Within Afghanistan, Travel Checkpoints Reflect a New Uncertainty

One year after the takeover, the Taliban’s inability to govern is forcing more to brave the uncertainties of exile

Within Afghanistan, Travel Checkpoints Reflect a New Uncertainty
Taliban forces stand guard on the road to Bamyan province in Afghanistan / Bilal Guler / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Afghanistan is like a cage at the moment,” says Sameh ur-Rahman. “We truly hope that it changes very soon.” During the late 1970s and 1980s, Sameh served as a colonel in the army of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the Afghan Communists. He lost his leg fighting the mujahedeen. With the departure of the final Soviet troops in 1989, he had hoped that war would finally end and the country could focus on prospering and healing as a society. Three decades later, and after the withdrawal of another superpower, his optimism has waned. Some of Colonel Sameh’s children live in Europe; those in Afghanistan intend to leave. “There is nothing left here,” his son-in-law Zahed tells me.

It is not just Kabul that has changed. When I visited Afghanistan a few months ago, Taliban checkpoints controlled every corner, bringing an uneasy but rare calm to the country. These armed and bearded men are still an unfamiliar sight for Afghans in the capital. During the past 20 years, many residents never left the city but heard horror stories about the 1990s’ Taliban emirate and the current generation of insurgents who were fighting the American occupation. For many, violent savagery is personified by the figure of the bearded man with the dark turban, whose rage Kabul occasionally experienced as bombings and suicide attacks.

My friends and relatives seemed intimidated by Taliban checkpoints. Among other things, they face language barriers. The ethnically heterogeneous Kabulis primarily speak Farsi; the majority of the Taliban are rural Pashtuns who speak Pashto. The intelligibility of their Pashto depends on their provincial and tribal backgrounds; some dialects are incomprehensible even to fellow Pashtuns. A culture gap and mutual suspicion stymie any friendly exchange between urban residents and the fighters who had routinely struck their cities and now rule them.

After 20 years of war and occupation, Afghanistan is largely at peace but ruled by what cannot as yet be considered a government. The Taliban are more an armed militia that has seized the reins of state — an armed militia ill-acquainted with the mechanisms of statecraft and the norms of diplomacy, with little sense of the domestic or international implications of their actions.

“I will leave very soon,” Sayyed Munawar, a Kabuli in his early 60s, told me when I saw him in spring. “There is no future here.” For the past 15 years, he had worked for a well-known NGO. Now, he lives in Iran with his wife and two daughters; his sons left for Europe months before the Taliban’s return. For Munawar and other Afghans, it’s not just the Taliban’s incompetence but the way in which the group’s ideologues keep conjuring ways to interfere in people’s private lives that is so suffocating.

I got a taste of it myself on my way to Bamiyan with Munawar to see the Buddha statues and report on the Hazara minority’s life under the Taliban. The car stereo was playing songs by the beloved Afghan singer Nashenas. A few moments before reaching the gates of Bamiyan, we turned off the music, a necessary precaution in Afghanistan under the Taliban. During their first rule, the group had banned music and destroyed cassettes. “They once stopped me at their checkpoint and wanted me to hand over my music cassettes,” Munawar remembered. He decided to destroy them himself in front of the Talibs before giving what he considered his “treasure” to them. The cassettes have since been replaced by memory cards and smartphones, which are harder to police. The only music the Taliban fighters allow themselves are taranas, religious a cappella songs replete with references to jihad.

As I was trying to disconnect Munawar’s phone from the stereo, he was distracted and stopped a few feet short of the Taliban checkpoint. That was a grave mistake. The fighters, who were already watching us, ran toward our car. “Get out!” they yelled while pointing their Kalashnikovs. “Calm down. No need to worry,” I said. They wanted to search us. We did not resist and apologized for our error. The ordeal was far from over. Ahmad, another friend who was traveling with us, was forced by a young Talib to hand over his smartphone and open it for him. A few moments later, the fighter was checking Ahmad’s photo gallery, featuring photos of his female family members, a gross violation of Afghan custom. “I got you,” he suddenly yelled. “Now you are done!” He had found a TikTok video that he deemed immoral. The same happened to Munawar and his phone. Both were in a state of panic.

Incidents such as these are not uncommon. In recent months, the Taliban have increased their surveillance and patrolling fighters often harass citizens, checking their phones. At the gates of Bamiyan, the Taliban next asked me to hand over my phone. I resisted. “That’s similar to what the Americans did when they raided your houses,” I said to an elder fighter.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked me angrily. “Where are your documents?”

