In the three and a half months since the Taliban swept to power, Afghanistan has come to feel like a very different place. The democratically elected government has been replaced by an unelected, caretaker cabinet made up exclusively of senior Taliban figures – all men. Despite Taliban assurances about access to education, only girls under the age of 12 (and boys of all ages) were told to return to school in September. Some secondary schools have allowed teenage girls back, but millions remain stuck at home. I’ve been reporting from Afghanistan for almost 15 years. I also have a deep personal connection with the nation – it’s the country of my birth. Returning now to a place I felt I no longer knew filled me with sadness. The people I had met over the years – journalists, judges, activists, artists, politicians – who made the city of Kabul vibrant and full of life, have all fled.
Society is not dead
Mahbooba Seraj’s name has become synonymous with the spirit of the Afghan people. On the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, she didn’t head to the airport; she went straight to work. The 73-year-old women’s rights activist fled the country in 1978 after the communist takeover, but returned after the 2001 US-led invasion. This time, despite the risks, she wasn’t going anywhere. “All of our achievements from the past 20 years have been reversed,” she told me. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done. I want all my sisters, my warriors, to come back and continue this struggle with me. I miss them.”
Seeing the usual spark in Seraj’s eyes gave me hope. It also made me realise that the civil society that has blossomed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years is not dead. “Many have left the country and I don’t blame them. The situation is not good, but there are still many extraordinary women who are here and we will keep fighting, we won’t give up. The Taliban haven’t seen my bad side yet and I’m warning them – they may have taken the country back 20 years but they are dealing with a very different nation to the one they ruled over in the Nineties.”
The Taliban’s Taliban
What was also different about this trip was the ability to travel. In the past, I had found my freedom of movement increasingly restricted because of the security threats posed by the Taliban. With the militants now in power, reassurances were given about our safety and Taliban escorts provided where necessary. We decided to travel to the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. These used to be no-go areas, often littered with roadside bombs aimed at coalition forces and their Afghan allies. In Sangin, Helmand, once described as one of the most dangerous places on Earth, I found local residents rebuilding homes. They told me they were enjoying the peace after years of aerial bombings by the US-led coalition, which had forced many to migrate to other districts.
When the Taliban first rose to power in the 1990s, it instilled fear through brutal rule. Justice included public executions, amputation of limbs for theft, and stoning for women accused of adultery. So afraid were the Afghan people of Taliban-style law and order that crime virtually ceased and security in most places was guaranteed. Yet the Taliban of 2021 faces many challenges as the group transitions from insurgency to government. Among the biggest is the threat posed by Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K). Already, the hard-line Islamist militants have launched large-scale attacks on Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar. Bombings continue in Kabul. Afghans, who have become all too used to violence, jokingly said to me: “The Taliban are the new Ghani government and IS-K is the new Taliban.”
[See also: “We’re going to see death on a large scale”: Afghanistan under the Taliban this winter, with John Simpson]
On the brink of starvation
The greatest challenge for the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan, however, is famine. According to the UN almost 23 million Afghans are facing starvation. Ninety-five per cent of people don’t have enough food. The hunger and poverty is more visible than ever. Healthcare facilities are filling up with babies and children suffering from malnutrition – a chronic problem in Afghanistan but exacerbated since the Taliban takeover and the sanctions imposed by the international community. At the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul, I met three-year-old Gulnara, so weak she could barely keep her eyes open. Her mother’s face was racked with agony and exhaustion. “Even if she makes it out of here alive, I worry we will be back again soon. I have four children at home and I’m worried about how we’ll get through the winter months. I am so worried about them starving or freezing to death.”
Yalda Hakim hosts “Impact” on BBC World News
This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back