A version of this article appeared on VICE France.
When French photo reporter Adrien Vautier travelled to Afghanistan from Uzbekistan in early September of 2021, his passport was stamped by the country’s new rulers, the Taliban. Weeks earlier, on the 15th of August, Kabul had fallen into Taliban hands after their troops swiftly took over the country, capturing all major cities in just ten days.
The capture of Kabul marked the end of the country’s 20-year war, which saw the first Taliban regime – which governed between 1996 and 2001 – overthrown by the US invasion. But since then, civilians in the country have known no peace, as multiple bomb attacks, violent protests, chaotic scrambles to leave the country, US drone strikes and Taliban arbitrary executions have claimed hundreds of lives.
“There were many refugees in the city who lived in really worrying conditions in the parks of Kabul," said Vautier. In the weeks following the takeover, he saw residents queuing up in long lines in front of the banks, trying to recover their savings. But as per a new Taliban measure intended to discourage people from leaving the country, Afghans can now only take out up to €170 a week. “In the next six months, the situation is likely to become really catastrophic," Vautier continued.
Although the radical Islamist movement has become infamous for its incredible military feat, much of the people who make up Taliban troops are not professional soldiers. The group’s members are diverse – some joined it in protest of Kabul’s former US-sponsored government, others to avenge loved ones who were victims of US attacks. Many were recruited as children while they were studying in Madrasas, Islamic schools that are often the only educational option for impoverished children in isolated communities.
“The Taliban in Kabul looked like soldiers on leave, who were discovering recreational activities for the first time,” Vautier said. During his days in the capital, he followed the strange cohabitation between civilians and Islamist forces in the heart of the city, looking at surreal scenes of Taliban soldiers visiting zoos and amusement parks. “That first day in Kabul made me realise that the Taliban in the capital were quite different from those in other regions,” Vautier said. “I wondered if that was because the troops in Kabul were mainly young people from the mountains.”
Be it extremists, mercenaries, ethnic minorities or disillusioned farmers only fighting part-time, the Taliban clearly managed to rally the masses towards a common cause – the establishment of a self-governed Islamic state independent from foreign influence. Talking to families in Mazār-i-Sharīf, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, Vautier confirmed that popular opinions about the Taliban takeover are mixed.
Some families were trying to quickly gather what they could and leave the country. “Seeing the Taliban back in power meant a loss of freedom for them. It’s a cause of great concern for the future,” he said. Meanwhile, others were relieved to finally see the fighting come to an end, and hoped the Taliban interim government would finally bring some stability to the country.
On his trips between Afghan cities, Vautier saw Talibans operate automatic weapons and Humvees abandoned by US troops during their retreat, in apparent perfect condition. During most of his stay in the country, things carried on as normal, shrouded in an eerie quietness. But one day, in Kabul, violence erupted during demonstrations all over the city, including one he was covering.
“From then on, working started to get trickier,” Vautier said. “The Taliban prohibited me from taking photos of the demonstrators. They were very nervous, shooting in the air, shoving everyone around.” Once he got back to his hotel, he saw one of the windows of the room he was sharing with other journalists had been broken. “A protest passed in front of our hotel and a journalist started filming it from his room,” he said. “So, to put us under a bit of pressure, the Taliban shot near him with a machine gun.”
During the past two months of Taliban rule, the new interim government has tried to position itself as a collaborator with international forces, only interested in self-governance after decades of international interference. The so-called Taliban 2.0 have vowed to respect human rights, and especially women’s rights, on their territory. But experts think these claims are incompatible with the group’s ideology and are just a front to ensure civilians will continue to receive humanitarian aid while the country’s economy is still in shambles.
In the meantime, the Taliban’s conflict with ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province, the local branch of the Islamic caliphate organisation) is picking up, with deadly consequences for civilians. Amid a looming humanitarian crisis and increased internal threats, it seems that stability is still a long shot away for Afghan families.
Scroll down to see more photos from Vautier’s trip to Afghanistan: