September 1, 2021 will forever be a day of remembrance for Afghans: the official beginning of the new, Taliban-controlled chapter of their lives, entirely free of an American military presence for the first time in two decades.
Indeed, the Taliban themselves were out and about in Kabul after two nights of celebratory gunfire and racing their motorbikes through the streets in jubilation of the US departure. But Wednesday marks a new, dark day for those who previously latched on to the Afghanistan Dream modeled on what America was selling.
“There is a lot of broken glass and things destroyed,” observed one young former store owner, Sabur, who had to shutter his shop the moment the insurgent power swept through. “The Taliban is everywhere. I think some don’t realize that when you fire up, the bullets come down – and break things.”
In Kabul – a vibrant city where streets were once over-stuffed and clogged with cars and rusty bikes, with beggars and blaring music, and the smells of spices and sizzling meat – life as of Sept. 1 goes on as a shadow of that dynamic place.
Few women dare to step into the sunshine – and if so, are almost always completely covered in a blue burqa. Men too are relegated to hiding in their homes, with the majority of the foot traffic either Taliban themselves or workers trying to make ends meet. Banks have reopened, although families are limited to taking out no more than $200USD per week and lines snake around the block.
“People have no choice but to come out and earn something to feed their families. But it is women who are most vulnerable and affected by this situation. So they don’t go out unless it is an emergency,” my friend Zia said from his Kabul home. “There is some traffic but not like before – everyone is terrified.”
Zia said that the Taliban – specifically the Haqqani-affiliated element controlling roads near the airport – have begun checking people’s phones for banned content like music and movies and “maybe to capture those who are against them.”
From Zia’s purview, almost all of the street Taliban – the Pashto word for either students or seekers – are illiterate.
“It is clear they are all extremists, some are aggressive, but some try to be nice,” he continued in an almost whisper. “It’s much quieter now. About 50 percent of the shops are open, about 30 percent are closed, and the remaining 20 percent have signs announcing they are available for rent.”
When he peeks from his window, Zia mostly sees the young fighters “rolling around with guns, long beards and informal clothes,” describing the scene as a horror film with an expected plotline. However, a young teacher named Saif notes that life on the surface “looks normal” – albeit a more solemn version.
“Most people are hiding; it is only the Taliban who is out showing off their weapons and smiling,” he explains. “The schools and universities are all closed. The music stores have all been destroyed, and everyone is afraid even to play music in their homes.”
Saif worries that with the dire economic situation, the street Talibs will eventually turn to extortion and shaking money out of civilians to pay their own way.
“If you go out in western clothes like jeans, they will flog you,” he says. “But it is only a matter of time before they start giving people citations for whatever they can. The Afghan people left are already struggling, the poorest people.”
That anxiety over the unknown grips much of the capital as it enters its new phase of governance.
Ghulam – a businessman with painful memories of the Taliban’s last rule – says he is overcome with sickness and the feeling of being weak in a city that he once felt so free and strong.
“Today’s scene is of loneliness and silence. There is no hope in the city and inside the market. I do not want to go outside my home, but there is no longer television, and our media channels are fried,” he laments. “I wish I could leave my country.”
Many still stuck inside have not given up on their dream of departure, even though the US footprint is a thing of the past. My inbox is still flooded with requests from friends and strangers alike for letters and resources to escape, with many still holding on to the hope that they will be granted a visa to fly far away.
But with HKIA in the Taliban’s hands, the pace has slowed. The hope has not faded – but it is fading into a sense of being down and depressed.
“There is no hope for anyone and nowhere else to go,” says a shopkeeper, Hamyoon, who is afraid to open his shoe stand.
Several Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas tried to flee on the final day before the formal new dawn, but cars were stopped at Taliban checkpoints on the edges of the city. Some were turned around and sent home. Others disappeared into Taliban jails and were charged with crimes related to trafficking and smuggling.
Meanwhile, other observers in Kabul pointed to the seeming “diversity” of the Taliban now patrolling every possible inch of the fallen capital.
What was once comprised almost entirely of ethnic Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the street set appears to have attracted at least a small subset of other ethnic minorities and those who are now seemingly far from home. That is a likely reflection of the dissatisfaction many Afghans had with the ineptitude and corruption within the government’s layers of red tape and the survival instinct to join the inevitably winning side.
Another observer said that some Taliban actions had been welcomed. Namely, officials announcing over the loudspeakers swift action against looters and criminals – a kind of justice and accountability many struggled to see under the corrupt-fueled former leadership.
And while the once-bustling cities are now crammed and policed by weapon-toting Taliban on almost every street corner, checkpoint and inside every market and mosque – the older and more well-spoken upper echelons are still hammering out their new “inclusive Islamic government.”
But as of Wednesday, it remains to be seen if Kabul will even continue to function as Afghanistan’s capital. Rumors have run rampant that many on the inside want Kandahar, the capital of the province with the same name and the birthplace of the Taliban, to serve as the capital of the Islamic Emirate.
“I would not know what life is like outside,” one woman, a 24-year-old unmarried political writer I can only identify as Samia, said. “I have not left my home in weeks. I’m just waiting for them to come for me. I am so scared. Can anyone help?”