The Taliban’s Dangerous Collision Course With the West
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Afghanistan’s ministry of education sits on a chaotic thoroughfare in downtown Kabul, not far from the presidential palace. When I visited this May, I was able to walk straight into The main building without having to state my business or undergo more than a light frisk. The country’s four-decade civil war is at its lowest ebb in years, and many of the capital’s draconian security measures have been scaled back by the new Taliban government. The crowds of petitioners inside the ministries have changed, as well: Women are seldom seen, and the traditional garb of robe and trousers has become nearly ubiquitous among men.
It was my first trip back since I covered the collapse of the republic the last summer. Regular flights had resumed from Dubai and Islamabad. At the Kabul airport, site of last year’s chaotic and bloody evacuation, there was a new sign on the side of the terminal, near the white flag of the Taliban: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seeks peaceful and positive relations with the world.”
It had been 20 years since the United States and its allies overthrew the first Taliban government, which refused to allow Afghan girls to be educated, one of many repressive measures against women that cemented the regime’s pariah status. During the 1990s, only Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Pakistan ever recognized the group as the nation’s legitimate government. Soon after the United States began airstrikes on Afghanistan in 2001, Laura Bush, the first lady, took over her husband’s weekly radio address to tell Americans that “only the terrorists and the Taliban forbid education to women.” Since then, the liberation of Afghan schoolgirls was held up as a justification for the thousands of lives and trillions of dollars expended by the United States and its allies here, and as a symbol of the moral superiority of the republic that came crashing down last August, after the Taliban seized power and re-established the Islamic emirate.
The new government stirred outrage last fall when it allowed only boys to return to Grades 7 and up, but the Taliban insisted this was only a temporary measure. In January their top spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said it “was a question of capacity,” and said he hoped that girls’ high schools would reopen at the beginning of the Afghan school year, on March 23. “We are not against education,” he told journalists.
Girls who were injured in the Sayed Ul-Shuhada school attack in 2021 studying at an underground school, which was set up inside a home after the Taliban banned education for girls in Grade 7 and above.Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times
But on the first day of classes, the education ministry suddenly announced that the girls’ schools would not reopen after all. With such late notice, many went ahead unaware, only to have to kick their students out later that day. Other girls showed up to find the doors of their school locked. These scenes were captured by the foreign press, who turned up to cover what was supposed to be a hopeful day for the country; instead, they broadcast images of crying teenage girls. If the Taliban wanted to sabotage relations with the West, they couldn’t have planned things better.
‘Quite honestly, we had all been counting the days toward March 23 and had been seeing it as, you know, that fork in the road,” Rina Amiri, who was appointed in December to the newly created position of U.S. envoy for women, girls and human rights in Afghanistan, told me. “We had really concrete and detailed discussions with the Taliban and had received reassurances from everyone that we had spoken to that they would actually deliver on this.”
I had come to the education ministry to understand what happened, and what this revealed about the balance of power within the new government. Climbing the stairs, I entered a waiting room, where several men with newly grown beards ignored me until I explained I had come to see their boss. Much of the lower- and midlevel Afghan bureaucracy has remained in their posts, but above them now sit Taliban appointees, men who served in the militant movement and studied in religious seminaries. I was shown into the office of a senior education official who, like many Taliban I met during my trip, asked to remain anonymous in order to speak frankly on such a sensitive subject.
Wearing a black turban, he sat behind his large wooden desk and listened politely as I posed my question: Why did Taliban, alone out of any government in the world, refuse to allow adolescent girls to study? He smiled — of course, that was what every Western journalist came to ask. He was eager to point out that, first of all, Afghan girls were already allowed to attend primary schools, universities and private high schools. In several provinces, even the public secondary girls’ schools had reopened, albeit unofficially. Moreover, girls’ primary schools, which reopened along with boys’ schools in the fall, had in fact seen a significant increase in enrollment since the days of the republic, a result of improved security and the fact that some conservative families felt more comfortable sending their girls to school under the Islamic emirate. “We want education for girls,” he told me, “and cooperation with the international community, but within our values.”
