KABUL, Afghanistan – At the outset, the capital appears as though it is almost coming back to life: wooden carts overstuffed with fruits for sale underneath the searing sunshine, beaten down cars clogging the dusty streets, beggars reaching out to grab your arm from behind the blue burqa and the smells of fresh kebabs and diesel mixed into a strange yet familiar scent.
But behind the weathered faces, the bustle and the stalls brimming with bread exists a dramatically transformed country in limbo. One month since the fall of Kabul on August 15, it remains a beleaguered nation holding on to parcels of the past and the present. It is a country waiting for the new Taliban leadership – officially called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – to codify its interpretation of Shariah Law and what is and is not allowed.
The hum of music that once infiltrated the city has faded. The life and color embodied in the Art Lords murals that once represented a vibrant, inclusive and progressive Afghanistan have steadily been painted over with white-and-black to epitomize the Taliban flag. Outside the US Embassy – a fortified, grandiose compound built to the tune of $800 million – is now surrounded with Emirate messages, including “We Defeated America,” “Keep Independence and Freedom,” “Patience in Order to Build a Country,” and “Together One Nation, One Identity, a United Afghanistan.”
Only such words are empty for the many residents who remain hidden in dank basements in fear for their lives – having already lost the livelihoods, dreams and beliefs that existed just four weeks ago.
“Those who had high positions in the military, police or the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the situation for us is really critical,” a formerly high-ranking NDS General tells me in an almost-whisper, stressing that he continues to receive threatening text messages and phone calls. “I cannot go out, and most of us have had to change our location three or four times. So we are in a very bad situation.”
Still, when you talk to many Afghans, they speak in epochs defined by lives in perpetual conflict. There was the time of the Soviets and the ensuing civil war, the time of the Taliban and the time of the United States. Now, it’s the time of the Talibs again; only it is plagued by more uncertainty, more anxiety and a nagging worry that they could all plunge into poverty atop it all.
Despite the announcement of a partial interim government last week, many services – which were propped up by foreign aid over the past two decades – have not been reinstated, given the government cannot govern without money. Most ministries you visit are without personnel, except for the few armed fighters who sit haplessly in the heat outside.
Every Talib you encounter is different. There is no one-size-fits-all. Some still roam with kohl-rimmed eyes and traditional dress and look as though they are far from home in the urban landscape, still clutching an M-4 close as if ready for battle. Others have reformed their image to don an Afghan Security Forces uniform slapped with a freshly embroidered Emirate patch. Some take the Pashtunwali code of hospitality for foreigners very seriously, offering tea and sweets during meetings, others are abrupt and bark orders not to speak to the people and demand to see identification.
Most won’t make eye contact or acknowledge me – as a woman – but occasionally, you will find one who looks me dead in the face.
However, the Taliban foot soldiers outside government buildings are everywhere – they roll through the streets in armored US trucks with American weapons strapped to their backs, their flags flapping high on almost every government building, street corner and institution. Afghans no longer blink an eye, having quickly adapted to the new ruling class around them.
Yet, there is a strange sense of law and order that comes with their imposing presence.
“Security-wise, it has been perfect. There have been no robberies, no kidnappings, nothing. Before, we could not walk around. Criminals with guns would take our mobile phones and money, and everything,” says Fazal Mohammed, 55, who has owned his barber store for 35 years. “Now, there is none of that.”
Mohammed notes that the Taliban is yet to issue any formal decree of whether men must grow their beards as they were forced to do during their last reign, which would ultimately hurt his business. Yet, he weathered through it last time and vows to struggle through it again.
Taliban members have been in themselves to be groomed, and while Muhammed typically charges the equivalent of around $3USD for a cut, he says the Talibs leave just $1USD on the table and leave.
Moreover, 52-year-old Hashim – a longtime Kabul tailor – tells me that business has plummeted 70 percent since the Taliban takeover.
“Before, people had salaries, but now nothing is available to them. The only issue we have is jobs. Everything is good with security. We are not afraid,” he presses on.
Similarly, Aminullah, a 25-year-old employee at a mobile phone store, highlights that even though business is down almost 70 percent, he can now wander the streets past 10 pm.
“Before, when the war was on, we had to be home by 6 pm,” he continues.
If there was bitterness about the chaotic US departure, it has given way to a sad kind of acceptance.
“The US is their country, so they went back. Even if they stayed 100 years, at the end of the day, they (will eventually) go back,” Waheedullah, who works in the noisy bird market and thinks he is about 50 or 52, says gently. “People are selling their items on the roads to get money; there is no money. But we can’t do anything. We can’t go anywhere or do anything, so we just have to stay here.”
And Humayoon, 49, who has worked in his father’s handcrafted Afghan rug store since he was in first grade, hints that while he misses the foreign customers he had before – he is holding out.
“Almost all the customers were from NATO countries,” he reminiscences. “If countries around the world support us, (our country) will come back. If not, we will not survive.”
Yet perhaps the most significant change resonates in the lives of women. Some still go about their daily lives, wrapped in a colorful hijab, refusing anything akin to a full face and body covering. But most women have disappeared from public view altogether – preferring to stay hidden in their homes, unable to go to work or school.
The Taliban top-brass says it will give women and girls “full rights within Islam.” But that is not the same as human or equal rights, which religious scholars perceive as a western concept. Moreover, it is yet to be determined by a team of all men what exactly women can wear, how they can work and the permissions they must seek to leave home.
For now, the waiting game drags on.
Much of the changes over the past four weeks have stemmed from self-censorship. Once lively music bars and espresso lounges have chosen to shutter, as workers have fled the country or continue to move from house to house in terror of being targeted or punished.
Kabul’s young people – many who were not even born or minors during the last Taliban reign from 1995 to 2001 – appear the most gripped by unease.
“Very few women come here now,” says Abdul Batan, 35, staring out at the bright and sparkly fancy women’s dresses that he has been selling in his shop for the past four years. “We used to sell around ($120USD) per day, now only about ($20USD-$30USD) a day. We are just hoping it will get better.”
There are spouts of anti-Taliban protests – often led by women – that erupt in the streets in a fierce demand for their right to a future. But even so, those seem to be waning for now, as the extinct of basic survival kicks in.
Afghans have clearly been worn down by war, by exhaustion, by worry, and by the unknown.
“If we can’t make money, we will close up,” asserts Mohammad Nabi, who says purchases have fallen 50 percent since the Kabul fall. “Everything is in God’s hands.”
I walk by a 16-year-old boy seated by a traditional stove, ringed by fresh bread in different shapes and sizes. He says his name is Tamim, and he has long worked in his Uncle’s bakery. The teen acknowledges that the cost of their cooking supplies has surged but seems untouched by fear – opening his palms and uttering that they simply do not know what the future holds.
You still see occasional acts of rebellion, such as smoking cigarettes in the street of men wandering in skinny jeans and a fake western designer shirt. And you still do see visceral signs of people clutching onto the past and moving forward all the same.
“You want to buy a Taliban flag?” another child, who appears about eight with his sun-touched face and light eyes, asks as our taxicab comes to a halt in the gridlock traffic.
His determined face cracks into an almost cheeky smile.
“Or you want this one?” he continues, pulling out the red, green and black flag that one month ago still flew atop the Presidential Palace.
And yet, Afghans are resilient people.
“I was a civil engineer before, but they told me not to go to work anymore. So I became a driver,” 22-year-old Mohammad Asim adds as we sputter through afternoon traffic in the heart of Kabul. “I was a contractor for the government. My whole family worked for the government. Now, we are all at home. But I must find a way to support.”