The dress is red and revealing. On show in the window of a wedding gown rental emporium here in Herat, it appears to challenge the conventional wisdom that women are being airbrushed from public venues with the Taliban’s return to power.
The reality of life in Afghanistan almost four months since the movement’s fighters took control is more complex than many reports suggest, especially those on polarized social media platforms. A mood of anxiety and uncertainty prevails, amid a humanitarian crisis exacerbated by a U.S.-led embargo that could leave millions starving this winter.
While many working women were sent home, many remain in their jobs — including in some government offices in Herat. Most girls of high school age are not going to class, but the situation is ambiguous, with no blanket ban. Teenage girls have been readmitted in the northern province of Balkh, and even in the traditional Taliban stronghold of Zabul, in the south. So the group once dubbed “Islamic Maoists” has not been quite as ruthless as many feared — so far.
Therein lies the issue. There are no rules to Taliban rule, only exceptions. Until recently, girls of all ages were going to school in Herat — and then the policy changed and many were not. The confusion is mirrored in Taliban statements, with different figures saying different things. And there is no trust. Even women who still have their jobs have little faith it will last. Meanwhile, continued reports of vendetta-style killings and beatings puncture a hole in the supposed amnesty that Taliban leaders offered to Afghans who worked for the former government. Their response has been that renegade elements are responsible and that this is not policy.
All of this has contributed to an impression of indecision, drift and denial, amid reports of festering divisions among Taliban factions. That came through clearly during several weeks in the fall I spent traveling around Afghanistan, meeting various Taliban figures and seeing the results in daily life. The key province of Herat, with its mixed demographics and its strategic location as a gateway to Iran, may be a barometer for the next stages of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
I came across the wedding rental store on one of several walks around the city, and I was intrigued by this display of the old-new Afghanistan: the country that emerged after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion ended the Taliban’s first period in power.
With a history dating back more than 2,000 years, Herat has always had a distinct identity. Alexander the Great came through the area with his army and the city became a key hub on the old Silk Road, linking Afghanistan and Asia with Iran and the Middle East. Now it feels as though there is an unspoken link between the intricately decorated, ancient shrines and mosques that symbolize Herat’s past and the lovingly painted rickshaw taxis that stand out on its streets. Earlier this year, the United Nations’ cultural agency recognized the city’s unique past by placing it on the list for World Heritage status. It is not clear what will happen with the Taliban back in power.
When the movement’s fighters swept across Afghanistan in August, photos circulated on social media of beauty salons and dress stores across the country changing their appearance in anticipation of a return to the repression of the old Taliban regime, painting over pictures of women and removing Western-style dresses from windows. But the tide had apparently passed by this emporium and others like it in the city. The striking wedding dresses on show tally with the city’s reputation as a relatively liberal, cosmopolitan part of Afghanistan.
“Some people said we should cover our windows and all the pictures, but we decided to wait and see,” said Ahmad, the son of the wedding gown emporium’s owner. I am not giving his real name or identifying his store, in case writing about them brings unwelcome attention. “So far the Taliban have not said anything about our dresses. But maybe this will change in six months or so.”
During the U.S.-led occupation, Herat enjoyed a reputation for relative prosperity, fueled by trade with neighboring Iran, including revenue from illicit gas and drug smuggling. It was an early sign of the Taliban’s intent when they seized the border crossing at Islam Qala, some 75 miles from Herat, in July. The steady flow of trucks moving through the city’s outskirts at night speaks to the fact that trade has quickly resumed. And in some ways, life in Herat seems little changed, except for the knots of Taliban fighters wandering through the crowds, U.S. weapons slung over their shoulders.
The traffic is as busy as I remember from past visits, with the distinctive painted rickshaws leading the charge when the lights change. Herat’s famous sweet shops have a steady flow of customers. There is no sign of a consistent Taliban policy to keep women at home, as they did in the 1990s. With an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Taliban nationwide, one reason may be that they just don’t have that many people to enforce such edicts. While more women are now going out with a male guardian, I still saw many alone or in pairs, often in scarves and long coats or billowing, Iranian-style chadors, rather than burqas. Chadors were a common sight in Herat in the past too, a testament to Iran’s proximity. There is no monolithic picture.
Yet there is also a sense that this is all a fragile illusion. A short drive from the city center gave me another view, in the settlements of people displaced by both conflict and drought in the surrounding region. Their numbers have been rising for years, with families pushed out of their homes from as far afield as Helmand, where the fighting was fiercest. More recently, people have been moving to Herat from nearby provinces such as Badghis and Faryab because of dying fields and collapsing farm incomes. It was a process already underway before the Taliban took power, helping to undermine support for the previous government.
Now the sharp desert winds whip around the mud-brick houses of families struggling to keep gnawing hunger at bay. Christophe Garnier, who oversees the assistance program in Herat run by the French charity Médecins Sans Frontières, said they have doubled capacity in their emergency hospital to cope with the number of malnourished children.