It was true that in some formerly war-torn districts, like Andar, in Ghazni Province, girls were attending elementary school for the first time in more than a decade. A World Bank-funded survey published in March estimated that the share of rural households sending their girls to primary school had increased from one-third to one-half. The jump in high school enrollment was unlikely to be as sharp, but it seemed quite possible that, if all schools reopened, more Afghan girls would be receiving an education under the Taliban than under the U.S.-backed republic.
“Why don’t we announce it?” he said. “Well, Kabul is not Afghanistan. People are not educated, they’re tribal. We don’t want a reaction.”
Opposition to girls’ education among the Taliban was rooted in a particularly strict interpretation of traditional gender roles practiced in rural Afghanistan. It was this vision of a virtuous village lifestyle, where a woman’s place was at home, that the Taliban tried to impose nationwide in the 1990s. But over the last 20 years, millions of Afghan families — some of them Taliban supporters — experienced firsthand the economic and social benefits of educating their daughters. The country had modernized, a fact that many in the emirate understood. For months, the issue was debated by the interim cabinet, an all-male group composed of Taliban stalwarts.
“Munir has argued for girls’ education many times,” the official told me, referring to his boss, the education minister, Mawlawi Noorullah Munir, an Islamic scholar who served as the Taliban’s chief justice during the insurgency. “He said that if anyone disagrees on the basis of Shariah, I’m ready to debate them.” (A spokesman for Munir declined to comment.)
According to several Taliban officials, by the end of the winter, a majority of the cabinet was in favor of reopening the schools, including military leaders like the minister of defense, Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister with an F.B.I. bounty on his head. “If it was up to him, girls would have already been back in school,” one of Haqqani’s aides told me.
At the beginning of March, the education ministry prepared a plan to reopen the schools, calling back teachers and prepping classrooms around the country. But there was a problem. “When we sent our plan to the cabinet, they replied that they didn’t have the authority to make this decision, since it was a sensitive issue,” the education official told me.
Final say belonged to the leadership shura, or council, based in the southern city of Kandahar and presided over by a supreme leader called the amir al momineen, or commander of the faithful. This theocratic structure had been grafted onto the government after the Taliban’s sudden victory, an arrangement that revived the overlapping power centers of the ’90s regime, with a formal cabinet in Kabul and a more powerful shadow government in Kandahar.
It wasn’t until a few days before the start of the school year, on March 23, that a meeting of the shura was called. Munir, the education minister, and the other cabinet officials, many of whom were also members of the shura, were summoned to Kandahar, where the Taliban first arose amid the chaos of post-Soviet factional fighting in the ’90s, promising to rid the country of warlords and institute Islamic law. It was in Kandahar City that, in front of an ecstatic crowd in 1996, Mullah Muhammad Omar held aloft a cloak said to have belonged to the Prophet, laying claim to the mantle of the amir, a leadership role that dates back to the earliest Muslim state. Omar, who was known for his ascetic lifestyle and aversion to foreigners, died in hiding in 2013; his successor, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, was more worldly. As the Taliban’s chief of aviation during the ’90s, Mansour traveled abroad to countries like Germany and, as amir, proved to be a pragmatic leader who authorized negotiations with the Americans. “If he was still alive, we wouldn’t be stuck on the girls’-school issue,” a Taliban diplomat told me.
But Mansour was assassinated by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in 2016. His successor, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada, whose son became a suicide bomber, is an austere cleric who has adopted the reclusive mystique of the original amir. “He’s more like Mullah Omar than Mullah Omar,” a senior Taliban bureaucrat, who knew both men, told me.
The leadership council’s meetings in late March, which stretched over several days, were off limits to the press, but I spoke with several Taliban officials familiar with the details, including a member of the cabinet. Haibatullah and the shura had not been consulted, I was told, about the decision to allow all university students, including women, to return to class the previous month; some in the cabinet may have been hoping that the high school girls’ return had become a fait accompli. But when several hard-line clerics, who were seen as expressing Haibatullah’s own position, spoke out against the reopening, no one was willing or able to move them. And if there was no consensus, then the girls’ schools would not open. Kandahar had asserted itself over Kabul.
The education ministry had been planning a ceremony to mark the first day of school, and had invited the foreign ambassadors still remaining in the capital. It wasn’t until 11 the night before that Munir informed his staff of the news. “We got the call from Kandahar,” the education official said, lifting his hands in dismay. The girls weren’t going back to school tomorrow. “It was like being hit by an atom bomb.”
