Taliban’s return to Kabul revives fears I saw fall away 20 years ago

Alex Spillius considers what's changed in Afghanistan after witnessing Kabul celebrate in 2001

Taliban fighters stand guard along a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul. AFP
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Kabul has yielded to the Taliban, closing the circle from its fall from power nearly two decades ago. The flight from the Afghan capital has begun, with thousands of Afghans desperate to follow their president, Ashraf Ghani, out of the country. US President Biden, six weeks after ordering US troops out of Afghanistan after a 20-year presence, has ordered 5,000 to return to evacuate thousands of American civilians.

Over the weekend every remaining major Afghan city fell with stunning rapidity. The Taliban’s armed forces then halted on Kabul’s outskirts, apparently waiting for a peaceful transition of power to be finalised.

For all the Taliban’s assurances that there will be no retribution, the mood in Kabul will be utter dread and trepidation.

How different from late 2001 and early 2002, in the weeks after the Taliban had been removed from power by a US-led military coalition in retaliation for providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden, which he used to plan the September 11 attacks.

Five years of brutal fundamentalist rule that banned girls’ education and female employment and flogged men whose beards were too short, ended overnight. The Taliban ceded the capital without a fight, much as they will recapture it now.

The mood then was elation and relief at the sudden absence of fear of retribution. Women were able to walk in the streets without a burqa or the presence of a male relative. Children were able to fly their kites and photo booths and music shops could ply their trade, as the Taliban’s bans on all forms of artistic expression were swept away.

Day by day, things happened that had been unthinkable in the darkest days. Staff at the InterContinental Hotel could not conceal their relief at receiving international guests again. The Taliban had ordered the destruction of most stock in its precious bookshop and the swimming pool to be emptied of water. A member of the reception staff told me that “at last we can breathe again”.

Afghan exiles began returning to the country, giving up comfortable lives in the US or UK to join the rebuilding effort. Many had fled the Soviet occupation in the 1980s or the destructive civil war that followed in the 1990s. Two canny and charismatic US-based Afghan brothers established a hotel and restaurant in their old family home in the heart of the city that quickly became the place for reporters and aid workers to hang out. It served great mantu, dumplings with yoghurt sauce.

The aid community flooded in, creating such competition for office and residential space that price increases in the city’s better neighbourhoods outpaced those in London.

As a reporter, it was hard at times not to be drawn in by the sense that a better future might really take hold. I interviewed Sima Samar, a doctor and social activist appointed by interim president Hamid Karzai to a Cabinet position as minister of women’s affairs, the first woman ever to hold such a high position. She was perfect for the role. In defiance of the Taliban, she had run health clinics in Pakistan near the Afghan border that catered mainly to women.

Her eyes full of conviction, she told me: “People say I make too much noise. So I say, ‘why did they appoint me?' I am not confrontational, but I have to say what I want for women.”

Ms Samar represented dramatic new possibilities for Afghanistan, but less than 18 months after our interview her political role in rebuilding the country ended. Accused of questioning Sharia in a newspaper interview, which she vehemently denied, she was condemned by religious conservatives, and, lacking a political base of her own, was left out of Mr Karzai’s first permanent government in 2003.

That spoke volumes about the difficulties of rebuilding and stabilising Afghanistan, a country beset by decades of civil war, volatile and often corrupt tribal rule, weak central authority, ethnic hostility and meddling from neighbouring states and international powers.

The US has spent $80 billion since 2002 in security and reconstruction efforts, despite being so heavily distracted by Iraq. It built up an Afghan army and police force only for them to be beset by problems of high casualty rates, desertions and instances of corruption, although they were credible enough on the surface to help justify the US withdrawal.

The Taliban melted away but never disappeared, as British and American troops discovered in the bloody and costly battle for the militia’s heartland provinces in the south. Pakistan continued to offer them a base and support, as part of its regional power struggle with India, and gradually their strength revived. Presidents Karzai and then Ghani could, meanwhile, never create a credible central government.

There were other markers along the way to today’s capitulation. Isolated bombings in Kabul, Taliban gains here and there in rural areas, then a brutal Taliban gun attack in 2018 on the InterContinental Hotel, by then restored to something approaching its glory days of the 1970s. Kabul will be a very different place from today.

Alex Spillius was a foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph covering south Asia and South-East Asia from 1996-2004.

Updated: August 16, 2021, 8:17 AM