At the foot of the mountains separating the city of Kabul from the farmland plains to the north, the plyboard coffins are laid on the ground in the shape of a fan. Four of them are so small, child-size, that only one man is needed to carry them.
It’s Aug. 30, two weeks after the Afghan government and its security forces collapsed and the Taliban had seized control of Kabul, and around 200 men gather for a burial. The men from the immediate family are delirious with grief, struggling at times to stand. Friends and family walk in stunned silence, moving about the cemetery slowly and purposelessly.
Ten members of an extended family had been torn apart or incinerated when an American Hellfire missile launched from a drone struck a car near Kabul’s international airport the day before. At the time, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a “righteous strike” on the Islamic State. In fact, the Toyota Corolla station wagon was driven by a man, Zamarai Ahmadi, who worked for an American NGO and had just arrived home from its Kabul office. Three of his own children and four nieces and nephews were also inside or near the car. They’d met Ahmadi, some clambering aboard, in a narrow driveway to welcome him home. “There is no flesh on their bodies,” says Emal, whose two-year-old daughter Malika was among the dead. “What is there to bury?”
The American airstrike was likely the last in the country’s longest war. Because it occurred in the Afghan capital, just a few miles from the five-star Kabul Serena Hotel, on which scores of foreign journalists had descended following the city’s fall to the Taliban, it also received more scrutiny — and a subsequent admission of error by the Pentagon — than any other U.S. airstrike since the beginning of the war. In fact, there were hundreds of errant airstrikes over the course of the war that were never investigated and for which justice was never served but that had, in part, helped turn much of rural Afghanistan away from the government in Kabul and toward the Taliban.
Above the cemetery, American F-16s tear across the sky. Mourners try to spot the jets as the father of three of the dead children breaks down over their coffins. “We’re so frightened today,” says Ahmad, one of Zamarai’s colleagues who’d come to pay his respects. “It’s beyond shock.” Further down the slope, beyond the rooftops of an apartment complex, bulbous American military planes lumber skyward from the airport, carrying the last of 120,000 evacuees airlifted since the Taliban entered Kabul. The final plane, ferrying the top U.S. diplomat and the commander of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, took off six hours later. The U.S. had left Afghanistan.
In Kabul, news of the departure of the Americans broke with the sound of gunfire. Taliban fighters emptied magazine after magazine of ammunition into the night. The crescendo also heralded the end of the two-week maelstrom at the airport which, for Kabulis and international audiences watching via the media, overshadowed the Taliban’s victory over the world’s greatest superpower. The city began to bustle with street vendors and taxis. Kabulis grew used to the sight of long-haired fighters wearing camouflage military jackets over traditional clothes, and a new normal began to reveal itself for longtime residents and Taliban alike. For the handful of foreigners who had remained during the takeover and for others who arrived soon after, any bitterness Taliban fighters held for the war seemed all but forgotten. For fighters who hadn’t forgotten, orders prevented them from acting on their instincts. At one of Kabul’s four entry points, a Talib from Helmand told me, “If it wasn’t for my orders, I’d shoot you.”
The withdrawal of international forces, an overdue acknowledgment of defeat after 20 years at war in Afghanistan, collided spectacularly with the victors taking control of the capital before the defeated had even managed to depart. That a civilian airlift could cause more deaths and turmoil than the coming together of thousands of opposing armed combatants marked a fitting final chapter in a 20-year war long gone awry. “Can you believe this is happening?” one Marine corporal asked another as their platoon tried to push a crowd of Afghans attempting to board aircraft off the runway. “This is insane.”
The chaotic scenes at the airport, however, were in stark contrast to what appeared to be an unfamiliar calm across the rest of Kabul. When the planes stopped flying that night, and once gunfire fell silent, Kabul’s 6 million residents were able to stop and contemplate the future in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The absurd honeymoon period that followed saw Taliban fighters touring the country’s capital — many for the first time — wide-eyed, like children on their first trip to the sea. They wandered into an amusement park and enjoyed the rides for free; encircled by strings of fluorescent pink and green bulbs, with American-made assault rifles resting between their legs, they ate ice cream before piling into a commandeered police truck; at Kabul Zoo, southern Taliban threw stones at unflinching lions and marveled at a tired diorama of scorpions, commonplace in their desert home; from the 10-meter diving board above a Soviet-era Olympic pool dug into a hilltop, they admired panoramic views through rifle scopes and lounged on the artificial-turf carpeting in the gaudy mansion of a former vice president and alleged war criminal.
