The Taliban fighter waited for us behind the barbed wire at the end of the long, narrow metal walkway that is the only path for pedestrians crossing the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He greeted us with a smile, clutching his shiny M16 rifle, emblazoned with the words “property of US govt”. A few hours earlier, the last American soldier had left Afghanistan.
I, cameraman Asim Mehmood and senior producer Hameedullah Khan were the first international news crew to have crossed into the country by land since the Taliban had taken over Kabul on August 15, and we would become the first to report from outside the capital.
On the Afghan side of the border, the vehicles we would be travelling in waited in the distance. We felt concerned for our safety, but the Taliban fighters who had come to meet us – some as young as 20, born in the year the US forces invaded the country, all of them wearing the signature turbans and long beards – assured us that they were in control and that there had been unprecedented peace in the two weeks they had been in charge. Courteous and smiling, they talked in Pashto as my producer translated. They were happy at having defeated “the world’s strongest army”, they explained.
As we set off along the busy Torkham-Kabul highway in our three-vehicle convoy with our six Taliban companions, driving into Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, we stopped by the side of the road to go live. Passersby were curious. People began to gather. One man, clean-shaven and in his 30s or 40s, told us they had not seen camera crews filming in the streets for months.
Peeling away from our Taliban entourage, we questioned the group of a few dozen men who had gathered. Were the Taliban fighters mistreating anyone? Were they scared for their lives? They seemed eager to talk. There was consensus that since the Taliban took over, there had been no corruption or lawlessness and that it had been on its best behaviour. A middle-aged trader said they no longer had to pay bribes at every checkpoint they crossed with their goods. Previously, each truck had to pay 10,000 to 15,000 Afghanis ($118 to $178) to Afghan guards at the border with Pakistan and then bribes of between $2 and $30 at each of the dozens of checkpoints along their routes. Now, they just make a single payment to the emirate, collected by the Taliban at the border.
On part of our journey from Torkham to Jalalabad, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan and the capital of Nangarhar province, we were permitted to ride with “Haji Lala”. A Taliban veteran in his late 50s with tough features and wrinkled skin, Haji is highly respected by the younger fighters.
His answers to our questions were short. He disliked the comfort of the new vehicles and missed the mountains and hardships of the battlefield, he explained.
But gradually, as we started to talk about his past, he began to relax and open up. He shared stories about hungry Taliban fighters, stranded in “enemy territory” and other remote locations, and the strangers who had, seemingly miraculously, appeared to offer them food and about the time a dozen fighters with just one AK-47 rifle and a few bullets between them managed to “scare away the enemy”.
Haji spent nine years in the notorious Bagram military detention centre. Taliban fighters were feared by their American captors and Afghan countrymen, he said. They were fed only a small piece of bread each day – just enough to ensure they did not die of starvation, he added. Most of his nine years were spent in the dark of his windowless cell.
Imprisoned and tortured by his American and Afghan captors, Haji may seem like an ideal candidate to seek revenge – the sort of Taliban fighter many Afghans are afraid of. Now that the Americans are gone, would he be tempted to turn his gun on his former Afghan captors, I asked him. His answer – immediate and resolute – surprised me. “No,” he said. His fight was for a religious cause, not a personal one, he explained, and he would abide by the ruling of the Rahbari Shura, the ruling supreme council which takes decisions that are binding on all fighters and commanders, to forgive and move on. He won’t forget, he added, and if he saw his Afghan prison guards he would find it difficult. But, he reflected, “If I survived the nine years [in prison], I can live with forgiveness … If we [the Taliban] don’t leave the past [behind], how will we move forward to the future of an Afghanistan which is peaceful and based on Sharia?”
My questions were making Haji uncomfortable, reminding him of the abuses he endured, so he stopped talking and started playing Taliban war songs on his mobile phone – there was no music, just lyrics.
Jalalabad: The city of tuk-tuks
In Jalalabad, the noise of car horns honking and the infamous traffic jams could make you forget that anything had changed – until you spotted the Taliban flags flying from cars and lampposts, reminders that there were new rulers here now.