Back in the city and the wedding dress store, Ahmad told me he should have returned to Herat university by now, where he is studying to be a doctor. But after the fall of the previous Afghan government, it never reopened its doors. And months later, with the banking system and money supply paralyzed by U.S.-led sanctions, it cannot afford to pay staff. “I am not sure if there are any teachers left,” he said.
If there is one clear Taliban position, it is their demand that Washington lift its embargo and release billions of dollars in Afghan government reserves frozen after the fall of Kabul.
I wanted to try to get a clearer sense of the movement’s thinking — as well as a local perspective — so I called up an old friend from previous visits to Herat to see if he could arrange a meeting with the recently appointed Taliban governor of the province. I knew my friend — who preferred to remain anonymous — had good contacts, but I was surprised at how quickly he came back to me to say the governor was offering an interview the next day.
The only change to the Herat provincial governor’s office since my last visit was the guards at the gate and the Taliban white flag with its inscription of the shahada — the Islamic profession of faith — flying from the roof. Gone were the police in matching uniforms, replaced by Taliban fighters with their trademark no-fixed-rules attire. Some wore waistcoats over shalwar kameez (a traditional shirt and trousers combination), others leather or camouflage jackets. All of them had the same American weapons. Once past the outer gate, they gave me an impressively thorough search — taking everything out of my bag and inspecting it before allowing me into the ornate reception hall at the center of the complex.
I remembered being in the same hall years earlier, watching the veteran mujahedeen leader, Ismail Khan, when he was the provincial governor, receiving petitions for help from local people. It was a faintly medieval scene, with Khan barely even glancing at each supplicant before scribbling a command on a piece of paper and handing it to them. He made Herat his own fiefdom, before then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, working with then-President Hamid Karzai, orchestrated his removal in 2004. But few Heratis remember the many governors who came after him, and he retained his influence in the city, leading a last-ditch effort to stop the Taliban from seizing Herat this past August.
With an ironic smile, the new governor, Nur Ahmad Islamjar, said he had been in Herat the whole time, hiding in plain sight — running a local madrassa. “I was with them [the Taliban], but the leaders told me to stay there and keep teaching,” he said. He would have preferred to stay at his madrassa, he said, as I sipped the first of several cups of green tea. Our conversation lasted well over an hour, with the governor also seeking to question me about my views on Western policies toward the Taliban. It was time to be friends, he said: “The war is over.”
Then he delivered a surprise, saying that he had taken on the governorship at the personal request of the movement’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada. “The amir ul-mumineen asked me to do this job and I accepted,” he said, using the Taliban’s honorific for their leader, a title that means prince of the believers.
It was an intriguing detail, given the continuing speculation that Akhundzada may be dead. Only one purported photo of him exists, and he has not appeared in public to mark the Taliban’s triumph. Such doubts are also based on solid precedent: The Taliban managed to hide the death of their founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, for two years. A claim by Taliban officials that Akhundzada visited a madrassa in Kandahar in October did little to quell such rumors, as no video or photos were released.
Gov. Islamjar said it was because of “security concerns” that Akhundzada never appeared in public, and he refused to say how or where he had met him. He also followed his leader’s example, refusing to have his own photo taken.
The governor was more outspoken on the subject of the Biden administration’s freeze on Afghan central bank reserves. “That money is for paying doctors and nurses and teachers,” he said. “The United States talks about human rights. How can it claim to stand for human rights if it keeps blocking this money?”
When it came to universal education, it was harder to pin Islamjar down. “The Islamic Emirate is not against girls going to school or university,” he said. He qualified this by adding, “We are discussing a policy to implement in all provinces. We worry about the girls’ security, that when girls come and go from school to home, they may be abused or harassed. So this is part of our discussion: how to deal with this problem.”
This is a variation on a common theme, with Taliban officials voicing either fears about the security of female pupils or concerns that they may not be segregated from their male counterparts in class, under vaguely defined Islamic principles. But as teachers and activists often point out, separate classes for girls and boys have long been the norm in Afghan schools anyway.
The Herat authorities created confusion by allowing high schools to readmit girls in early November, but then appeared to reverse course by barring them from taking the annual exam. Yet some teenage girls are still going to class, at least in private schools. This lack of clarity in fact sent a clear message that the Taliban are not yet ready to spell out their position.
Later on, after leaving Herat, I tried to get some insight from an expert in navigating these treacherous currents. After seeing his own school in his native Kandahar burned down in 2003, Matiullah Wesa went on to set up the education advocacy group Pen Path, with a particular focus on helping more girls go to school. And much of his work has been in the more conservative Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan, such as Kandahar. To those who try to say that educating girls is against Islamic principles, Wesa has a succinct response: “Girls go to school in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Are they not Muslim countries?”
The fundamental problem, argues Wesa, is the divide between the two main constituencies in the new Taliban, what he calls its “politicians and its fighters.” The politicians — centered around those who spent time in Qatar and who negotiated the U.S. withdrawal agreement signed in February 2020 — largely back girls’ education. But the fighters are more powerful, said Wesa.