In spite of their intimidating disposition — which is at least partly skewed by the media’s 20-year portrayal of them as the enemy — Taliban fighters are overwhelmingly courteous and disciplined. One evening in September, I began talking with a small group of fighters from Helmand province enjoying the views from a hilltop in central Kabul. They asked to interview me and I gladly agreed. Gladly, that is, until one started recording video on his smartphone, as the others, all holding assault rifles, crowded around, oblivious to their unintentionally intimidating presence: “Do you feel safer here now or during the previous government?” “Now,” I reply, truthfully. (Petty crime has plummeted.) “Are you a Muslim?” “I love God,” I lie. (Being non-Muslim isn’t officially illegal, but one is still vigilant around young zealots.) The young Talibs take in their capital from the platform above the pool, where one can see to all corners of the city, to the nearby U.S. Embassy, the airport, the ancient fort of Bala Hissar, and the tombs of warlords past; the fighters are most curious about a place off to the east called Pul-e-Charkhi. Of all Kabul’s landmarks, the infamous prison of the same name is the one with which they seem most familiar, and from which at least one taking in the view had recently been freed.
Before we part, the Talibs ask for my phone number so I can send them the photos I’d taken earlier, upon their request. “Feel safe,” one implores. “There is nothing to worry about.”
The Taliban are fiercely protective of the way they, as a group, are portrayed. Methods of controlling their image are crude and little different from those of other dictatorial regimes worldwide.
The difference in Kabul, for the moment, is that neither the enforcers nor the enforced have worked out the rules. Protests have been permitted, but few, if any, have proceeded to conclusion without journalists being beaten, detained, or both, and protesters themselves being dispersed with blunt force or intimidation.
During the largest protest since the Taliban took power, a small group of fighters dutifully escorted a group of pro-resistance activists that grew to several hundred after a couple of miles. The noisy mass — which included a large proportion of women — turned onto a street where Taliban fighters guarded the entrance to a foreign embassy. Caught off guard, the Talibs on the street first scattered the photographers and videographers, swinging electric cables and Kalashnikovs and confiscating cameras. When the protesters marched on, dozens of fighters fired their weapons, in a deafening chorus, into the air.
The Taliban’s own embrace of the media in recent years — placing opinion pieces in The New York Times and a cuddly representative in Doha during talks with the U.S. government — while no more self-serving than any other government’s, extends as far as it can benefit the group’s cause but not to independent outlets inside Afghanistan that threaten to challenge it.
The crude crowd-control measures at the early September protest were one of few public displays in Kabul of the Taliban’s limited tolerance of dissent. Behind closed doors, the crackdown is more targeted and brutal. Nematullah Naqdi, a journalist for the Afghan outlet Etilaatroz, was one of three laid facedown on the floor in a former police station by Taliban intelligence officers and beaten unconscious for covering another protest. Naqdi tells me later he was told by his torturers that they were being “merciful.” “You’re lucky,” they said, “we’re not beheading you.”
The rise of the Taliban has much to do with the neglect of rural Afghanistan by the former government, but depictions of the dire economic circumstances in the capital that arose in the wake of their takeover are nonetheless discouraged. With Afghanistan’s financial reserves frozen by the U.S. and international monetary bodies, cash shortages, and government salaries going unpaid since two months prior to the Taliban’s takeover, thousands of residents are selling their household items on the streets. Many are warned by the Taliban not to provide interviews or to allow their photographs to be taken.
The Taliban’s obsession with the superficial, however, does not yet pertain to rules regarding the strict Islamic dress codes or unaccompanied women in public the group was known for enforcing when they last ruled Kabul. Although there is a noticeable shift toward the traditional, women still walk the streets without male guardians, bereft of the all-covering burqa, while men continue to shave and wear Western-style clothes. Female university students deliberately walk by groups of Taliban with their faces uncovered, an attempted provocation that the Talibs barely register. Billboards depicting made-up brides on beauty-parlor facades have been stripped or hastily painted over, in anticipation of orders to do so rather than because of them.
Taliban fighters who have stepped into police work have co-opted the vehicles and uniforms of their predecessors from the Afghan National Police. Conversely, motorists who once decorated their vehicles with bumper stickers and windscreen decals of pro-government icons have replaced them with Taliban flags or the Islamic declaration of faith, the Kalima. Superficial public displays of fealty reflect attempts to conform rather than actual loyalty.
