Since almost two years, Afghanistan is governed by the Taliban. Reports about their Islamist rule are often on polarising ends. Many draw the picture of a terror regime, under which everybody is threaten with death and no normal life is possible. The Taliban are rejecting this and pride themselves to have brought peace and quiet to the warn-torn country at the Hindu Kush, which is confirmed by some others. The truth lies somewhere in between.
A member of the Taliban security forces with a RPG-anti-tank-weapon at the disputed Afghan-Pakistani border in Bahramcha, Helmand, Afghanistan (Franz J. Marty, 23rd of December 2021)
The sight of Taliban, most of them fitting the cliché with long beards and turbans, their assault rifles slung over their shoulders or never far away, has become the new normal in the Afghan capital Kabul as well as everywhere in the country.
That they, since they have returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, always and everywhere terrorise the millions of Afghans who live under their rule, as is often suggested, is not the case though. Much of everyday life in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan does — despite manifold problems and some repression — look not that much different than under the internationally-backed former Afghan Republic.
Life Goes On
In Kabul, many people are, from dawn until late at night, on the streets. On foot, on bicycles, and in cars, they continue their daily life, be it going to or coming from work, visiting friends or relatives, or running various errands. For the latter, businesses of all kinds are still open. The majority of them closed only one or two days when the Taliban took over in August 2021. Some were even during these turbulent days continuously open. «Business must go on,» one shop owner told me back then echoing others. Street sellers still roll their goods, from vegetables and fruits, to clothes, light bulbs and everything else, on carts through jammed main and quieter side roads. Children and teenager play on the streets or in parks. Football and cricket are popular, as is flying kites. Restaurants and hooka lounges are open. In some, music is played. Something that would have been unthinkable in the first Taliban emirate in the 1990s, when the Taliban strictly banned music. In many, the amongst Afghans popular anti-Taliban channel ‘Afghanistan International’ is flickering over flat screens (even almost every tiny food joint has regularly one). At night, wedding parties sometimes launch fireworks into the sky or drive in cars jeering through the streets. Some months ago, I saw a wedding party in a bus on the street; in the bus, everyone was dancing wildly.
If one has money, one can also still practically buy anything in Afghanistan, be it a Monster energy drink, the newest iPhone, a dandy outfit for the modern man, ball gowns that
would make Cinderella blush, or since recently also Toyota Prius hybrid cars, to mention only a few examples. And one can also find things that are completely incompatible with the
Taliban regime such as t-shirts with patriotic U.S. motives or slogans from various Christian churches and ego shooter computer games with U.S. special forces being the heroes. Granted, most
Afghans do not understand the messages on the t-shirts and in the computer games. In other Afghan towns it is similar, although more traditional.
Bazaar in Urgun, a town in the Afghan province of Paktika. The Afghan in the centre wears a sweatshirt of the U.S. University of Southern California. (Franz J. Marty, 10th of November 2021)
If there weren’t bearded Taliban at the numerous checkpoints in the cities and if the white flags of the Taliban with the black Islamic creed superimposed on them would not be everywhere, on first sight one would barely see any difference to the past under the Afghan Republic.
The ubiquitous Taliban are bothering people only rarely. At the mentioned numerous checkpoints in Kabul and elsewhere, they barely check anything. The Taliban, often visibly bored, are waving most cars through. Others are at most checked with a brief glance or one or two senseless questions. Pedestrians are practically always completely ignored. «I have never had any problems» — that is the reply that I got from dozens of taxi drivers, after I asked them about their experience with Taliban checkpoints. Most other Afghans say similar things. That they lied out of fear from the Taliban can be ruled out, as most of them afterwards heavily complained about Taliban governance.
«There is barely any work anymore» — that is usually the first thing that not only taxi drivers, but also Afghans from all walk of life complain about. That many Afghans live in poverty is sadly nothing new. Beggars, from children to men and women of all ages, were, already under the Republic, an ubiquitous sight. Since the takeover of the Taliban, the situation has become more dire though. International aid organisations have documented this in numerous reports. I have seen it in various forms. Afghans who join long queues that form in the evening in front of bakeries in the hope to at least get some bread for free are a striking example.
