The Different Meanings of Taliban Rule

Almost six months on from the US withdrawal, Afghans across the country have felt the effect in a range of contrasting ways

The Different Meanings of Taliban Rule
A Taliban fighter seen praying next to Qargha Lake on the outskirts of Kabul / Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images

I have visited several provinces in the six months since the Taliban took power, hoping that each trip would help me better understand the impact of that seismic event on my homeland. Much has been said about the end of the war in the international media, often from the perspective of American military veterans and officials. Analysts and experts, meanwhile, have sought to predict the future of global Islamic extremism through the prism of the U.S. defeat. When journalists have spoken to Afghans, they have often turned to those who are no longer in the country. All of these voices deserve to be heard, and they are certainly preferable to the deafening silence of the world’s indifference. But the people who have felt the impact of the Taliban’s victory most acutely are the men, women and children of Afghanistan who live with it on a daily basis.

For generations now it seems that our hopes and concerns, our opinions and ideas, have been deemed of relevance only when they directly serve the interests of observers watching on from afar. But, for everyone’s sake, our difficult and sometimes contradictory truths must no longer be ignored. The fact is that the Taliban’s victory has come to mean different things to different people here. For some Afghans, it has brought peace and freedom. For others, it has led to starvation and fear. Each province has felt the aftershocks of that one potentially world-changing moment in complex ways. The same can be said of districts and villages, and more often than we might like to believe, even families.

In September I drove to Chak in my home province of Wardak to report on a ceremony commemorating one of the Taliban’s most revered leaders, Ustad Yasir. A former commander in the mujahedeen faction Ittehad-e Islami during the 1980s war against the Soviets, Yasir joined the Taliban in the 1990s and went on to become one of the movement’s most radical leaders. A captivating speaker who openly expressed his support for al-Qaeda after the U.S. invasion, he was ultimately arrested and jailed in Pakistan. He is believed to have died in prison there in 2012, though the exact circumstances of his death are still unknown. Yasir’s demise has come to symbolize the purity of the Taliban’s cause in the eyes of its most radical members. Even when the odds were stacked against him, he refused to compromise. The mood at the ceremony in Wardak was therefore celebratory and defiant. On a bright, windy day, hundreds of former insurgents and ordinary Afghans gathered in the yard of a local high school to hear speakers praise Yasir while denouncing America and Pakistan. They vowed to uncover the true cause of his death, with most in the crowd seemingly convinced he was murdered for his commitment to jihad.

Next, in October, I traveled by bus to Kandahar for the wedding of a friend. This gave me a very different impression of the Taliban. The groom was the brother of a former Talib who used to carry out assassinations in the city using a pistol equipped with a silencer. At one point during the insurgency the assassin had been detained by the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS, for four years. His family began to look for a wife for him while he was in prison, hoping she might help him settle down and moderate his political views. He was engaged to be married when he was freed as part of the 2020 Doha Agreement with the U.S., but he still had no interest in living a quiet life. Upon his release, he resumed his old work and again began hunting down the Taliban’s opponents with his pistol. He was eventually killed on one of these missions. The assassin had still not married his fiancée at the time of his death. So, with her blessing, his younger brother took his place as the groom.

This may seem unusual to some readers, but here in Afghanistan it is not uncommon. For both sets of families, it is regarded as an act of integrity and respect. The wedding party was a raucous occasion that, in typical Kandahar style, went on into the early hours. A local band played songs about the liberation of the country and the beauty of Kandahar’s landscape. We ate well and danced the “attan” until we were exhausted. Unlike his older brother, the groom was not a Talib. In fact, they had often argued about politics. But it was now time to forgive, if not to forget. The wedding hall was packed with Taliban commanders and foot soldiers. Some carried U.S.-issue M4 assault rifles, others Kalashnikovs. All of them seemed happy and relaxed, and no one tried to stop the music.

Around two months later, in December, I took a U.N. flight to Badakhshan in the far northeast of the country. There was hardly anyone at the small airport on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Faizabad, when I arrived. The Talib in charge of security told me there were now just three members of staff stationed at the airport, including him and the air traffic controller. Faizabad is a town of stunning natural beauty and I had been struck by the incredible greenery of the landscape during a previous visit several years ago. This time, though, the surrounding fields, hills and mountains looked dry — parched by a long drought that has devastated livelihoods in much of the country. There were no checkpoints as we drove through the town. Local Talibs — ethnic Tajiks from nearby districts — milled around in pakol hats that were far bigger than is customary for most Afghans; it looked like giant sunflowers were balanced on their heads. All of the Talibs I spoke to were polite and friendly. None of them cared that I was an outsider, a Pashtun from a province they had probably never been to.

The main square in Faizabad used to be named after a local warlord turned official killed in a suicide attack. Since the Taliban takeover, it had been renamed after the suicide bomber who killed him. Any Afghan national flags on display in the town had been taken down and replaced with the white flag of the Taliban’s emirate. I could not see any pictures of the legendary Northern Alliance commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The most jarring aspect of my trip to Faizabad, however, was the scale of the suffering on display at the local hospital. It was full of children pushed to the brink of starvation by the sanctions and asset freezes the U.S. has imposed on Afghanistan since the Taliban’s victory. I had never seen anything like it in my country before; it took my breath away. For a few moments, I could not speak. The skeletal frames and bulging stomachs reminded me of images from Yemen. Many of the children were the sons and daughters of former government employees and ex-soldiers who had not been paid for months. Elsewhere in Faizabad, I watched as a huge crowd of families collected flour, cooking oil, lentils and salt from the U.N. World Food Program. Taliban guards kept watch over the scene while individuals were summoned by name to collect the aid. Nearby, a long line of laborers equipped with wooden carts waited to help people take their supplies home. It reminded me of being a child in the first Taliban regime during the 1990s, when I used to wait with my mother at a similar collection point in Kabul, also desperately hoping for food. It is worth remembering that the political and economic isolation the Taliban were subjected to back then ultimately led to 9/11.

As I write this now, I am back in Kabul. The nights seem impossibly dark and cold, and I have a hacking cough. Across the city there are rumors and reports of young women vanishing after they speak out against the new government. The Taliban deny they are responsible for these disappearances. No one is quite sure where the truth lies. As with so much else in Afghanistan today, claims and counter-claims are spread quickly across social media with barely a second’s thought as to the human consequences. Again, it is ordinary Afghans — men and women, young and old — who must pick up the pieces.

On the surface, the situation in Kabul feels like it might be stabilizing. The Taliban’s social and cultural restrictions have not been as severe as we expected. Music still blasts out from taxis, restaurants and shops; television has not been banned and the internet has not been shut down. Of course, our fates may ultimately depend on the strength or weakness of the economy, and there is some cause for hope in this regard. The price of bread has returned to normal and the cost of gas for cars has stopped rising. A sister of mine who works as a schoolteacher was recently paid for the first time in months. But other women once employed in the public sector have not been so lucky; now without work, they are deprived of an income and shrouded in boredom and depression at home. While the banking system is less chaotic than it was in the fall, branches are still struggling to let account holders withdraw their savings. Almost six months on from the Taliban’s victory, the passport office in the west of Kabul continues to be overwhelmed with Afghans of every age and ethnicity looking for a way out.

This, then, is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It is a complex place of mixed emotions and experiences. There are no easy answers to the questions it asks of us all, but we must listen and learn.

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