Former Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul on the morning of August 15. For almost a day, the capital city was lawless. I witnessed people stealing military vehicles, others looting police stations and ministries, and my friends going into hiding or scrambling to the airport to get to safety. The Taliban eventually marched into the city the next morning.
I remember my drive that morning by the largest flag of Afghanistan on the Wazir Akbar Khan hill. That was the last time I saw the flag flutter in Kabul’s sky. Though the dark and solemn figures of the Taliban fighters were new to me, I wanted to believe that reconciliation was possible with the group. Though it is impossible to narrate a whole year in this piece, I want to give the reader a glimpse of what some of us have been through.
The first few days of the takeover were tense. The Taliban narrative, of viewing the larger urban population as allies of the West, was reflected in their harsh behaviour with the citizens at checkpoints. The fighters went through people’s mobile phones – although that was more often the case for people using public transport than those travelling in their private cars – had physical altercations and made random arrests.
One Taliban officer threatened to tear my western clothes if he ever saw me in them again, and another wanted to go through my mobile phone. But those were two incidents among hundreds of interactions. I do recognise that my personal car and driver ensured that I got treated better than most. Yet, those who saw the worst of the Taliban would tell you that the conduct at checkpoints has improved significantly. The new, formalised police apparatus conducts itself professionally and respectfully. There are certain checkpoints run by the Taliban intelligence, who are much tougher to deal with.
After the initial exodus, many have eventually visited Afghanistan throughout the past year. My only advice to them has been to not generalise their experiences. The existence of what the journalist and author Anand Gopal called "the other Afghan woman" – the rural conservative woman – in one his articles should not mean that other experiences are dismissed. If even one Afghan woman is deprived of her rights, then the system is failing and warrants criticism.
The absence of a national backlash to the Taliban’s policies since its takeover is an indication that the larger rural population is unaffected by them, for two main reasons.
Firstly, the culture within the villages of Afghanistan is self-regulating, and the Taliban have never had – or maybe never wanted to have – a formal, enforcing presence there. Secondly, the dominant view of the role of women there is largely in line with that of the Taliban. This does not include the ban on schools, since that is an extreme case that the majority of the rural population would disagree with as well.
The changes that the Taliban imposed on the urban population meant that a smaller percentage of Afghanistan’s population was completely stripped off their worlds. This was a generation of men, and more importantly women, that had learnt to dream of a different life for themselves through the years. A generation that had only heard stories of the Taliban rule and seen little chance of living that reality. This population is the brains of the country, and the success or failure of Afghanistan would depend on whether the Taliban can accommodate them and convince them to not leave the country.
There are stories of three people I know that are my starkest and darkest memories of the year.
Mawlawi Gul Jan was a shopkeeper and sole bread earner for his household in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar. I commissioned him to survey the areas for families by the border of Pakistan so that we could help with food aid. The Taliban intelligence picked Gul Jan during his survey and detained him. Despite multiple reassurances from us regarding our work and assurances given by the Taliban of his release, Gul Jan was kept in custody for more than 40 days. We had to provide his family aid during that time.
Then there was Imad Dawran, a soft-spoken poet who is a family friend. His gentle exterior was in complete contrast with the burning fire of rebellion within him. He decided to stay in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal on August 15, but refused to be silent despite witnessing the fates of others that had been vocal. After a post on social media criticising the Taliban, he was picked up and taken to an unknown location. He was kept in detention for almost two months. His scarred back and broken ribs told the story of how intolerant the group was towards any form of dissent. A gentle poet now struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and is barely a fraction of his old self.
Lastly, Mawlawi Izzatullah Mohib, a friend and a father of five who lived in Jalalabad. He was abducted in October last year and accused of being an IS-K member. After three days in detention, his family received a message that said: “This is the fate that awaits all who rebel against the Emirate. We have thrown his body by the side of [sic] road." Mohib was never given a chance to defend himself before he was beheaded by the group.
Given such realities, why do I still believe that reconciliation is possible? The end of the active conflict has presented an opportunity where people like myself, who could not travel beyond the major cities, can now access the most remote rural areas. This is where we can finally change the larger thinking of the population. Unless the lives of the rural population change, we will keep producing radical groups as part of our endless cycle – of basic needs not being met, and this producing violent men.
The checkpoints represent how the state sees its citizenry and the improvement signifies the ability of groups, even as hardline as the Taliban, to eventually learn to accommodate people and their differences.
The three stories I listed are gross human rights abuses – abuses that Afghanistan has witnessed under Nato and the Republic alike, but this time there is no foreign influence and the onus is on us Afghans to push back and make things better. Most would call me an idealist for thinking anything could improve. But I think the work myself and people who share my view have done in the past year, in the aid sector, on media networks and in dialogue sessions with the Taliban, are hope-inducing.
The Taliban will have to adjust to the new Afghanistan and we must adjust to the Taliban; a synthesis of our visions has to take place. It will take time but we have to start the process. As long as we can keep the war drums muted, justice will prevail, justice must prevail.