Crippled by sanctions and the sudden cutoff of development aid, Afghanistan’s economy is on the verge of collapse. According to the United Nations, Afghans are facing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with half the population threatened by starvation. Since last August, the country has been offered billions in emergency assistance, of which the United States was the largest contributor. The Taliban have welcomed this aid, and their control over rural areas means that humanitarian workers can go to places that were inaccessible for nearly two decades. And yet the Taliban’s refusal to allow Afghan girls to return to high school has overshadowed this cooperation. No country has yet officially recognized the emirate, but a delegation of Taliban officials was invited to Oslo to meet with Western counterparts in January, where they gave assurances that the schools would reopen. “I can remember particular Taliban leaders using the word zhmena, you know, this is a promise, this will happen,” Thomas West, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan, told me.
The timing of the controversy was egregious. On March 23, the same day the girls were held back from class, West had a conference call scheduled with his fellow envoys from the G7 countries. The U.N. had made a record-breaking $4.4 billion appeal for humanitarian aid, and a pledging conference for donors was a week away. “Not surprisingly, this issue absolutely dominated our discussion,” West recalls. “I think we all understood that this was a turning point in our engagement with the Taliban, and we all needed to fundamentally reassess our approach to Afghanistan.”
Cooperation between the United States and the Taliban began in earnest during the evacuation last summer, in order to avoid a blood bath in the capital. At the Americans’ request, the Taliban helped keep crowds back from the airport; on Aug. 23, the director of the C.I.A., William Burns, traveled unannounced to Kabul and met with Taliban leaders, to date the highest-level contact with the new government, the “de facto authorities” in diplomat-speak.
With the embassy in Kabul shuttered, the United States’ relationship with the Taliban has been taken up by West, who has met repeatedly with the Taliban foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, in Doha, Qatar. He inherited the role of special envoy from his former boss, Zalmay Khalilzad, who stepped down last fall after his efforts to broker a peace settlement between the Afghan republic and the Taliban ended in failure.
Now that U.S. troops were out, what were America’s vital interests in Afghanistan? Apart from preventing terrorist threats to the homeland from groups like Al Qaeda, the Biden administration has prioritized the fate of U.S. citizens like the contractor and veteran Mark Frerichs, held by the Taliban since 2020. I was told by multiple sources that West had planned his first official trip to Kabul to mark the release of another American, a Navy reservist and humanitarian named Safi Rauf, but canceled after March 23, with the C.I.A. station chief traveling in secret instead. (Both West and the C.I.A. declined to confirm or deny this.)
The most urgent task for West and his team, however, has been Afghanistan’s looming humanitarian disaster. The United States is in the peculiar position of being both the largest donor to aid efforts and a prime actor in the country’s economic crisis. After the Taliban takeover, the Biden administration seized $7 billion in Afghan bank assets in the United States, earmarking half for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and their families. Sanctions against the Taliban were now strangling the country’s financial system. Since then, West and the Treasury Department have worked to issue multiple exemptions for humanitarian aid, even at the risk of bolstering the new government.
“It is fundamentally in our interest to support the Afghan people,” West told me. “We do not want to see a situation where the economy utterly collapses. We do not want to see a situation that drives millions to become refugees.”
The scale of suffering in Afghanistan today is difficult to fathom. Despite more than $100 billion in development spending by the West, Afghanistan has remained one of the poorest and most aid-dependent states in the world. Three-quarters of the republic’s budget was financed with foreign grants; outside assistance amounted to nearly half of G.D.P. After the Taliban takeover, that money was cut off, with predictable results. Joblessness soared, imports plummeted and poverty reached near-universal levels. A cholera outbreak has gripped the south, while hunger, worsened by a drought in its second year, has become a crisis for millions of families. At meal times in the capital, crowds of women and children sit outside bakeries, hoping for a piece of bread.
The response has been a “humanitarian surge,” with more expats now working inside Afghanistan for aid agencies than before the Taliban’s takeover. In Kabul, I visited a World Food Program distribution site, where men stood in a line that wound for several blocks through a residential neighborhood. Beside them was a second queue of day laborers with wheelbarrows, who’d shown up in the hope of earning the equivalent of 50 cents, if that, to cart heavy sacks of flour and beans back to people’s homes. Those waiting for food were mostly middle-aged heads of families; the porters ranged from elderly men to boys who looked 9 or 10 but were probably older.