I introduced myself as a journalist and showed him my German press card. His expression softened. “We don’t have a problem with you,” he said. It was Ahmad’s phone that had “problematic” content, he said. After an hour-long discussion, the Taliban decided not to hand us over to their intelligence service, as they had threatened, and let us enter Bamiyan, albeit with a “guarantee.” While Ahmad had to hand out his second phone, I was forced to leave my press card with them. “I will return it to you when you leave the province and go back to Kabul,” their leader, who introduced himself as Qari Mohammad Daoud, told us.

While we were having breakfast in Bamiyan, both Munawar and Ahmad looked depressed. I knew that they had not had such an experience in a long time. Before the Taliban’s return to power, travel in Afghanistan was difficult. On every journey, one had to navigate several checkpoints, from the local police to the army to intelligence militias to the Islamic State group. One had to prepare appropriate answers for each checkpoint to be able to get through. Many routes were inaccessible because of unending war among factions. This was the first time within years that we could travel to Bamiyan by car. The route was fraught with danger in the past because of the unstable situation in Maidan Wardak, a Taliban stronghold that lies between Kabul and Bamiyan.

But now the Taliban rule alone, and the checkpoints are all theirs. For many Afghans this is a relief as they can travel the country safely for the very first time in their lives. Foreign reporters and vloggers have had much to say in recent months about the country’s newfound “security.”

After four decades, most Afghans are tired of war. But few confuse the security with “peace.”

“These people, the Taliban, are not made to rule,” says one friend. A mujahed who had fought the Soviets in the 1980s, he had earlier supported the Taliban’s return, believing them to be an improvement of the corrupt previous government. Under both Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, the government was dominated by corrupt officials and the Afghan Parliament turned into a bazaar where seats and positions were traded for millions of dollars. Instead of focusing on the people’s needs, many politicians built ostentatious mansions, drove bulletproof cars and siphoned stolen aid money off to Dubai. Reviled by many, most of them unsurprisingly fled Afghanistan. “God shamed these traitors,” says the former mujahed.

The Taliban, however, are hardly an improvement. Since August 2021, girls’ high schools in most parts of the country remain closed. The only education allowed is under the strict banner of the Taliban, whose policies seem rooted in their own sexual anxieties. In most cases, younger women are not allowed to teach boys while younger men are not allowed to teach girls. “Appropriate” caps and “correct” hijabs have become part of the cities’ new reality and are strictly enforced by the Taliban’s moral police.

Some young Afghans are still resisting these constraints. “I love the perahan tunban, our traditional Afghan attire. But now I want to protest with my jeans and T-shirt in front of these guys,” says Bezhan Karimi, a student of Kabul University. “It’s as if we were not Muslims before,” a female teacher from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif tells me. While she worked several months without pay, she struggled with the Taliban authorities “because of ridiculous issues.” She fears for the future of her daughters. “I cannot imagine them living and working here,” she says.

Afghanistan is a place full of contradictions. My father left the country to study in Europe more than four decades ago, before the Communist coup. He had grown up in an urban, elite family and learned German at the Amani High School, which was founded by Afghan King Amanullah. When I used to visit our local mosque in Austria on Eid wearing the perahan tunban, the Afghan attire Karimi mentioned, my father would joke by asking me why I was leaving the house in my pajamas. He grew up with suit pants and elegant shirts in 1960s Kabul. He despised the Communists (whose leaders used to visit my grandfather, a renowned intellectual and writer) for throwing his country into chaos. But my father also did not like the mullahs and clerics, who preached water but drank wine. The elites from different political factions often had close ties. Some of Afghanistan’s leading Marxist and Islamist thinkers descended from the same families. Such paradoxes have endured. During the past 20 years of the U.S. war, you would find one brother who joined the Taliban while another fought for the Afghan National Army.

My father became a refugee in the aftermath of a brutal coup by the Afghan Communists in 1978. From the Soviet occupation to the Civil War in the 1990s and from the Taliban’s first era to the invasion of the U.S. and its allies, he has not returned to the country. After the Soviet invasion, my father busied himself with building a new life in Austria, where I was born. But though he left Afghanistan, Afghanistan never left him. The country he once knew does not exist anymore. Even the music he once listened to is now subject to an unofficial ban. I often wonder how he would react if he met today’s rulers on the streets of Kabul. Life in exile is permanently suspended between two worlds. And in many ways, it is the same for me and my siblings.“We are leaving” is a phrase I hear often when I visit my parents’ country. But the question I always hesitate to ask, though I know the answer, is: “Will you ever arrive?”

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