One year ago this August, the Taliban raised their white flag over Afghanistan’s capital for the second time, pulling down the tricolor flag of the republic that had endured for the two decades between.
Their victory gave the radical religious movement supreme power over a country with a median age of 18 — which means most citizens weren’t alive for the Taliban’s violent years in power from 1996-2001. The young people on the left of this photo above had never seen such a change of power. On the right, 62-year-old carpet seller Ahmed Shah Kashefi says he’s lived through many upheavals and it’s always hard.
The self-proclaimed Islamic emirate now controls government compounds, universities and other institutions surrounded by blast walls — concrete structures once built to keep out the Taliban, along with bombers from other extremist groups.
The Taliban also control rural villages, like this one in Wardak Province. Its few remaining residents say the old government bulldozed mud-walled homes as part of their ongoing battle with the Taliban for control of nearby Highway One.
Their single biggest prize is Kabul, a growing city in a mountain valley, where neighborhoods climb up the slopes on all sides.
At this used furniture store, Wahid Kashafi (left) and Abdul Kahar give a snapshot of life in the capital. Few people have money to buy furniture, but many are selling — as they prepare to leave the country, or to buy food.
Kabul’s population is 4.5 million, about twice its population when the Taliban last ruled. In their previous reign there were almost no phones — and no television, except what residents watched on smuggled DVD’s. Now the city is in instant communication with the world.
Kabul’s economy is less connected. Taliban leaders face global economic sanctions. The U.S. froze the assets of the central bank, and other Afghan banks were unable to do business with the world.
Credit cards ceased to function; it even became hard for Afghans abroad to send money home.
At the airport, at taxi stands, and at bread shops it’s not hard to find children seeking a handout.
Shop owners we met said business was bad, though some were philosophical and said it’s always like this when the government changes.
So who is included in the Taliban’s Afghanistan? The free media are still allowed to function. Some, such as TOLOnews, have endured the hard times, the loss of staff, and periodic Taliban demands to leave out inconvenient facts.
The role of women and girls is ambiguous at best. Younger girls are in school while those of junior high and high school age are not.
Some women are still working, while others are not. Muzhda Noor says that one year ago she was a university dean overseeing 19 male professors. After the takeover, a new chancellor ordered new restrictions on women, and told Noor she should no longer attend faculty meetings with men. She sought a transfer but eventually was dismissed from the university.
The political opposition has no formal space of its own. Gulalai Mohammadi was a member of the Afghan parliament that the Taliban declared defunct. She says she’s now at home, with no way to exercise a cause she supported in the assembly — women’s rights.
A former president, Hamid Karzai, remains in Kabul and is able to speak freely, as in a recent NPR interview, but has not been allowed to leave Afghanistan.
Many of the men who brought the Taliban to power have returned to their homes. They include these men in the Tangi Valley in rural Wardak Province. The fighters we met said they were pleased to live under their version of Islamic rule, but as we left the valley we also heard that residents wished their girls could return to school.
And it doesn’t take long for a visitor to begin seeing the vast number of people in society who are obliged under the new rules to go unseen.
How do the Taliban mean to answer the uncertainties of their rule? Analyst Abdul Jabar Baheer was present this summer when Taliban leaders held a mass meeting, but reached no decisions on major policies or a permanent form of government. Hibatullah Akhundzada, described as the emir of Afghanistan, said he would not obey the West, but said little about what he intended to do.
We sought clarity at a famous compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It’s the compound of Mullah Omar, who led the Taliban during their first rule. The U.S. and its Afghan allies later turned it into a base, and it’s strewn with military equipment.
The compound is now home to Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, who has become defense minister in the Taliban’s interim government.
Yaqoob said the Taliban take “seriously” the question of girls in school, and that he hopes for further announcements. He also said it’s a “necessity” to adopt a formal constitution.
The Taliban said there will be no room in their system for democracy — and they have for the moment eliminated elections, elected offices and a formal opposition.
Yet they’ve inherited a complex society that now faces an economic crisis. Through the media, the few remaining independent political figures, and the demands of the people, they face democratic calls to govern effectively and inclusively.