As I reached the front of the line, a white, armored S.U.V. with World Food Program markings pulled up and dropped off Philippe Kropf, the organization’s head of communications. I followed him into the rented compound where a group of Afghans were getting their allowance of flour, beans, cooking oil and salt. They were from Qala-e Wazir, a downtown neighborhood where many people had held jobs with foreign contractors and N.G.O.s. “This was the middle class,” Kropf said.
Many of the people in the line lost their jobs after the collapse. One of them was Nasib Nazari, who told me he had taught German in a program sponsored by the now-shuttered embassy. He had supported an extended family on his $700 monthly salary, which was cut off when the Germans evacuated. “This is my first time in a food line,” he told me. He smiled weakly. “There’s no shame when you have no choice.”
Even under the republic, many Afghans didn’t get enough to eat. Before the collapse, the W.F.P. was providing assistance to around one million people each month. Afterward, they scrambled to expand aid distribution around the country, a monumental task made easier by the improved security situation and the Taliban’s willingness to coordinate. By the peak of need over the winter, the W.F.P. was supplying food to 18 million, their largest scale-up in history. “We’re feeding almost half the population,” Kropf said. “It’s mind-blowing.”
The entire country was being kept on humanitarian life support. With the Afghan financial system still mostly paralyzed, the U.N. has been flying in pallets of cash to fund its operations, more than a billion dollars to date, which has in turn kept the country’s currency afloat and stabilized local markets.
“We avoided the worst predictions of the fall,” West, the U.S. special envoy, told me. But he worried that donors’ interest would eventually wane, especially given their anger over girls’ education. Need abated during the summer, but winter would come again — this time with the world facing a food-price crisis as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, along with the threat of a global recession. Donations had already slowed, but the U.N. said it needed billions more just to get through the year. “How sustainable is this massive humanitarian response?” West said. “Unfortunately, I think it is not sustainable.”
For two decades, the United States and its allies have spent lavishly in Afghanistan on schools, hospitals and roads in support of the nation-building project that grew out of the U.S. invasion. This level of spending was not only wasteful but also pernicious, because of the corruption it encouraged. Yet there were meaningful results, including a sharp increase in life expectancy and literacy rates — goods that became, over time, part of the circular logic for why American troops were fighting there. The faces of Afghan women became the face of the war.
Since development aid has political aims, it typically depends on collaboration with a host government. After the Taliban seized power and this assistance was frozen by donors, many of the gains of the last 20 years threatened to come crashing down. The government’s coffers were empty, threatening the country’s public hospitals, which might have collapsed had the International Committee of the Red Cross not stepped in. Unlike organizations that administer development aid, humanitarian groups like the I.C.R.C. are typically insulated from donor governments and adopt politically neutral stances. In Kabul, I visited a hospital with Reto Stocker, an official at the I.C.R.C.
“A lot of people would have died,” Stocker said as our S.U.V. navigated Kabul’s traffic, much lighter since the crisis. “It was an absolute emergency situation.”
In its four decades working in Afghanistan, the Red Cross has seen regimes come and go. Stocker, who is Swiss, served on his first mission here during the 1990s, and he worked with some of the same Taliban officials then. After 2001, the I.C.R.C. visited many of them in U.S. custody at Guantánamo and Bagram. “This is obviously something that has, with those individuals in particular, created an appreciation for I.C.R.C.’s neutrality,” Stocker told me. He met regularly with the Taliban health minister, who was a medical doctor, unlike the religiously trained leadership whom Stocker recalled from the 1990s.
The I.C.R.C. could insulate Western donors and enable them to continue funding government programs inside Afghanistan without giving money directly to the Taliban. The organization had taken responsibility for 33 public hospitals across the country, a role that doubled its budget here to $200 million. “To recreate such a system after it collapses is extremely complicated,” Stocker said. “Even if you don’t sustain it perfectly, the benefits of trying to sustain it are enormous.”
Our S.U.V. pulled into the walled courtyard of Malalai Maternity Hospital in downtown Kabul, where a group of women sat waiting outside the outpatient department. We were met by Dr. Mursal Rasool, a young public-health specialist and Stocker’s colleague, who was coordinating the I.C.R.C.’s support here.