“Over the past 20 years they have had less access to social media or education. They don’t know about the world, and they don’t want girls’ education,” he told me.
Such internal splits may be behind the uncertainty over admissions policies for schools in Herat. Though it is not clear which side Islamjar came down on, local forces in the province may also have been a factor. The province has historically been seen as a bastion of anti-Taliban resistance, with Dari-speaking Tajiks holding most of the power. And for much of the past 20 years, it was one of the more stable parts of Afghanistan, overseen by troops from Italy, one of several nations that barred its forces from offensive operations against the Taliban.
The anti-Taliban resistance was personified by Ismail Khan, but his once ubiquitous image has now been expunged from the city. When the Taliban captured Khan after overrunning the city on Aug. 12, many expected its fighters would execute him. Instead, after distributing photos of his capture on social media, they took him to the border and sent him to Iran, where he is believed to remain.
What was often forgotten was the significance of Herat’s large Pashtun minority, especially in outlying districts such as Ghoryan, Gulran and Shindand — previously home to a large U.S. airbase. These areas provided a launchpad for the Taliban to gain strength in the province. Taliban taxes imposed on opium and methamphetamine producers in these same districts supplemented revenue extracted from licit and illicit cross-border trade.
I felt the change firsthand in trips to Herat in recent years, with areas on the way to the border seeing increasingly frequent Taliban attacks on the security forces of the former U.S.-backed administration. Today, the views of those same fighters have to be heeded in any decisions on social and political matters.
Some see the Taliban’s equivocation over female education as simply its own form of window dressing — an attempt to give the impression of being less repressive without actually making any big concessions, as its leaders try to coax Washington to ease its embargo.
What may also be constraining the Taliban’s space for maneuver is its intensifying ideological contest with the Islamic State group. Since it claimed responsibility for a mass-casualty suicide bombing at Kabul airport on Aug. 26 during the U.S.-led evacuations, the Islamic State has conducted a string of other attacks around the country.
It has taken particular aim at Afghanistan’s minority Shiites — whom it calls apostates — positioning itself as the true custodian of radical Islamic credentials and trying to tempt recruits away from the Taliban. Although hard to confirm, there have been reports of Islamic State recruiters offering large sums to those who sign up.
With nearly a fifth of Herat’s people thought to be Shiite, the city is seen as a possible target for Islamic State suicide bombers. “We fear an attack could happen,” Islamjar confirmed. Tackling the threat has meant a rapid switch for the Taliban from insurgents to security forces — and struggling just as much as their former NATO opponents did in stopping such attacks. Islamjar said there was “very close coordination” with members of the Shiite community, though the extra Taliban guards placed around mosques at every Friday prayers do not appear much of a deterrent.
While there is little prospect of the Islamic State being able to oust the Taliban, its continued attacks are a direct challenge to the Taliban’s claim to have restored security to the country with their takeover.
The situation is at an impasse with no likelihood of the U.S. easing its sanctions. For the Biden administration, still smarting from its humiliation in the Hindu Kush, there is nothing to be gained from helping the Taliban, even if it is under pressure from the Islamic State. There is also a strong mood in Western capitals that it is up to the Taliban to make the first move on issues such as girls’ education.
It is the Afghan people who are paying the price. The sanctions include a suspension in World Bank funding for Afghanistan’s provincial health services and IMF credit support. Together, they have had a crippling effect in Herat and surrounding provinces, tipping more people into poverty amid a worsening drought in the region. And with an increase in malnutrition cases, hospitals are struggling to cope.
Already one of the poorest countries in the world — even after years of Western aid — Afghanistan has now been partially cut off from the international economy by the embargo, with knock-on consequences everywhere.
With the banking system paralyzed by the sanctions, there is not enough cash for large employers to pay their staff, be they universities, hospitals or government offices. In Herat and elsewhere, I made a point of asking staff in any office I visited whether they were being paid. In almost all cases, the answer was no — and that often included Taliban officials.
Many workers are still turning up for work for a few hours, partly because they have been told to by the Taliban and partly to keep their options open. At Herat airport, the security checks are still being carried out by staff appointed under the previous government. Female staff are still at work there, but one of them confirmed she hadn’t been paid since July. I also noticed another reminder of the recent past, with the distinctive colors of the Italian flag still painted across the military side of the airport. The Taliban can still tolerate some symbols of the Western presence, it seems, though the Italian tricolor is not quite as well known as the Stars and Stripes.
UNICEF recently committed to pay teachers’ salaries, and there have been reports that the Taliban may use some of the revenues raised from customs fees to pay some civil servants. Yet for many of these key staff, such measures have come too late. They have either joined the growing exodus out of Afghanistan — contributing to a mass brain drain — or moved to other parts of the country to try to find work to support their families.
It all adds to a sense of malaise, with an ominous feeling of worse to come.
Back at the wedding dress store, Ahmad admitted that takings were well down. “We can survive for longer, but it is much harder for other families,” he said. After we had finished talking, one of his assistants came up to me. “Can you take me to America?” he asked.