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Afghanistan turmoil

The return of the Taliban

A reporter witnesses history on a three-month journey through Afghanistan

Taliban fighters patrol Kabul on Thursday, the 102nd anniversary of independence from Britain. The militant group used the occasion to declare victory over the U.S.    © AP

KANDAHAR/BAGRAM AIR BASE/KABUL, Afghanistan -- Kabul airport had fallen quiet at the moment I left, but the chaos of upended lives lay all around me on the tarmac. In horrific scenes the previous day, people had clung to a U.S. transport plane as it moved to take off and at least two dropped to their deaths after it was airborne.

I scuttled in with the early morning light on August 17 past tattered shoes, broken slippers and a headless doll. My fellow passengers and I were en route to an evacuation flight hurriedly arranged by the Indian government after the Taliban captured the Afghan capital. The debris around me summed up the renewed destruction and desperation that the people of this conflict ravaged country had tried so long to escape.

It was a tragic end to my stay in the country. Such a scenario had barely seemed possible when I arrived in Afghanistan more than four months previously to report. News of the Taliban and their gains in the field was in the air as I touched down during the last week of March. But as Afghans too accustomed to war told me in remarks that now seem portentous, "as long as the fight doesn't reach your doorstep, you are safe."

Instead, August 15, 2021 is a date that will be deeply etched in the minds of the Afghans, if not the world. Just four days short of the 102nd anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from Britain, the country had fallen once again into the hands of Islamist militant fighters. The U.S.-led invasion that had ended the group's brutal five-year rule in 2001 turned out to be an interregnum of illusions, not an irreversible change. Many Afghans lost much during the violence of those past two decades of foreign occupation; now what was built with care and hard work during that time is also under threat.

I had entered a country called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and I left the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- a nation yet to be recognized by the outside world.

This is my personal reflection on the story of the return of the Taliban.

The departure gates at Kabul airport that were damaged by throngs of people trying to flee the country as the Taliban came into the capital on August 15. (Photo by Kanika Gupta)

Days of beauty

I went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2019 because I always wondered if it was as bad as much of the world seemed to think. I was curious to see it and write about the experiences of its people. I planned for my trip this year to last a few weeks. Instead, I ended up staying almost three months in two spells, during which I saw a country crumble in front of my eyes.

My early days back in Kabul feel strangely innocent now. I soon reimmersed myself in a city vibe I had grown to love. I was also able to take trips unimaginable now: just get in a car and hit the road.

On one memorable outing, we traveled to see the spring in Gulgundi, a part of Charikar district in Parwan province, north of the capital. The valley was draped with varied shades of lilac. The fragrance and dappled purple shadows seemed a world away from an active war zone.

There were people everywhere, dancing under the open sky, celebrating the festival of spring. The meadows filled with sounds of laughter as families picnicked under the Arghawan blossoms. Across the fields, men engaged in a battle deeply entrenched in Afghan culture: kite flying. They competed as if fighting over a matter of life and death. I smiled at how seriously they took these seemingly childish games.

Gulgundi Hill in Charikhar province is covered in Arghawan blossoms during the spring season. (Photo by Kanika Gupta)

Men, women, boys and girls sat scattered over Gulgundi Hill like another species of flower. I spoke to a Kabul resident who was visiting with his wife and six children. "We have seen so many years of war, sometimes we forget how to enjoy ourselves," he said. "But spring in Gulgundi helps us forget that. We come every year."

Life in other parts of the country also seemed reassuringly peaceful. I found more charm in Istalif, located in Shomali Plains northwest of Kabul. Ringed by mountains on all sides and nestled among lush trees, the village was in recovery from past suffering: during the 1990s, the Taliban had burned it to the ground.

Istalif is known for its blue pottery art as well as its rustic beauty. I met craftspeople who were proud to have rebuilt their art and home over more than 20 years.

"When the Taliban came to our village, they started destroying our kilns and handmade pottery," recalled a local resident who I will call Mir. "In their version of Islam, it was forbidden to engage in any form of art. So we buried our tools under the ground and ran to the capital."

In those hopeful days of early April, Mir had plans to take his art to all parts of the country and beyond. He was already planning a trade exhibition abroad to display his work. But then came the announcement that changed the course of Afghan history overnight.

A craftsman in Istalif glazes clay pots for sale in the market. (Photo by Kanika Gupta)

On April 14, U.S. President Joe Biden announced a complete withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, bringing an end to "America's forever war." His predecessor and political rival Donald Trump had made the initial agreement with the Taliban, but it was Biden's decision to stick with it. Some Afghans rejoiced at the prospective end of the latest in the country's many foreign occupations. But the news brought fear to many others who remembered the Taliban's harsh history.

