The tense atmosphere of the Taliban’s budding security state

The group's attempts to ensure safety in the capital also engender fear as undercover officers roam the streets

The Abul Fazl shrine and mosque, located in Murad Khani, Kabul, Afghanistan.
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In the days leading up to the eve of the first anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, security has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds in the capital Kabul.

“The security this year is like never before,” says Ghulam Sakhi Shahqol, chairman of the board of trustees for the Abul Fazl shrine, a Shiite mosque in Kabul’s old city neighbourhood of Murad Khani.

Standing a few metres outside the shrine’s entrance, surrounded by a unit of Taliban militants-turned-police officers carrying assault rifles, Mr Shahqol was speaking to The National three days before the Shiite holiday of Ashura.

At the same spot 11 Ashuras ago, a suicide bomber killed 50 people from the mosque's congregation. The attack was claimed by Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistan-based anti-Shiite terrorist group whose fighters at the time had friendly ties with the Taliban, but now find common cause with ISKP — the Afghan offshoot of ISIS.

The Taliban police unit posted at the shrine have blocked off the avenue that is the main entrance to Murad Khani with a combination of “caution” tape, concrete barriers and barbed wire. At the foot of the street, two officers man machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks. They are there to prevent a repeat attack, by ISKP or any number of other terrorist groups that still operate in the cities, villages and valleys that straddle Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The checkpoint commander, a stocky Taliban soldier wearing tactical gear no doubt abandoned by the US military, casually refers to threats from “foreigners” — the Taliban’s new euphemism for these groups. The Taliban’s victory has changed its mindset; as the governing power, it now stands apart from them.

Kabul’s Shiites once feared the Taliban. Now, along with the rest of the city’s residents, they must live with them and try to arrive at some sort of modus vivendi. For civilians, this means acquiescing to Taliban authority, but also finding the courage to be assertive where possible. This year, Kabul’s Shiites marked Ashura on August 10 with a boldness unseen since the early years of the republic. Throughout Kabul — not only majority-Shiite neighbourhoods — thousands of traditional green and red flags were hoisted on to lamp posts, and a large sign bearing the words “Ya Hussein” was planted into the side of a mountain overlooking the city.

For the Taliban, the modus vivendi has involved easing up on the sectarian rhetoric and harsh tactics, including public beatings for minor social infractions, that alienated the public and the international community.

“We are all Muslims, and that is the most important thing now, so we have to put effort into building trust,” Mr Shahqol says.

One year under Taliban rule — in pictures

In the past two weeks, those efforts have been tested repeatedly. Many security incidents and a lack of transparency from the Taliban have raised the sense of uncertainty Afghans have regarding their future.

On July 31, just after sunrise, Kabulis in the wealthy (and heavily monitored) neighbourhood of Sherpur woke up to the sound of a Hellfire missile slamming into a mansion. For nearly two days, the Taliban government kept silent — saying only that it was investigating what happened and that no one had been killed.

It was only on Tuesday morning that Afghans learnt from a televised address by US President Joe Biden that the missile was American, and that someone was successfully killed. It was the world’s most-wanted terrorist, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri — a foreigner, although one who was presumably being sheltered by the Taliban. Perhaps, some Kabulis thought, the Taliban does not stand as far apart as it likes to think.

The Taliban have also had to learn that almost no amount of security can adequately shield a city as large as Kabul from the spectre of terrorism.

On August 3, Taliban police officers on the other side of the city were conducting door-to-door searches, looking for the “foreigners”. Two days earlier, in the neighbourhood of Karte Sakhi, a female police officer had been killed in a shoot-out with suspected ISKP militants.

At a checkpoint at the entrance to Dashte Barchi, a sprawling, predominantly Shiite neighbourhood, another female police officer, Begum, was searching incoming minibuses for suspicious passengers. She is unique among the six female officers in her unit because she is herself is a Shiite from Dashte Barchi. She joined the Afghan National Police under the previous government, graduating from the police academy only one month before the Taliban came to power.

The Taliban had initially sent female officers home, but quickly realised they could not do without them entirely. Begum was among the few invited to keep their jobs. She is proud of her work, she says, and of the role her colleagues play in keeping her community safe.

The neighbourhood is much safer than it was during the republic. It’s not really even a comparison
Begum, policewoman from Dashte Barchi

“The neighbourhood is much safer than it was during the republic,” she told The National. “It’s not really even a comparison.”

Two hours later, less than 500 metres from Begum’s checkpoint, a bomb exploded. It had been hidden in a planter on the side of the road. Eight people were killed and 22 injured.

In the days preceding Ashura, a spate of bombings primarily attacking Shiites rocked the capital. The bombs were thought to be improvised explosive devices, usually activated by a mobile phone, of the kind commonly used by the Taliban in its war against the US occupation. On Ashura itself, the Taliban shut down telecommunications networks across Kabul in an attempt to disrupt any further IED detonations. No attacks were reported that day.

The Taliban credits much of its counterterrorism effort to its nascent but already much-feared intelligence agency. And although many Taliban law enforcement officials now wear uniforms, plainclothes agents still walk the streets of Kabul, looking not only for terrorists, but also anyone who might be doing anything perceived as undermining the Taliban’s authority.

The consequences of an encounter with them varies unpredictably. The National’s reporter was followed and subsequently questioned by men claiming to be intelligence agents one morning in Sherpur. It was, overall, a polite interaction. But encounters by other Afghans, recounted to The National but the details of which are withheld for their own safety, have been far more violent.

Here, like everywhere else in Afghanistan, if we’re being really honest, we still have a lot of crime. With the bad economic situation, it is only getting worse
Farid, Kabul resident

Farid, a Dashte Barchi resident working for a local production company, is also incensed by the Taliban’s reliance on plainclothes law enforcement. “Here, like everywhere else in Afghanistan, if we’re being really honest, we still have a lot of crime," he said. "With the bad economic situation, it is only getting worse — all the more so when you can’t tell who is a Talib and who is a thug pretending to be a Talib.”

After Ashura, the days leading up to the anniversary of Taliban rule did not grow any less tense. The near-daily bombings continued. One device, strapped to a motorcycle, killed four people, including two Taliban officers. Another, an IED said to have been hidden in a prosthetic leg, killed a prominent cleric, Rahimullah Haqqani.

Haqqani’s killing, claimed by ISKP, seems a perfect illustration of how complex Kabul’s militant-led politics have become. Although, like his assassins, he was well-known for his occasional screeds against Shiites, he was also a prominent supporter of the Taliban. At the same time, he joined other clerics in lobbying for girls’ education — a right currently taken away because of what Taliban officials say are “religious sensitivities” within the group.

On Saturday, a group of Afghan women took to Kabul’s streets to protest against, among other things, the continued closure of girls’ schools. Taliban officers — a mix of uniformed police and plainclothes intelligence agents — dispersed them by firing live rounds into the air. Several people were detained afterwards, once again raising fears that the Taliban’s careful attempts to govern without alienating the public would prove short-lived.

Shortly before departing Kabul, The National asked a waiter at a local cafe, a Shiite from the country’s historically persecuted Hazara community, for his thoughts on the country’s future.

“It’s not safe to speak here,” he said. “I don’t know who’s listening, and I don’t know what will get me into trouble.”

Updated: August 15, 2022, 8:49 AM