“It’s one of the biggest and most important hospitals for women in Afghanistan,” she explained. The patients were female, of course, but so were nearly all the members of the medical staff. As we walked through the corridors, which smelled of disinfectant, she pointed out that they were clean and freshly painted — a drastic change from a year ago, when they were fetid with bodily fluids and waste. The hospital, too, had suffered from the corruption and dysfunction endemic to the republic. Much of the Civil Service stopped receiving salaries as early as April or May. The former government had been trying to switch to a new payroll system, while simultaneously burning through its cash reserves in a last-ditch attempt to fund anti-Taliban militias. At the hospital, the staff kept working for months without pay, and begged for donations of food and other supplies from local businesses. “It was heartbreaking to think that this was on the verge of collapsing,” Stocker said.
In the recovery room, the nurses were transferring a young patient from a gurney into her bed, her back arched in agony. Twenty-four years old, she was suffering from eclampsia, a complication from pregnancy that caused seizures so intense she’d lacerated her tongue and cracked her teeth; the doctors had performed an emergency abortion to save her life. Her gray-haired mother sat at her bedside, the relief apparent on her face. “She would have died,” she told me.
Now that fighting had stopped in the countryside, more patients were able to make it into the capital from remote areas, where women’s reproductive health, in particular, was often abysmal. As a result, the staff was struggling with very serious cases: women who, like this young patient with eclampsia, would have simply died at home. The economic crisis had gutted the private sector and ended medical tourism abroad, so public hospitals like Malalai, where treatment was free, had experienced a surge in admissions — in some, outpatient visits were up tenfold. The strain on the medical workers was evident, but at least — unlike much of Afghanistan’s public sector — they could expect regular salaries. But for how long?
In addition to its appeal for emergency aid, the U.N. was seeking funding for a $3.42 billion plan to provide basic services directly to the Afghan people, bypassing the Taliban government, what some call “humanitarian plus.” But as Stocker pointed out, the intervention of groups like the I.C.R.C. entrenched the very dependency that was the problem. “Our sense was that a national health care system needs a ministry holding it together,” Stocker said. “You need a state.”
As a teaching hospital, Malalai also helped to train the next generation of Afghan maternity specialists, nurses and midwives, women like Dr. Rana Afzali, whom I met in the neonatal ward, where a young mother sat in the corner, holding her newborn. Dressed in a white coat and colorful head scarf, Afzali was fresh out of her residency. It was a daunting time to be entering her profession, but she told me she was glad to be working, unlike many of her classmates who had fled abroad. “They’re sitting inside, depressed — I stayed,” Afzali said, and shrugged. “I’m a hopeful person.”
Higher education had also been thrown into crisis by the collapse of the republic. The Kabul airlift evacuated more than 100,000 Afghans, many of them the country’s educated professionals. Those with Western connections had a better chance of being let through the desperate crowds outside the airport. Others fled to neighboring countries like Pakistan, hoping to be resettled in the West. In a country where nearly every profession had received development aid, the evacuation meant stripping the society of technical experts, bureaucrats, lawyers and doctors, turning them into refugees. Of course, you couldn’t evacuate a whole country, and those left behind were struggling to take up the slack.
“Women are still allowed to go to medical school, but there’s no teachers anymore,” Rasool said. “Most of them escaped.”
We followed the shift warden, Dr. Shahrbanu Ghazanfar, into the intensive-care unit, pausing in front of an incubator where a premature infant rested, looking as fragile as a newly hatched bird. “This one is extremely low birthweight,” Ghazanfar said, using the English term. The infant weighed just over 21 ounces, less than a quarter of a newborn’s normal weight.
As hospitals like Malalai make clear, reproduction depends on women’s labor. The paradox of the Taliban’s patriarchal vision was that it necessitated female doctors to serve women, and female teachers to train them — thus ensuring that a core of educated women would endure.
“Twenty years ago, we put on our burqas and went to work,” Ghazanfar said. “We’re going to keep working. Of course, I can’t say the same for engineers and lawyers.”