Contrary to the past, the tumbling economy is nowadays affecting practically everyone. Before the Taliban takeover, many people also struggled to make ends meet, but there were also various people who had relatively successful businesses. Since the Taliban marched into Kabul, such people have become rare exceptions. I had made a habit out of it to ask practically in every shop and restaurant that I went in, how much business had declined or recovered. In the better cases, people indicated that sales had collapsed by 50%, in the worst that practically nothing was left.
In the months right after the Taliban takeover, the situation was at its gloomiest. Since then, the economy recovered at least a bit. However, dozens of business owners say that it is still worse than at any point under the Afghan Republic. Most Afghans therefore see no future in their homeland. Many tell me so directly. Various of them — amongst them a few Taliban — then ask me, whether I could arrange a visa to emigrate.
The Taliban usually do not acknowledge any of this and boast about the alleged successes of their economic policies. If they admit some economic problems, they blame them on in their view unjust international sanctions against their regime. Some Taliban are speaking of an economic war against them. Such sanctions and the connected stop of development aid (humanitarian aid such as food and medical aid is still flowing to Afghanistan, even in larger amounts than under the Republic) are indeed a main factor that caused Afghanistan’s current economic misery. That the Taliban had to be aware that this would happen, if they overthrow the Afghan Republic militarily, and nonetheless deliberately did so instead of pursuing peace negotiations in which the Taliban could also have achieved their objectives and that they therefore chose such an outcome is not mentioned.
In conversations with Taliban it also becomes clear that they do not see any contradiction in the fact that they vilify everything from the West but that they still want Western aid money to keep Afghanistan afloat (aid from non-Western countries is only a very small part). They see this as their right, apparently because Afghanistan has, in the last four decades, always received and depended on foreign aid.
With what the Taliban can score points is the improvement in the security situation. Before the Taliban’s return to power, explosions and firefights were daily occurrences in many towns and villages as well as on numerous main roads and country lanes in Afghanistan. Killed and injured were not only fighters of the warring parties, but also many civilians. Civilians were not only killed by the Taliban, but also security forces of the erstwhile Republic and U.S. airstrikes.
In contrast, since the Taliban have overthrown the Afghan Republic, the situation is significantly calmer. The Afghan chapter of the self-declared Islamic State, which has always fought the Taliban, as well as some anti-Taliban resistance groups with democratic outlooks are, every now and then, conducting attacks. With a few exceptions, such incidents remain small and cannot be compared with the previous war that was raging through the whole country.
To therefore see the Taliban as the bringers of peace would be amiss though. The countless acts of violence during the previous years were mostly initiated by the Taliban. As such, they did not bring peace, but rather stopped their war.
To be fair, one has to give the Taliban that, since their takeover and in view of the thousands of armed Taliban and all the bad blood that the war of the past years had created amongst various Afghan groups, there have been surprisingly few armed clashes and acts of revenge. The general amnesty for soldiers and other employees of the old Republic did not hold completely and there have been and still are apparent revenge killings; however, systematical large-scale bloody vengeance did not occur as various former soldiers confirmed to me. This does not at all mean that the Taliban have to be overly praised for this. Every apparent revenge killing is one too much and the fact that the Taliban do not take such incidents seriously is egregious. Right after the fall of Kabul, much worse was to be expected though which the Taliban indeed managed to avert.
How significant this far from perfect improvements of security are for many Afghans, is often not sufficiently understood in the West. Many Afghans, including those who have no sympathies whatsoever for the Taliban, are, after years of war in which practically everybody has lost relatives and friends, valuing the comparative security that the victory of the Taliban brought along.
Whether because of this or because most Afghans believe conspiracy theories, according to which the Americans and the United Nations want that the Taliban govern Afghanistan and that Afghans are in no position to determine their own fate, numerous Afghans are acquiescing to repressive Taliban rule. Many also don’t have the luxury to ponder much about such things, as they simply cannot afford it. They have to concentrate on how to feed themselves and their families. Who is ruling them, does not play any significant role for many.
