I went back to Kabul for the first time since Taliban rule, and saw a different city

On the eve of the Taliban government's anniversary, the Afghan capital is grappling with a changed identity

A man walks over a bridge in Kabul on August 7, 2022. AFP
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The first moment of dread hit me not when I landed in Kabul, for the first time in many years, but about five minutes before. As I looked out of the aeroplane window, it occurred to me that that was about the altitude at which, on August 16 last year, a desperate young man fell from the wheel carriage of an evacuation flight. The day before – a year ago today – the Taliban had taken the city, and with it Afghanistan.

Kabul is now a different city from the one it was a year and a day ago – in all of the ways even a casual observer of the news might expect.

There was, of course, the sudden spate of attacks that have shaken the Afghan capital over the past fortnight, orchestrated by the terrorist group ISKP to mar the Taliban’s attempts to celebrate the anniversary of their takeover.

Apart from the parades and other events organised by the Taliban, however, most Kabulis – even those who want to ­– do not have the luxury of celebration. The capital’s streets are quieter than they used to be, an outward symptom of the brain drain and the steep rise in poverty witnessed in the past year as a result of continued international sanctions that have ground the economy to a halt. World Food Programme distribution points around the city are easy to recognise; you just have to look for the large queues.

Nearly everyone I spoke to during my visit there this month is despondent at the country’s lot in this world – propaganda is painted on boards lining virtually every major thoroughfare, bragging about Afghanistan’s liberation, yet Afghans are more isolated than they have been in decades. Middle- and high-school girls, barred from school for the past 330 days, experience yet another layer of loneliness. One mother told me how much time she and her husband spend devising ways to stave off their unenrolled daughter’s depression.

While everyone is vocal about girls’ schooling, it’s not so for other subjects – whether the Taliban still harbours foreign terrorists, whether the anti-Taliban “resistance forces” led by the young commander Ahmad Massoud are still active, whether rumours of atrocities said to be taking place in faraway provinces are true. These things are spoken of only in whispers, in places out of the earshot of the Taliban’s supposedly ubiquitous intelligence agents.

When the Taliban swept to power, it looked as though there might be a more inclusive political solution. That hope was dashed when it announced its highly exclusive interim cabinet. In March, which in Afghanistan marks the start of a new year, it looked as though girls’ schools would finally reopen. That hope was dashed when girls took their seats with big smiles on their faces, only to be sent home an hour later in tears. In July, the Taliban announced ongoing talks with the US over unlocking Afghan funds, and it looked as though Afghanistan may come out of the cold. But then a US drone found and killed one of the most-wanted terrorists on the planet in the centre of Kabul, and the fear almost immediately set in for Kabulis that they were perhaps just destined to be the capital city of a pariah state.

Life in Kabul these days can often seem like the space between disappointments.

Life in Kabul these days can often seem like the space between disappointments

But Kabul is also a different city from the one many people abroad (including many Afghans themselves) think it is today. For one thing, it is calmer. More resigned, maybe, but I would wager that in the absence of war and occupation a small part of it is more self-assured. And despite the many freedoms they lost a year ago, it is difficult to overestimate the vituperation with which the average Kabuli now recalls their memories of the republic and its corruption.

The traffic cops, people humorously point out (though it’s not a joke), have become grumpier under the new regime because it’s no longer so easy for them to press you for a bribe.

The city is no longer so segregated. Gone are the restaurants, gyms and even barbershops that would serve alcohol specifically so that they could be classed as spaces where Afghans are not allowed – spaces where westerners could relax, safe from the people they were meant to be helping.

The city is no longer akin to a giant military base, urban life splintered at every turn by large convoys of foreign troops or heavy blast walls. Some blast walls are still in place, of course. Removing them takes a huge amount of work. But one morning as I left my hotel to make an appointment, I saw a crew removing one of them, and a crowd was gathered around looking proud. And although I know how bad things have become in Afghanistan today, nonetheless, as an Afghan who had seen what the city was in the presence of foreign troops, in that moment I felt proud, too.

The city is also no longer so separated, psychologically, from the rest of Afghanistan’s pain. “Kabul is not Afghanistan,” is a refrain repeated often by historians, usually in response to black-and-white photos people like to share of the city’s women in the 1960s wearing pencil skirts. For two decades, tens of thousands of boys have been growing up in the country’s remote valleys, ensconced in a deeply conservative culture, committing themselves fully to what they believed was a fight of liberation. While they were the pride of their families – hundreds of thousands of people – to many children of the republic they were almost mythical. Now, they are everywhere in Kabul. Many of the ones I spoke to are anxious, but also deeply humbled under the weight of what they accomplished. They are unpredictable – at times exceptionally polite and intimidated, at others jittery and quick to the trigger.

These young men also seem unsure of what exactly they have to do now. Their leaders, this so-called interim government, is often shadowy and opaque. It lays down strict decrees, but enforces them seemingly arbitrarily. And already, there are early signs that some of the republic’s old excesses – corruption, crime and social segregation – are re-emerging. There is a new Chinese restaurant in Kabul, which I wasn’t allowed to enter as an Afghan – a sign that the US’s rivals may now be enjoying its old privileges.

Being in Kabul, for residents, Taliban newcomers and even those visiting from abroad, is a daily exercise in answering the question that Afghanistan’s new leadership seem unable to answer for themselves: Here we are, now what do we do?

Many of the Taliban officers I spoke to hope, over time, with encouragement, Kabulis will come around to their thinking. A few, more liberal Kabulis expressed the opposite sentiment: they think it likely that in time the Taliban will become more like them. Whatever the outcome of that psychological tug-of-war turns out to be, everyone hopes it will be more sustainable than the thing that came before it.

Published: August 15, 2022, 4:00 AM