Even in the 1990s, when women were forced out of almost every workplace, the Taliban allowed some doctors to continue. This was why their ban on secondary education was not simply a matter of damaging international goodwill; it was also jeopardizing the future of the country’s work force. After already having lost a year when schools closed during the pandemic, adolescent girls were still sitting at home. Unless the Taliban allowed them to study, the pipeline of women doctors and nurses would eventually run dry.
At the center of the Taliban’s plan for an Islamic society is the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which became notorious in the 1990s for enforcing rules against music and television, and regulations on beards and women’s clothing, sometimes through public beatings. The ministry, which takes its name from a phrase in the Quran, was rebranded as the Invitation and Guidance Commission during the insurgency, when it was also responsible for persuading republican officials and soldiers to surrender in exchange for amnesty, a strategy used to devastating effect during the collapse last summer. It was a deft illustration of the Taliban’s religious logic: If the emirate was mandated by Islamic law, then calling on Afghans to defect was summoning them to be good Muslims.
After the Taliban’s rise to power, the ministry reinstated its more forceful name, and installed itself in a conveniently empty building, the disbanded Ministry of Women’s Affairs. But when I paid a visit to its spokesman, Akif Muhajer, we met at an annex in the south of the city, next to an intelligence facility. His ministry, with several thousand personnel, was expanding; signs for the H.R. and logistics departments hung in the corridors.
“The Taliban hasn’t changed — the Taliban is the Taliban, as it was in 1995,” he told me, as we sat in his office. Muhajer, who often gave interviews to the foreign press, had become a prominent defender of the emirate’s ideology. In his view, the question of a reformed Taliban was based on a false impression of the original regime, which he denied was violently repressive. “There was so much propaganda against the Taliban — that we were murderers, savages and terrorists.”
Muhajer believed that the U.S.-backed republic, though Islamic in name, was a corrupt tool of Western imperialism, whose leaders not only stole billions intended for their own people but also allowed sins like alcohol and adultery to flourish. “I can say that the majority of the activities of the previous government were against Islam,” he said. His ministry’s task was to root out that corruption; its officers, clad in white tunics resembling pharmacists’ coats, roamed the capital in search of vice, though he said they were under orders to use verbal persuasion, not violence. “I believe that through advice, people influenced by Western culture and beliefs will also be reformed and guided in the right direction.”
After the ban on girls’ high schools was upheld on March 23, Virtue and Vice stirred further outrage by announcing a decree on hijab, or Islamic veiling, which stated that women who were “neither too young or old” should cover their faces in the presence of unrelated men, and wear a full-body cloak, or burqa. The best hijab of all, the decree noted, was staying at home; male guardians, not women, would be punished for violations. While in many of Afghanistan’s rural communities and conservative households, face-veiling was the norm, for others, especially urban professionals, it was an attack on their own beliefs and dignity, one that sought to erase women’s faces from public life. Some critics called it gender apartheid.
Now in his early 30s, Muhajer was part of a new generation of Taliban who grew up with television and the internet — both forbidden under the 1990s regime. In our conversation, he espoused an Islamist modernism where both men and women participate in society, albeit segregated from one another; it was a model closer to conservative Persian Gulf societies like Saudi Arabia, one symbolized by Afghanistan’s now-veiled TV anchors. In this view, the controversial hijab decree was in fact setting the conditions for a return of women to classrooms and offices. “The hijab is the first step in the reopening of the schools,” he said. Indeed, one of the religious scholars who signed the decree was Munir, the education minister who had argued for the girls’ schools to reopen.
“A woman can become a doctor, she can become an engineer, she can become a teacher, she can become a director and work in government,” Muhajer said. “There may be areas in our country where people do not allow their wives to leave their homes, but my opinion is based on Islam, not the norms of part of the country.”
In a country as impoverished as Afghanistan, strict rules for a gender-segregated society have meant that, in practice, many Afghan women are simply excluded from formerly mixed offices and public places. As with the ongoing closure of girls’ high schools, the excuse is that it is a question of capacity, of building separate facilities — that it is simply a matter of time, and therefore patience.
Yet in my meetings with the Taliban in Kabul, I was surprised how much frustration there was with the ongoing ban and Virtue and Vice’s culture war, particularly among those in government tasked with reviving a failing state and feeding a hungry nation.