It had been two weeks since the city had been taken by the Taliban without a fight and residents were getting used to seeing the group’s fighters on the city’s streets. The Taliban says it is establishing a system of security and justice, but it will face an uphill struggle to overcome the mistrust of those who remember it from 20 years ago and doubt it can address their immediate socioeconomic hardships in a country where 40 million people do not have enough to eat and 3.1 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition.
At the guarded gates of the governor’s office, where we were due to meet the local Taliban leader, we were made to wait while our vehicles were cleared for entry. Once inside, an unfinished mosque and curated gardens led to the guesthouse at the far end of the huge compound. From the football stadium next door, we could hear echoes of speeches and hymns – all part of a victory celebration on the day the US forces withdrew from the country.
As we made our way to the stadium, climbing rickety guard ladders, the fiery speeches and pledges by Taliban leaders to establish a corruption-free Afghanistan grew louder. They described a country that cares for its people and a system which favours the oppressed over the powerful to the few hundred or so, mostly Taliban supporters and sympathisers, who had gathered to listen to them.
But these are words the Afghan people have heard before – from their “democratic” rulers and the Taliban before them. The people of Jalalabad say they just want peace and a return to the days of good business.
The celebration ended quickly, and as soon as the Taliban cleared the ground, men and boys in football shorts started the practice on the well-maintained pitch. It was an interesting juxtaposition, perhaps of a more tolerant Afghanistan where shorts-wearing footballers hold the foreground as gun-toting Taliban fighters fade into the distance.
At the stadium, we met Ihsanullah Rashidi, who was in his 20s and excited about what he believed to be the country’s newfound security. “Now everyone is very happy as we have a peaceful Afghanistan and no one is stopping us from saying anything on social media,” he explained. Since then Taliban fighters have whipped journalists and broken up protests with violent crowd dispersal tactics.
Most of the Taliban leaders we spoke to were content with the progress they had made two weeks after coming to power and were focused on security and rooting out corruption. Mohammed Hanif is the man in charge of the Information and Culture Directorate for Nangarhar province. “There’s peace now in Nangarhar province,” he told us from his office in downtown Jalalabad. “Everyone feels secure, which has encouraged them to continue with their business. Earlier that wasn’t possible and people used to close their shops before sunset as they were afraid of being robbed and killed. But now shops are open till midnight and people are happy.”
The streets were buzzing as the sun set on our first day in Afghanistan. But at Jalalabad’s main market, street food vendor Mullah Shafiullah had been struggling to attract customers for his usually bestselling Aash, a popular noodle and ice cream dish. “We are all happy that there’s peace but we all are concerned about our business as there is hardly any activity,” he confided. “People are suffering. Taliban must do something and should connect with neighbouring countries to improve trade.”
I was puzzled, if the Taliban really had not done anything wrong in two weeks, why were people so afraid of them? One Taliban commander offered an explanation. About 60,000 soldiers from Nangarhar province had died fighting the Taliban in the last 20 years; it will take time for their families to believe that the group is not out for revenge, he explained. I could not corroborate that number as the Afghan army has withered away and the soldiers who surrendered are staying in their homes.
Where are the women?
So too are many Afghan women. There were fewer women on the streets and the men we spoke to said it was due to an inherent fear of the Taliban. The new rulers say the women are afraid because of false propaganda and a 20-year-old image of the group’s brutality.
At Nangarhar Regional Hospital, we met the team in charge of running it; the same people who were there before the Taliban took over. Dr Nargas Talash agreed to see us in the women’s ward, which is usually a no-go area for men. “We were very afraid of Taliban when they took over as we thought they will be the same brutal Taliban we have seen 20 years ago,” she explained. “But now we are more comfortable with them. They came and gave assurances to get back to work without any issues and thank God they are supportive.”
But her colleague, Dr Rubina Stanakzai, was not convinced. Speaking from her office, she was worried. “In two weeks, we haven’t seen anything bad but I can tell you that they don’t have people of high calibre and talent. If they want to govern the country, they have to have high-quality people who are true to the nation,” she said. “Now, their rule reminds us of the old time. We remember they blew up our homes and killed our brothers in front of us – how am I supposed to trust them?