That the Taliban regime is repressive presents itself in various forms. Girls and women are especially affected as they are pushed out of public life. The fact that already immediately after the Taliban takeover fewer women were seen on the streets was not ordered by the Taliban. It was rather the fear what the Taliban might do that caused many women to leave the house less frequently or even not at all.
With time, the former changed though and the Taliban issued more and more edicts that radically limited girls and women: from a command of a, according to Taliban view, proper veiling and the necessity, that women are, on longer travels, required to be accompanied by a male relative, over the closure of secondary schools and universities for girls and prohibition for Afghan women to work for non-governmental aid organisations and the United Nations, to the closure of beauty salons. These edicts were partly, albeit only rarely directly enforced; often, it was again the mere fear of Taliban reactions that led people to obey them.
While numerous Afghans, women and men, criticise these Taliban policies and remark that practically none of those restrictions of women is proscribed by Islam, for many Afghans, they are not as radical as one might assume. Already before the return of the Taliban to power, every Afghan woman wore at least a headscarf, not few also the usually light blue full body veil that foreigners call burqa, but Afghans chadri and is often seen as an epitome for the Taliban’s oppression of women. Some did this voluntarily; others because they were urged or forced to do so by their families; many did it without thinking about it much, as everyone has always done it.
An Afghan woman in a full body veil passes a Taliban flag, Mirdesh, Kamdesh District, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan (Franz J. Marty, 9th of August 2021)
The notion that girls and women can do everything freely and unrestricted is, for many Afghans, also not self-evident. That girls and women ought not to interact with not-related men, is deemed normal by many. Practically in every Afghan house, in which a man is invited, he never sees any woman. The male hosts deliberately usher women in adjacent rooms as soon as a man enters their house. Even in houses and apartments of close friends, whom I have visited numerous times over several years and who completely reject the Taliban, I have never seen a woman.
This is obviously no justification to ban girls from school and women from public life and calling out the Taliban for this is more than necessary. It does show though that the problem did not start with the Taliban and does not end with them.
Protests and Arrests
Protests against such and other Taliban edicts have mostly stopped. Lacking resentment is not the reason. Many Afghans, with whom I speak, are, in private conversations, not at all hiding that they do not agree with current Taliban policies. Whoever tries to do something, risks a lot though.
Taliban dispersed initial demonstrations in Kabul and elsewhere not only with machine gun salvos into the air but also numerous arrests. Once I saw myself how, after a protest in Kabul, two Taliban pick-ups sped away. On the cargo loads, between heavily armed Taliban lied handcuffed protestors. The vehicles drove in the direction of the central neigbourhood of Shash Darak, likely to the prison there. This prison was already under the Afghan Republic infamous and was taken over and is still run as a prison by the Taliban. Whoever is — whether right- or wrongfully — accused of significant wrongdoings, has a good chance to land in Shash Darak.
After almost two years in power, the Taliban have arrested many more people, almost all of them Afghans but also a few foreigners. Many of them have probably committed crimes; many others have done nothing at all though. In delicate cases, the Taliban rarely indicate reasons for arrests or only flimsy ones. In various instances, the Taliban even denied to have certain persons in their custody, but later acknowledged it. Several arrestees never saw a judge and where never formally indicted. Some arrestees are released within days, some after months. Some are still imprisoned.
An acquaintance of mine was several times and without reason beaten in a Taliban prison. He as well as others reported screams from other cells that hint at way worse. Released people very seldom speak about what happened to them.
In view of such circumstances, Afghans as well as I myself have become cautious. Everyone knows that doing something that the Taliban might not like could have severe consequences. Even worse is that sometimes, one does not even have to do anything, as it can suffice to be wrongly accused of something. Most of the time, arguably nothing grave would happen. But who wants to take the risk to find out.
When I or others confront Taliban with such and other issues, they reject them as false. Even providing irrefutable evidence does not change this.
As such and as the Taliban have so far not given any notable concessions, there is little hope that the situation in Afghanistan will change for the better. This is all the more the case as that the Taliban not only see themselves as the legitimate representatives of the Afghan people but also the bringer of a divine order who are infallible. Nevertheless, for millions of Afghans their normal life continues in their homeland.