In April this year, the Taliban had control of only barely one sixth of the country's 421 districts. Fighting was intensifying but many Afghans continued to live their lives and tried to put the creeping conflict out of their minds. The national army proclaimed confidence it could repel the resurgent militants.

A shock exit

Then came the sudden American abandonment of Bagram, the largest foreign military base. Afghan commanders there woke up on July 6 to find the last U.S. troops had left without warning during the night. The act was both symbolic and substantial. By this time, the Americans claimed to have completed 90% of the troop withdrawal, way ahead of Biden's September 11 deadline.

I walked around the colossal Bagram base on July 9. It took me five hours to cover just a part of it. Gazing at this scuttled monument to U.S. military might, I could think of only one thing: "The Americans lived in abundance." There was everything that they needed for a comfortable life in the middle of a warring nation. From Burger King to barbecue stations and multiple recreational facilities, it made for a jarring contrast to the mostly impoverished country beyond its many walls.

It was clear the Americans had left in a hurry. Half cups of coffee sat discarded by a window sill, the drinkers perhaps interrupted by a call for immediate evacuation. A chess board lay frozen mid-game. Black, the notionally disadvantaged second mover, was winning.

The U.S. military had also cut the power to the base on their departure. The stench of rotting food made the frozen containers unbearable to explore. Washington had left behind a state of ever growing putrefaction.

Afghan government security forces patrol the perimeter of Bagram Airbase in July. (Photo by Kanika Gupta)

The Americans' exit had a tangible psychological impact on the place they'd left. The former governor of Bagram district, Lala Shirin Darwesh Roufi, told me both the local and national economy would be badly affected by the U.S. troop withdrawal. But he continued to talk a brave game, expressing confidence in the security situation and Bagram's ability to attract international companies.

The area around the base already told a darker story. It was inundated with American leftovers. Second-hand gym equipment rusted in the sun, carabiners hung from ropes outside shops, and dusty combat boots seemed gradually to be becoming one with the monochromatic landscape. The shops were mostly empty, their owners napping between visits from the occasional customers who did stray in.

But people there remained defiant, in part because scars left by the Taliban's previous time in power remained vivid. Jan, a Bagram shopkeeper, said Taliban fighters had lashed him repeatedly because he was a Tajik and thus seen as an enemy of the group mostly made up of ethnic Pashtuns. "But we will not let them come to Bagram," he told me. "They fear resistance from us. I remember we used to pour boiling water on the Talibs when they were walking on our streets."

By early August, the Taliban, a group born from the resistance to the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had conquered swathes of the country. They progressed from rural areas to seize critical border crossings and provincial capitals, at a speed that shocked the government and many foreign observers.

Afghans gather outside Kabul airport on August 16, hoping to enter (the airport) with an Indian diplomatic convoy. (Photo by Kanika Gupta)

The conflict frontline

I arrived in the southern city of Kandahar, the stronghold of the previous Taliban regime, on August 6. It was already the site of intense clashes between the militants and government forces. The Taliban controlled much of the surrounding province and were now mounting a final push for the regional capital.

The conflict had triggered a humanitarian crisis. Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, told me on August 4 that more than 360,000 civilians had been displaced by the conflict nationwide, 100,000 of them during the previous 30 days alone.

My first stop in Kandahar city was the Haji Camp. This complex, originally intended to house Muslim pilgrims headed for the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, had been turned into a makeshift settlement for displaced people. I saw the scale of suffering as soon as I walked in the gates. In one corner, two women fought over a jug of water, while children pulled each other's hair as they tussled for a loaf of bread. More than 3,000 families lived in extreme heat, harassed by mosquitoes and flies. Many lay helplessly under the thin trees, hoping for some respite from the merciless Kandahari summer.

I spoke to 40-year-old Khuda, who had left Lashkar Gah in the southern province of Helmand on foot to escape the fighting. He was frantic and incoherent when he spotted me talking to people. He had arrived just an hour earlier.

Internally displaced people in Kandahar tell the author how they fled conflict in their areas.

In between sobs, he told me how he had become separated from the rest of his family of eight. He thought they were in another camp, but he couldn't rejoin them because of the fighting. "I ran in my broken shoes and walked in the blazing sun until I couldn't walk anymore," he wept. "I used the last of my money to take a taxi to Kandahar City. My house is destroyed, my life is destroyed. When will this conflict end? I just want to go home."