“After they’ve formed their government,” a Kabul resident whose house had been commandeered by the Taliban tells me, “they’ll go after their enemies, one by one.”
But beneath the public veneer a depression has fallen over Kabul. The desperation at the airport in late August was an indication of the public’s distrust of the Taliban’s reassuring pronouncements. Those of us who hadn’t lived under their rule before — including me — were charmed by the hospitality of the city’s new overlords. Early on, foreign journalists were invited to off-the-record lunches and provided with letters permitting us to continue our work. Those who knew them better warned of the subterfuge. “After they’ve formed their government,” a Kabul resident, close to tears and whose house had been commandeered by the Taliban, tells me, “they’ll go after their enemies, one by one.”
The universal relief brought by the drop in violence after the Taliban’s victory was short-lived. Already, the long-sought desire for security has been usurped by an even greater, more urgent, and more widespread threat to survival: poverty. Afghanistan’s dire economic situation is the result of the United States’ oft-deployed tactics of crushing its enemies financially more than Taliban ineptitude; but regardless, according to recent assessments by the United Nations, without massive international intervention, the current poverty rate (surviving on 94 cents or less, per person per day) of 72 percent of the population could balloon to 97 percent by mid-2022. As yet there are no noticeable food shortages, but with border closures, the cost of basic items is increasing (cooking oil by 100 percent and wheat by 28 percent). Coupled with soaring unemployment, a drop in the value of the currency, and strict limits on bank withdrawals because of cash shortages, it is not only the subsistence-farming families in the provinces struggling to feed themselves but educated urbanites as well.
While few Kabul residents were ever accustomed to 24-hour electricity, the country’s new government, now in its fourth month, hasn’t yet paid a power bill to its northern neighbors — who provide half of Afghanistan’s power. The thought of Kabul, whose residents are now suffering from the results of food insecurity, plunged into darkness as the fierce Afghan winter approaches fills many with anxiety.
While the public brutality that the Taliban wielded ensured compliance from Afghans in the 1990s, this time around, the use of systematic physical violence has so far been more restrained. Instead, a sinister, invisible repression lurks in the corners of every day.
High schools for girls in most provinces — including Kabul — have been prevented from opening; university attendance has plummeted; former government staffers are staying home, distrusting Taliban pleas for them to return to work; journalists, judges, and activists are lying low and waiting — hoping — to be evacuated. Former interpreters for international militaries, officers, and members of special units from the former national defense forces are sheltering in small groups of trusted friends and colleagues, mutually assured destruction ensuring everyone stays mum. They say they’re hiding from the enemies that promised them amnesty, because former soldier colleagues are disappearing and turning up dead. “When I called Obaidullah recently,” a former member of an elite Afghan army unit tells me, “his brother answered the phone and told me what had happened.” Obaidullah, his brother said, had been executed by the Taliban in Nangarhar province three days earlier. In October, a former university lecturer who assisted me with translations for this article was detained, accused of spying for the U.S., and beaten. Before releasing him, his captors offered a warning: “Soon,” one said, “you’ll be sent to the other world.”
Even victims of non-Taliban violence are seen as potential public-relations problems by the Taliban. One family showed me the letter they received after having lost three members to an Islamic State bombing. It warned them against speaking to the media about their losses. Earlier, at the burial, an unknown and unwanted Taliban mullah was sent to preside.
Whether because of dwindling finances, fear of reprisal, or both, Kabulis are despairing. A shopkeeper tells me that when Taliban fighters come to his store he greets them as heroes, as liberators. But it’s all a show, he says. “They’re uneducated idiots.” A supermarket owner tells me he’s trading at 20 percent in comparison to a few months ago. His stock is slowly going out-of-date. “The situation is not good,” he says. Liquor bottles amassed during the slightly more lenient days of the republic are being sunk into septic tanks. A 17-year-old girl, barred from returning to finish high school, fills her days drawing and painting on the floor of her home. “I feel like a prisoner at home,” she says. “Nothing else.”
Taliban fighters are restless too. Several ask me whether I can help them leave the country. On a trip to Wardak province, neighboring Kabul to the south, more than one Talib jokes whether I can arrange for foreigners to invade again. They’re bored, they say, and without war and its spoils they have nothing to bring home to their families. But “building a government,” they say, without conviction, “is also part of jihad.”