Afghanistan, One Year After the Fall

Mullah Naqibullah, a slim, young Taliban fighter, tossed his shawl over his shoulder and adjusted his rifle. He made his way from under a spreading mulberry tree onto the patio of a small mud-brick mosque in Sangesar, a small village in southern Kandahar Province in Afghanistan, and went inside.

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

It was here that in 1994 Mullah Muhammad Omar founded the Taliban movement. The group went on to capture Kabul in September 1996 and establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which instituted a narrow definition of Islamic jurisprudence that barred women and girls from working and attending school. Omar’s decision to provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda eventually brought down his government after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the Taliban never went away.

I first went to Afghanistan in 2009 to document the war. By then, the United States was in the thick of a brutal conflict against the Taliban, who had mounted a formidable insurgency to win back control of the country.

Besides the war, the United States was trying to assist in formation of a government in Kabul while the U.S. military was attempting to build an Afghan Army in its own image.

But for Afghans, this 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 law. The Americans didn’t realize how fragile the systems they created were until it all came crashing down.

I went to Afghanistan in July 2021 to document the U.S. withdrawal. When things began to collapse around me, I stayed. On the morning of Aug. 15, I stood outside the U.S. Embassy and photographed U.S. Chinook helicopters scrambling to evacuate staff members. By that afternoon, I was photographing Taliban fighters as they entered the city.

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

In May, I returned to see how Afghanistan had fared under Taliban rule. Nine months after their stunning victory and takeover, they are still struggling to shift to a governing, political force.

I found a country that continues to lack a functioning economy. Crowds of women wait outside bakeries for handouts. Men who once held office jobs must now sell vegetables at the market or peddle used goods to be able to buy a little bit of food to take home. Merchants have seen their customers dwindle as prices soar.

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

The Taliban are all too aware of the fragility of their control. They championed a brutal style of rule. The same struggle can easily be waged against them.

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

Mr. Hamasi told me he is frustrated by the leadership’s refusal to allow girls in school. “In fact, many mujahedeen are unhappy with the schools being closed,” he said. “I am here,” he explained, as he talked about his hope for the movement, “so that my sister or daughter can go to school and be educated in the framework of Islam, Shariah and hijab.”

It is Afghan women who have been most victimized by the Taliban’s return to power. Despite the Taliban’s pledge to protect their rights, they have seen progress recede.

Ogai Amil, an educator, journalist and civil society activist, watched the country fall back to the Taliban from her small apartment. She hoped things would be different this time around. “People were thinking that maybe the Taliban had changed and their takeover would be easier, governance would get better, security could get better and the country would get peaceful,” she told me. By May, women were instructed to cover their faces in public and avoid leaving the home.

She told me that over the past year she has come to engage informally with many Talib officials. “I tell them, ‘I am not your enemy, but I want you to stop all these restrictions,’” she said. “These are our human rights, which are 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 have since gone back on that promise.

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

Since they can no longer go to high school, they spend their days poring over English lessons in the same room that houses the loom where their family weaves carpets to make ends meet. They hope the ability to speak perfect English will be their ticket to scholarships that will allow them to study outside the country.

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

It’s impossible to know what the future will hold 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.