Reviews | Afghanistan, one year after the fall

Mullah Naqibullah, a slim young Taliban fighter, threw his shawl over his shoulder and aimed his rifle. He made his way from under a sprawling mulberry tree to the patio of a small mud-brick mosque in Sangesar, a small village in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, and stepped inside.

He stood inches from a microphone wrapped in colorful cloth to keep dust at bay, and in a falsetto he called worshipers to prayer.

It was here that in 1994 Mullah Muhammad Omar founded the Taliban movement. The group took Kabul in September 1996 and establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which instituted a narrow definition of Islamic jurisprudence that rod women and girls to work and go to school. Omar’s decision to provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda ultimately brought down his government after the September 11 attacks. But the Taliban never left.

I first went to Afghanistan in 2009 to document the war. At that time, the United States was in the midst of a brutal conflict against the Taliban, who had mounted a formidable insurgency to regain control of the country.

Besides the war, the US was trying to help form a government in Kabul while the US military was trying to build an Afghan army in its image.

But for Afghans, it was just another chapter of foreign intervention in the country’s long history of struggle, which has included colonialism, tribalism, monarchism, communism and strict Islamic rule. Americans didn’t realize how fragile the systems they created were until it all fell apart.

I went to Afghanistan in July 2021 to document the American withdrawal. When things started falling apart around me, I stayed. On the morning of August 15, I stood outside the US Embassy and photographed US Chinook helicopters rushing in to evacuate staff members. That afternoon, I was photographing Taliban fighters as they entered the city.

Before that day, Taliban fighters looked like ghosts. I rarely saw them, but I always felt their presence. It was surreal to see them rolling through the blast walls erected to keep them out and congregating under the graffiti left by American troops.

In May, I went back to see how Afghanistan had behaved under the Taliban regime. Nine months after their stunning victory and takeover, they are still struggling to transition into a governing political force.

I found a country that still doesn’t have a functioning economy. Crowds of women wait in front of the bakeries for alms. Men who once had clerical jobs now have to sell vegetables in the market or peddle used goods so they can buy some food to take home. Traders saw their customers dwindle as prices soared.

In the countryside, where the fiercest fighting took place, Taliban fighters now haunt the former military installations of the American occupation. They marvel at the luxury enjoyed by their adversaries as they spent years sleeping in the mountains, hiding from American drones.

The Taliban are only too aware of the fragility of their control. They advocated a brutal style of government. The same fight can easily be waged against them.

Mohammad Usman Hamasi is a Taliban commander from Chak district in neighboring Wardak province. During the war, he trained as a suicide bomber but was arrested before he could complete his mission. “I didn’t have a wife or children at the time. I 100% wanted to carry out such an attack, but God did not want me to become a martyr,” he said.

Mr. Hamasi told me he was frustrated by the leaders’ refusal to allow girls to go to school. “In fact, many mujahideen are unhappy with the closure of schools,” he said. “I am here,” he explained, as he spoke of his hope for the movement, “so that my sister or my daughter can go to school and be educated within the framework of Islam, sharia and hijab”.

Afghan women have been the hardest hit by the Taliban’s return to power. Despite the Taliban’s promise to protect their rights, they have seen progress set back.

Ogai Amil, an educator, journalist and civil society activist, watched the country fall back on the Taliban from her small apartment. She hoped things would be different this time around. “People thought maybe the Taliban had changed and it would be easier to take over, governance would improve, security could improve, and the country would become peaceful,” he told me. she says. In May, women were instructed to cover your face in public and avoid leaving your home.

She told me that over the past year she had had informal contact with many Taliban leaders. “I tell them, ‘I’m not your enemy, but I want you to stop all these restrictions,'” she said. “These are our human rights, given to us by God. Don’t take them from us.

Initially, the Taliban assured Afghans that girls of all ages would attend public schools when they reopened last September. But they’ve been gone since on this promise.

I met two sisters, Basma and Bahara Ahmadi, at their family home in a hillside neighborhood on the outskirts of Kabul. The uncertainty of the restrictions imposed by the Taliban has shaken them.

No longer able to go to high school, they spend their days devoting themselves to English lessons in the same room that houses the loom where their family weaves carpets to make ends meet. They hope that the ability to speak perfect English will allow them to access scholarships that will allow them to study outside the country.

The rapid collapse of the government the West installed was a milestone in an ongoing, centuries-old struggle for self-determination thwarted by outside intervention. After more than a decade of reporting, I have come to understand that while the Taliban are anathema to many, to some they are an iteration of that process, not an aberration of it. Having lived under many regimes, many Afghans wonder how long this one will last.

It is impossible to know what the future holds for the country, but the next chapter must be written by Afghans themselves.

Victor J. Blue is a New York-based photojournalist who covers the legacy of armed conflict, human rights and the protection of civilian populations.

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