“What we are afraid of is duality of people in religious garb and devils underneath. What we do not want is them destroying our economy and our sisters and mothers forced to beg in the streets. We have no issues with the Taliban, we want them to safeguard the resources of the country. We are also Muslims. Allah is not just theirs – He is ours as well. They don’t have a special contract with God.”
Both doctors were concerned about the rumour that the Taliban would not allow women to leave their homes without a male guardian. We took their question to a Taliban scholar who told us that women would only need to be accompanied by a male guardian on journeys lasting longer than three days. There was a lot of confusion, he added, arising from propaganda and people’s assumptions.
Managers at the Nangarhar Regional Hospital confirmed there had been no disruption in medical services for patients and that they had enough medical supplies to last a few months. Dr Saeed Alfridi, who has worked at the facility for 22 years and now runs the Postgraduate Medical Education Office, explained that the segregation of the sexes was already in place at the hospital – and had been long before the Taliban returned to power. “In my country, the culture is like this,” he said. “All females are also coming to work wearing a hijab.”
What about education?
The Taliban has announced that boys and girls will be segregated from school to university, explaining that they are not against women’s education but against the mixing of the sexes.
We went to multiple public schools before finally reaching the education ministry for the province. Here too, it was the same people running day-to-day affairs as were doing it before the Taliban takeover. The problem is that most public servants were not paid for months. Among them are 2,300 female teachers – many wary of working under Taliban rule. Nangarhar province’s 900 educational institutions are due to open on September 15, but as we were driving through the city, we spotted some children in uniform – young girls and boys playing in the streets on their way home from a nearby private school.
We met the school’s principal and asked if we could speak to some of the female members of staff. It was late afternoon and 23-year-old Mushkan Babri was the last one left as her teaching job also includes helping out with the front desk. She is a medical student and works part-time to support her family because her father, who is an engineer, has been out of work for a long time.
A confident English speaker, Babri chose her words carefully. She became emotional as she recalled the images of Afghans clinging to planes, desperately trying to leave the country. It was painful to watch, she explained. She empathises with their fear but wants Afghans to serve their country, regardless of who runs it. “People were afraid. Now Taliban has come, our security and society is well.” When I asked her if she was planning to leave Afghanistan, she was adamant that she would stay. “I will stay in Afghanistan when I become a doctor so I will help my country and people. My big hope is peace in our country,” she replied.
It was getting late and we had to reach the Torkham border crossing before it closed to pedestrians for the night. But we still needed a permit for the numerous checkpoints we would cross on the 75km (47-mile) highway between Jalalabad and Torkham. We returned to the governor’s office to get it.
Once we passed through the blast-proof doors and entered the air-conditioned rooms of the governor’s office, the governor’s brother greeted us with a broad smile – a continuation of the Taliban charm offensive that had been on display throughout our time in Afghanistan. He laughed at my complaint about Jalalabad’s green tea culture – it is served with breakfast, lunch, dinner and at tea time – and offered coffee and milk toffees that were made in Iran. When I asked whether these, too, had been captured, all those in the room smiled and told me the chocolates and toffees at the governor’s house had quickly run out.
We discussed everything, from security to border trade and the Taliban’s insistence that Chinese investment will be key to stabilising the economy. There were others in the room, Kandahari commanders from the south and Balkhis from the north – all woven into this new Taliban setup. They explained that they have the world’s most unique military as none of their soldiers is paid. What happens to their families and children, I asked. Afghanistan is a tribal society with a joint family system, so the extended family usually takes care of the fighter’s household, they replied.
Each Taliban fighter spends a set amount of time requisitioned by his unit commander, and then goes home. For the poorest fighters, the Islamic Emirate provides a few thousand Afghanis (less than $50) to the family, once or twice a year. The Taliban claims this is how they have been able to defeat the world’s best-paid and best-equipped armies, who waged war in their country for 20 years.
We talked about the men playing in shorts, women’s fears, music and Islamic law. Pointing at me, they said some commanders’ actions – the floggings and other punishments – in the 1990s were blown out of proportion by the media. But the Taliban is exactly what it was before, they explained. They do not see themselves as the Taliban 2.0. It is the world’s lens that is 2.0, they explained; the Taliban is the same.