“Why are we making problems for ourselves with these announcements? Just do your work,” said the Taliban bureaucrat who knew Mullah Omar. A former military commander and an Islamic scholar himself, he worried the emirate would miss the opportunity offered by peace to rebuild the country and win over Afghans. “People are just hearing these announcements about clothes — they aren’t seeing any actual work.”
More surprising was how even senior Taliban officials seemed to struggle to explain the decisions of their own government, or the distinction between the cabinet in Kabul and the shura in Kandahar, or even the role of the amir himself, who they complained was out of touch and inaccessible. Although Haibatullah has recently begun speaking at publicized meetings outside Kandahar, including at a conference of religious scholars in Kabul, the amir — no doubt mindful of his predecessor’s assassination — has operated in a secrecy so profound that it has fueled rumors of his death. The modus operandi of secrecy and consensus that served the Taliban through its guerrilla years was now hampering its ability to rule the nation.
Yet I was also often told by reform-minded Taliban that outside pressure would only make matters worse, since those in favor of reopening the girls’ schools could be portrayed as kowtowing to the West. The emirate needed to proceed cautiously, these officials said; the Taliban’s rank and file, who did not receive salaries, had been motivated to jihad against their own countrymen by tales of a corrupt, immoral republic. In its latest propaganda, the Islamic State, perhaps the gravest internal threat to the Taliban, has accused the emirate of compromising its Islamic principles in return for aid.
Even Taliban officials in favor of opening girls’ schools stressed the imperative of eta’at, or obedience, an Islamic virtue essential for preventing fitna, internal strife — a term applied to the disastrous civil wars of the early Muslim states, as well as to the inter-mujehadeen struggles of the 1990s, when Kabul was destroyed in factional fighting. Obedience to the amir, coupled with the inherent conservatism of the shura’s consensus mechanism, explained why the Taliban are likely to remain beholden to their most hard-line elements.
“The leader has decreed it, so we have to obey,” the bureaucrat said of the ban on girls’ schooling. “It’s more important than what’s allowed as halal. We have to avoid fitna.”
On mornings when I got up early enough to beat Kabul’s heat and traffic, I’d lace up my sneakers and jog up a hill that overlooked the former Green Zone. On my way, I’d pass through a neighborhood called Sherpur, notorious for its gaudy “poppy palaces” with wedding-cake balconies and mirrored windows, built on land appropriated by warlords and government officials after the U.S. invasion. Some were later rented out to U.S.A.I.D. contractors. Now, the Taliban occupied many of these vacant properties and set up checkpoints to protect their V.I.P.s; there were rumors as well that Arabs and other foreign fighters had been seen in the neighborhood.
Early on July 31, two missiles fired by a U.S. drone struck a house in Sherpur, not far from where I’d been running; the next day, President Biden announced that he’d taken out Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda. It was proof, the president said, that America no longer needed troops in Afghanistan to defend itself. What it meant for the Taliban, who issued a muted condemnation of the strike, was less clear. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said by “hosting and sheltering” al-Zawahri, the Taliban had “grossly violated” their assurances that they would not allow Afghanistan to be used by terrorists as a base to threaten other countries. But a senior U.S. official told me that most of the Taliban leadership apparently had been unaware of al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul, and that sheltering him had been the work of a faction connected to Haqqani, the interior minister. (The aide to Haqqani did not respond to a request for comment.)
The killing raised the question of how long the Taliban, who are nearing their first year in power, can endure in the face of international isolation. While I was in Kabul in May, I heard many reasons the emirate would not last, and many reasons it would — often mentioned by the same people, in the same breath. The Taliban have moved to extend the reach of the state and bolster its fiscal self-reliance, dismantling the many illegal checkpoints that lined the highway under the republic, increasing trade and customs revenue. They have arrested warlords and announced a ban on opium cultivation. Yet while the totality of the republic’s moral and political collapse has left them with no serious rivals, the Taliban leadership remains a small and insular group, almost entirely Pashtun. In their tight grip on power, they risk making the same mistake as previous victors: marginalizing swaths of a heavily armed population in a country rived by grievances from decades of civil war, where the state remains weak. In July, the U.N. released a damning report on human rights violations under the new government, including extrajudicial killings. (A Taliban spokesman called it “baseless and propaganda.”)