That night, I stayed with a Pashtun family who gave me a welcome break from a traumatic day. It was a full house, complete with 10 kids. The women in the family were sisters who had married when they were 12 or 13 to two brothers. Each had five children by the time they turned 30. Every time they went out, they wore a burqa that covered their bodies and faces, with a laced mesh screen in front of their eyes.

The household's patriarch told me that the burqa was not part of Pashtun culture. "We don't believe in hiding our women behind formless veils," he said. "The Taliban brought this concept with them and we have followed it ever since."

I tried on the chadori, but it quickly made me feel claustrophobic. I pulled it off me and asked the women what would happen if they didn't wear it. "The Taliban will pour acid over my head," one of them replied -- a fate suffered by 15 female school students and teachers attacked by the group's sympathizers in Kandahar province in 2008.

During the first Taliban era, women were prohibited from attending schools and colleges. They were also blocked from participating in public affairs without a male chaperone. It was part of a draconian rule that included brutal public punishments, such as flogging, amputations and stoning to death.

The blue burqa made customary by the Taliban in the 1990s. (Photo by Kanika Gupta)

Since the latest fighting began in Kandahar city, many areas had lost their electricity supply. Phone networks were dead after 6 p.m. Since there was nothing much to do, people slept around 9 or 10 p.m. The family set up a bed for me on the terrace, under the calmness of the stars.

I was about to slip into sleep when conflict erupted. Barrages of gunfire, bomb blasts and rocket propelled grenade fire terrorized me over the next six hours. I spent the night waiting for a rocket to hit. The fighting did not stop until 4 a.m.

I rushed to Kandahar airport as soon as I could in the morning. But all flights had been suspended because rocket fire had damaged the runway. I begged the airport staff to evacuate me. They kindly got me on a flight to Kabul the following day.

End of an era

I arrived in the capital feeling happy to be alive and safe. I was still writing my story from Kandahar when the news broke out that the city had fallen to the Taliban. I made frantic calls to friends to check if everything was OK.

A former government official I knew there told me he had fled. "They broke my TV, my car, and everything expensive in my house. I just ran with nothing in my hands," he told me. "I am scared for my life. I don't know what they'll do to me if they catch me." I clung to the other end of the phone, feeling angry and helpless.

Kandahar's fall showed how strong the Taliban's momentum was. They had also taken Herat in the west, Afghanistan's third largest city and a crucial trade route to Iran. The loss of two major urban centres delivered a heavy blow to the government and its morale.

On the evening of Saturday, August 14, I made a call to Obaidullah Baheer, an academic. He said events were moving much quicker than he or almost anyone else had foreseen. Even experts ridiculed by some for warning that the government would collapse within as little as six months to one year now looked hopelessly optimistic. "Seeing how within days almost everything has changed in Afghanistan, it makes you realize that this is going to be faster than we can predict," said Baheer, a lecturer in peace and conflict studies at American University of Afghanistan and Kardan University in Kabul. "It looks like just a matter of days now before the city falls."

Even that turned out to be too sanguine about the government's prospects. The Taliban entered Kabul the very next day. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and by nightfall footage had emerged of Taliban fighters in his office.

The city was frantic with worry. People ran for refuge in their homes or outside the country. Many women, particularly educated ones, worried about the Taliban's impact on their lives.

The air in Kabul was thick with uncertainty and panic. Rumors were rife and people I knew sat huddled closely in their homes, waiting for a knock on the door from the Taliban. The stress caused me sleepless nights and I lost my appetite completely. I knew then it was time to go. By the afternoon of August 16, I had found a seat on an evacuation plane due to head for New Delhi that night.

I traveled by taxi to the Indian embassy around 4 p.m. The streets were quiet and the black-turbaned Taliban I encountered at checkpoints, their eyes edged with kohl, seemed uninterested in me. But they didn't let me into the embassy either. Their behavior was strangely calm for conquerors. It matched efforts by the group's top officials to portray it as a responsible guarantor of public safety.

The Taliban have also said women will be allowed to be "very active" in society but "within the framework of Islam." It is a careful formulation that is unlikely to allay fears of a new era of repression.

In the days that followed the takeover of Kabul, reports emerged of protests against the Taliban in several Afghan cities. Western forces had fled and the militants had declared the war over, but the struggle for this much fought over country had not ended. As the detritus of departure I saw at the airport showed, some Afghans had already given their verdict on what the Taliban's return would mean.

Kanika Gupta is a multimedia journalist from Delhi, India, working between Kashmir and Kabul. She writes about human interest stories from conflict zones.

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