the starters arrive — tiny crispy balls of flour with brown chickpea sauce on the side — she requests more generous portions. I must look clueless because she directs me: “You crack it on top, put water [sauce] in it, put it all at once in your mouth.” She demonstrates, closes her eyes and remarks: “They’re not doing it spicy here. In India it just burns your mouth.”
There is no lassi or chai because the kitchen has run out of yoghurt and milk — “Indian tea without milk is not Indian tea,” Ghafari jokes. We settle for Cokes to accompany our main dishes — paneer butter masala for her, egg curry for me, with naan and rice.
Ghafari was born in Kabul in 1994, the eldest of eight children, to parents who at times supported, at times resisted her getting an education. Before 2001, with girls’ education banned under the first Taliban regime, they sent her to a clandestine school, risking their lives in doing so. After the US-led invasion, Ghafari’s father was transferred to Paktia, a Taliban stronghold near Pakistan. There her parents barred her from going to class after a suicide attack aimed at the school nearly killed her. She attended in secret and ended up in hospital after being caught up in a bombing that killed the provincial governor. Back in Kabul, her parents refused to let her go to Khost university, in eastern Afghanistan, because it would have meant living alone. She had been ready to give up until she learnt about the scholarship in India. When she won it, her father relented.
After graduating in economics, she could have remained in Chandigarh, a city she loves for its architectural order and cleanliness. But despite the danger, she chose to return home, bound by the responsibility to give something back to her country, she says.
“That’s where I belong,” she says. “When I lost my dad, for the first few seconds, I was cursing myself. I was cursing my family, I was cursing my people. I was like, ‘What the hell is this country?’ But after a few seconds I realised: it’s not just me going through this, it’s millions of people in this country. It’s not this country, it’s all the things forced on us. My mom lost her dad when she was three, and I lost mine when I was 26 . . . We have been going through the same story for decades.”
About two years after returning from India, Ghafari applied for the mayoral position in Wardak, her father’s home province. She beat the other candidates — all men — in written and oral tests. But her appointment, signed by president Ashraf Ghani, whose government was growing impotent and isolated in Kabul, caused violent protests. She was only able to take up her post nine months later.
143-145 Strand, London WC2R 1JA
Pani Puri x 2 £9
Vegetable pakora £4
Paneer butter masala £7.75
Egg curry £7.50
Pilau rice £4
Mango chutney £0.60
Gulab jamun £4.50
Ras malai £4.50
Soft drink x 4 £11
During her tenure, she continued to cause a stir simply by upholding the law, trying to get business owners to pay their licence fees and sacking corrupt civil servants. She tackled what she called “land mafias” by sending bulldozers to tear down illegal constructions in Maidan Shahr, the main town. Most of her constituents, however, remained out of reach in Taliban rural strongholds. By spring 2021, the insurgency was carrying out nightly raids near her office. Ghafari was transferred to the defence ministry in Kabul.
Our mains arrive — not everything fits on our table so we are forced to annex the empty one next to us. My western palate is thankful for the egg curry’s mildness.
When the Taliban seized Kabul in the chaotic summer of 2021, Ghafari used her connections abroad to fly her family to Germany. By then she had received the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department under Mike Pompeo. Six months later, a refugee in Düsseldorf in search of a mission, she decided to go back home.
Keeping her family in the dark — except her fiancé Bashir Mohammadi, who had fled with her to Germany — she received assurances from the Taliban administration that she would not be arrested at the airport. The new rulers in Kabul were most likely amenable because they were trying to get the west to lift sanctions and unlock billions of dollars in reserves (the sanctions are still in place). But it could have been a trap. Travelling with a film crew (Netflix released a documentary on her life last month) and the British journalist who was co-writing her memoir, Ghafari bet that her international profile would protect her. When she landed in Kabul, she drove directly to her father’s grave and posted a picture on social media.
“I was like, I am back home. I’m here. I’m here for my people and my country. It’s nothing political. I’m so happy I’m here. That’s it.”
She describes the joy her return gave to the family and former colleagues who had stayed behind. But her trip also sparked controversy among Afghan exiles who felt she was compromising with the new regime. “I left my country for my family. So when I felt they were safe, I returned,” she explains. “And I faced so much hatred, especially from those in the US, the UK or Europe . . . Can you imagine? . . . They called me a Talib!”
She adds: “I always say that I have not left Afghanistan for ever. It’s not a question of whether I ever go back . . . It’s my home. I don’t really need to clarify why I went.”