“I think that, at the end of the day, what we have to bear in mind is that the Afghan population itself is not going to be that patient,” says Amiri, the U.S. envoy for women and human rights. “There will be more violence. This conflict has not ended. It is on pause.”
But the most important factor fueling Afghanistan’s conflict has been foreign intervention. For now, no major or regional powers appear willing to support an armed opposition to the Taliban. “I think there is a fair degree of consensus in the world on this,” West, the State Department’s special representative, told me. This includes the United States, which has, according to both American officials and members of the Afghan opposition, declined to offer any material support to the anti-Taliban resistance.
On the contrary, the past year has seen a quiet normalization of the emirate’s relations with its neighboring countries, most of whom, along with Russia and China, have accepted Taliban-appointed diplomats in their capitals. India, once bitterly opposed to the Taliban, has recently re-established a presence at its embassy in Kabul. According to a German official, their mission has prepared to do the same, pending final approval from Berlin.
While the revelation that al-Zawahri was hiding in downtown Kabul will cast a pall over the Taliban’s foreign relations, the group’s entanglement with Al Qaeda, which deepened during their joint war against the Western occupation, has long been known. The senior U.S. official told me that pragmatic engagement with the Taliban would continue. Indeed, even as formal meetings between the U.S. special envoy and the Taliban foreign minister have resumed, West has broadened his contacts with leaders closer to the center of power in Kandahar. When the Taliban defense minister, Yaqoub — who is the son of the first amir, Mullah Omar — traveled to Doha in July, he met, unannounced, with West. Among the issues they discussed was the American captive Frerichs, in exchange for whom the Taliban have demanded Haji Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan tribal leader convicted on drug charges. (Both West and a spokesman for the Taliban foreign ministry declined to comment on the negotiations.)
In terms of the country’s so-called vital interests, much of the fallout in the year since the republic’s collapse has been contained by the United States and its allies. Famine in Afghanistan has been averted, thanks to the vast humanitarian machine that has cleaned up after political disasters in places like Somalia and Yemen. While the European Union has seen an uptick in Afghan asylum seekers, thus far it has been nothing like the huge numbers that arrived by boat during the migration crisis of 2015. Investments in border defenses since then, along with regular deportations by Iran and Turkey, both of which receive E.U. money to manage migration, have helped to cage Afghans within their own country.
Apart from its counterterrorism efforts, the White House, focused on the challenges from Russia and China, has pursued a strategy described to me by a U.S. official as “making sure Afghanistan stays off the front page.” In this, the Biden administration has been helped by a marked lack of interest from Congress in the country since the withdrawal, an apathy as bipartisan as support for the war in Ukraine, which has replaced Afghanistan as the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. “For a minute the world was really concerned about the Taliban takeover,” Amiri says, “and there was enormous sympathy for Afghans. And then Ukraine happened.” People inside Afghanistan didn’t have the luxury of giving up, but she was worried their struggles were already being forgotten.
In June, after I returned to the United States, I awoke to messages on my phone from friends and acquaintances worried about my safety. Overnight, there was a deadly earthquake in Afghanistan. I went online and quickly learned that it had taken place in a remote area in the southeast. No one I knew personally, it seemed, was harmed, but more than 1,000 people were killed. There were heartbreaking tales of whole families being wiped out when their houses, built of mud and straw, collapsed on them as they slept. The United States promised to send more humanitarian aid; the Taliban pledged to cooperate. For a day, Afghanistan was back on the front page.
As much as the war waxed and waned in the public consciousness, Afghanistan was, by virtue of the troops serving there, part of the American body politic for 20 years. But when the last soldier stepped onto the last C-17, that connection with the country and its people was severed. What remains is a painful sense of how much we owe them, and how little we can do about it. When I was in Kabul, I visited two teenage sisters named Zakera and Husna, who were stuck at home, waiting for the Taliban to allow their school to open. Zakera wanted to be a doctor, Husna a journalist. The sisters told me that they were, in spite of everything, hopeful that they’d soon be back in class. “They keep saying that the schools will reopen,” Zakera said. “They promised.”
Additional reporting by Zabihullah Padshah.
Matthieu Aikins is a Puffin fellow at Type Media Center and the author of “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees.” This year, he won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, as part of a New York Times team that investigated civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes.