In Afghanistan’s Taxi Industry, the Taliban Show How They Govern

New uniform cab colors aim at demonstrating the regime’s abilities, but not everyone is happy

In Afghanistan’s Taxi Industry, the Taliban Show How They Govern
A traffic jam in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 25, 2023. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

On May 20, days after the Kabul General Directorate of Traffic Police and the Ministry of Interior announced a color change for taxis in the city, I was sitting in a dark-colored private Toyota that nowadays commonly serves as a livery cab, in a city that lacks standardized taxis, along with two other middle-aged Afghans in the back seat. One of them was a taxi driver from northern Mazar-e-Sharif and the other was a shopkeeper.

Ignoring the rules, the driver let two people sit in the front passenger’s seat instead of one. It’s an uncomfortable excuse to make money, but also an awful technique for drivers linked with pickpockets to steal from or rob the occupants.

“Afghans are only Muslim if there is a cane behind them,” complained one of the front-seat passengers. During our short journey from western Kabul toward the downtown area, we started chatting about the new taxi rule and color change with a sense of optimism.

I first heard about the Kabul taxis going from yellow and white to blue and white via social media, a mode of communication as popular with Afghans as it seems to be for just about everyone else in the world. The plan aims to reduce the criminal activities that have plagued urban taxis and develop a safer and more uniform transportation system for the country.

The change was viewed with mixed emotions. For decades, battered Russian-made Moskvitch, Volga and Lada vehicles, along with Mercedes, Opels and Toyota Corollas, plied Kabul’s roads as taxis with hit-and-miss results. Some drivers were criminals seeking to extort or kidnap their passengers. More often, they were smoking. The taxi drivers and fare collectors in Kabul had a very bad reputation among Afghans. The collectors, unfriendly men in oversized jackets who collected fares in minibuses and vans, were often invoked in curse words because of their typically rude nature and quickness to break the honor of passengers over a few Afghanis (the local currency).

The taxis themselves were chugging machines that didn’t quite reach where you needed to go. It was a problem that infuriated generations of Kabul residents who relied on cheap taxis to get around, yet it was neglected over the years by various Afghan governments, whose lawmakers preferred burly Russian jeeps or U.S.-funded SUVs to get around the city. Civil public transport and taxis fell by the wayside.

Now the Taliban, in an effort to showcase their ability to bring order and governance, and change the face of the Afghan capital, have announced that all taxis must be painted a cheery blue and white. In an official ceremony, they unveiled brand-new Toyota vehicles sporting the new colors. “I do support the Taliban, we need secure taxis with specific colors and signs,” commented the driver from Mazar-e-Sharif. “The yellow color is really boring.” The color change comes in accordance with the International Convention on Road Traffic, according to the Kabul traffic officials.

The transition from war to peace and building is fraught with unexpected challenges for men who have devoted their lives to waging armed jihad. Even the formidable regimes of the past that were backed by the world’s top powers failed the test. The Taliban are now trying to prove they can build the country as effectively as they waged war against it when the Northern Alliance and Americans held sway.

Today, the Taliban have succeeded in changing the face of a city that was once surrounded by a so-called Ring of Steel of police checkpoints, barbed wires, blast walls and K-9 or sniper dogs. Nowadays, the city looks cleaner than before. It appears safe and active, with order on the streets. Roads are painted with light atmospheric colors and shiny minarets, demonstrating that Kabul Municipality is funneling taxes collected from residents back into the city.

The country still has a long way to go — from resolving the issue of the education of women and girls as well as addressing widespread unemployment to improving the city’s landscape and infrastructure. Nevertheless, many Kabul residents have a renewed sense of optimism amid the reclamation of their once-embattled city.

It was the Taliban that introduced brand-new taxis to the residents of Kabul when they first ruled in the mid-1990s. They issued thousands of taxi plates for Toyota Corolla wagons. Many ordinary Afghans, however, did not have enough money to actually use them. And then there was the fact that, in those early years, those taxis were all vehicles with the steering wheel on the right side of the car, even though Afghans drive on the right side of the road. These wagons seemed to be the favored vehicles for the Taliban in general — their late leader Mullah Omar tried to escape in a white Toyota Wagon in 2001 during the American invasion. (The Taliban dug it up in 2022, from Zabul province, and senior officials called for it to be placed in the National Museum, where vehicles used by previous Afghan leaders are on display. The wagon had once been buried because of the fear of tracking down Mullah Omar, but it has now emerged as a symbol of resistance.)

Color means beauty in Afghan culture. The country was devoid of so much color during the years of war, but now with few suicide attacks and no airstrikes the colors are back in play. “Color helps mental health,” says Sharafuddin Azimi, a Kabul-based sociologist. “If we paint our cars, houses, rooms or see light paintings around us, it will change our life for the better.” Azimi believes that color could have a great effect on Afghans’ lives after the years of war and tragedy.

However, this move by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to embrace color is not without its opponents.

Abdul Basir Wardak, a thin and tall man in his 30s, is a prominent livery cab driver in Kabul. Opposition to these new changes exudes from his eyes and loud voice.

“We can’t make enough to pay for food, electricity bills and our clothing. How do you think we would pay for painting our car?” He is not alone in his thinking. Haji Sayed Hussan Abid, 54, a resident of Kunar province, is also against the color change.

“First it is not fair with the economic problems we have, and second I think they [the Taliban] made taxi colors a political tool, where the next regime will change them into their own will.”

The taxi color change is representative of a new era that Afghanistan is entering, in which peace and security prevail, with foreign troops no longer present and widespread demilitarization. However, for those Afghans struggling to make ends meet at a time when many live below the poverty line, the color change is negatively symbolic. It reflects their own criticisms that the Taliban must first resolve issues such as food security and mass unemployment, which are major demands for most Afghan citizens. As Haji Sayed said, “The Taliban need to bring order with the same yellow and white color; there’s no need to change it.”

Kabul and other large cities deserve to experience improved transport infrastructure, including taxi services. However, such a move should not distract from the key issues that dominate the minds of urban Afghans today: education for all genders; mass unemployment; women’s rights and an inclusive, fair and representative Afghan government.

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