During her few days back in Afghanistan, she discovered what she describes as the “Taliban twilight zone”. The poverty was shocking and women’s rights had massively retreated (since our meeting, the Taliban have banned women from public parks and baths, funfairs and gyms). But certain aspects of life, notably security, had improved for ordinary Kabulis. In her memoir, she quotes her uncle as saying, “If we had foreign support, this regime would be better than the Ghani government.”
Ghafari is scathing about the 20 years of US intervention. “It was not a ‘war on terror’. It was war to produce more terrorism,” she says. “They [US forces] destroyed entire villages. And if you asked, they would say, ‘There was one or two Taliban.’”
In Afghanistan’s perennial woes she sees the traces of constant foreign interference. She describes Washington’s Afghan policy since the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979 as “the game”. It consists of pitting ethnic tribes and local warlords against one another, she says, and culminated in Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban in February 2020 ahead of a US withdrawal. “We were so hopeful. And then once again the Taliban rose and they signed a deal with the Taliban. They sold Afghanistan to the Taliban.”
The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, in a US drone attack in Kabul in July shows that the game is still on, she says. The US is not only supporting the mujahideen forced into exile, she claims, it is also, she contends, fuelling the activities of Isis-K, a jihadi movement threatening the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan. There is no evidence of the latter, but who could blame her for being suspicious?
Washington’s “biggest mistake” in 2001 was to bring the warlords to power, Ghafari tells me. They had helped the Americans push the Taliban back into the mountains, but once part of the government they recreated local fiefdoms, engaged in illegal businesses and fostered corruption, she says. Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai, president until 2014, earned the epithet of “mayor of Kabul” because it became increasingly unsafe for him to travel outside the capital. In Paktia in 2004, Ghafari saw his helicopter turning away, unable to land after coming under heavy fire from Taliban fighters.
She says it is unfair to compare president Ghani, who fled Kabul as the Taliban were about to seize the capital, to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who stayed in Kyiv after Russia invaded this year. “Ghani was all alone, telling everyone that a deal with the Taliban meant losing everything. But everyone was calling him a coward,” she says. As part of the US-brokered Doha agreement, the government was to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Ghani resisted; the US stopped sending money. “The entire world is supporting Zelenskyy, including Nato, the US, Europe,” she says. “Millions of dollars are going into that country. In my country, in the last three months [of US presence], there was no salary for soldiers.”
By now, our desserts have arrived. “You eat this,” Ghafari says, gesturing at the ras malai, spongy cheesy morsels bathed in sweetened milk, cardamom and saffron — the highlight of our meal. Two round deep-fried gulab jamun in rose syrup elicit less enthusiasm, as they arrive cold.
“The Taliban are a fact,” Ghafari writes in her memoir. I ask whether she intends to engage with the regime. “If I’m trusted on that level, by women, by my people, then I’m ready to — because someone needs to talk. Someone needs to start it. Someone needs to listen.” The Taliban leadership is divided over the issue of women’s education, she says. The supreme leader is opposed, but a majority of Taliban supporters are fine with it, she believes.
I suggest she has always liked to test the boundaries imposed on her, by her family and society, despite the risks. “I always love to challenge the challenges,” she says, and laughs. “I love this sentence. I don’t know where I learnt it. I don’t think I learnt it anywhere. It’s mine. It’s properly mine.”
The conversation turns again to Ghafari’s father, with whom she fought a lot. As she speaks, her headscarf slips off, revealing a haircut à la garçonne and fine silver earrings. He was “the most important person” in her life, she says, holding back tears. “During childhood, I was not able to understand my dad. I was like, ‘Why are my brothers are allowed this, but not me?’”
She recalls that when she asked for private tuition after not being allowed to attend university, she was told the family could not afford it. But two of her brothers got extra tutoring to prepare for exams.
Ghafari made peace with her father shortly before he died. He “saw and understood that I could handle everything myself and I could make him proud too,” she says. Her relationship with her mother, however, remains difficult. “If you put me and one of my brothers in front of my mom, she will never choose me.”
Even out of Afghanistan, she still fights family and tradition. “Nowadays I’m trying just to focus on myself, my life,” she says. “I feel I have sacrificed everything for my family. That’s enough. I am not doing it any more. Back to my mission, back to my country, back to my work, back to my future.”
Anne-Sylvaine Chassany is the FT’s world news editor
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