Millions of Afghan civilians unable or unwilling to leave the country are bracing for the reality of Taliban rule after 20 years of shaky NATO-installed democracy collapsed in a matter of weeks in the face of a well-coordinated offensive by the Islamist militants.
The speed at which the government fell – as troops defected, provincial capitals put up a white flag, regional warlords cut deals, and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country – has shocked ordinary Afghans as much as the rest of the world.
“It has been a couple of long days. It is not the first time that we have to go through this, but this time felt like being abandoned by our own people and left out in the open,” a 39-year-old business owner told VICE World News.
He remembers how hopeful he was as a young man when the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001. The march of the militants on Kabul over the last week and mayhem on streets, including looting of shops and stealing cars and shocking scenes of people trying to board US evacuation planes, have brought back uneasy memories.
“We are consoling ourselves that at least there isn’t a full-scale war, and public executions on the streets yet, but I can’t stop thinking of my time under the Taliban when I was young and not worry about the future of my family, and the education of my two daughters who need to be back to school soon,” the business owner said.
The Taliban, a fundamentalist militant movement formed in the early 1990s, grew out of the mujahideen fighters who battled against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 onward. Another bloody civil war after Moscow withdrew in 1989 eventually led to the Taliban’s takeover of most of the country in 1996.
Up until the US-led NATO assault in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Afghans were subjected to crippling sanctions and international isolation under Taliban rule, as well as the brutality of the group’s draconian version of Sharia – Islamic law – including limiting education and a role in public life for girls and women, and the use of public executions and corporal punishment.
The new Western-friendly administration that emerged in Kabul became mired in corruption and mismanagement. After two decades of failed attempts at nation-building, the catalyst for the Taliban’s second takeover was US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops, honouring a deal with the Taliban negotiated by his predecessor, Donald Trump. Twenty years of conflict has left more than 40,000 civilian Afghans dead.
Despite the Taliban’s reassurances to uphold women’s rights and freedom of speech, the promises are vague, and there is no clarity yet on what exactly will be allowed under their incoming rule.
“It feels like we will lose everything we built in the past years, the situation in Afghanistan has never been that ideal, but for the first time, I feel like I’m going to lose my school and students,” said a woman who taught at a girl’s high school.
“I heard that the Taliban would allow girls to keep going to school and women to work, but time will tell whether this is just sweet talk to avoid any backlash. I have a daughter who is going to college this year, and I can only hope that she can finish her degree,” the teacher added.