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The fall of Kabul

An American military transport plane takes off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul watched by Afghans who cannot get into the airport to be evacuated

An American military transport plane takes off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul watched by Afghans who cannot get into the airport to be evacuated, 23rd August 2021. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times

Just a few days after I arrived in Kabul in November 2020 the city came under attack. Two dozen rockets were fired into the central Green Zone, home to embassies, government buildings, international news bureaus and affluent Afghans. It was also where I was lodging. I had been fascinated with Afghanistan for a long time; I’d heard it was a place that gets under your skin. I’d originally intended to stay in the country for a month. One year and one government overthrow later, I’m still here.

On the morning of the attack, the sound of an explosion jolted me awake and I raced downstairs to the front door, meeting my bleary-eyed host in the hallway. “What’s happening?” I asked. He had no idea. Standing outside on the doorstep we heard a great whooshing noise overhead followed by another explosion, but couldn’t see anything from within the walled garden.

“We’d better get inside,” said my host. We found out later that one of the rockets landed in the next-door garden but thankfully didn’t detonate.

Eight people were killed and 31 injured that day, and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K) claimed responsibility. Rocket attacks such as this were becoming increasingly frequent. Emboldened by the gradual withdrawal of US troops, and amid the contentious Doha peace talks which began in September 2020, the Taliban and IS-K – which considers itself an enemy of both the US and the Taliban, which it perceives as too moderate – were seeking to make their presence felt.

By the summer of 2021 there would be 3.5 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan”

While these attacks shook the capital, the front lines of the conflict between the government and the Taliban were in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. In the years since being removed from power in 2001, the Taliban had regrouped, in large part over the border in Pakistan, and launched an insurgency. Now they were making considerable gains, capturing more and more territory, mostly in rural areas. By the end of 2020 they controlled more than 20 percent of Afghanistan, while just under half the country was contested and the rest was under government control. US air support had just about enabled Afghan government forces to hold the centres of the provinces, but in remote areas thousands of families were being displaced by the bitter conflict – and that critical US support would soon come to an end.

Farzia, 28, who lost her husband in Baghlan to fighting the Taliban, sits with her children in a tent at a makeshift IDP camp in Share-e-Naw park.

Farzia, 28, who lost her husband in Baghlan to fighting the Taliban, sits with her children in a tent at a makeshift IDP camp in Share-e-Naw park. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In January 2021, three months before President Joe Biden announced the full withdrawal of US troops, I travelled to Kandahar province, where I spoke to Afghan security forces on the front lines out in the districts. Morale was low, the men were feeling abandoned by the US and many had not received their salaries for many months.

“I haven’t been paid in eight months but if I don’t fight, who will do it, who will fight for my country?” said Hadi, 24, from the roof of a police station in Zhari district that now marked the front line following the Taliban capture of several police checkpoints further ahead. Hadi and his comrades had been firing mortars from the rooftop into Taliban territory, which began shortly in front of them.

During my trip I also spoke to civilians caught up in the destructive violence. At an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in the outskirts of Kandahar city, I met 31-year-old farmer Najibullah. He explained through tears how he had lost his daughter amid fighting in his home district of Zhari in December. “I was on my way to my patch of farmland in the early morning when I heard the first explosions,” he said. “I just turned around and ran home as quickly as I could. All the while I could hear the sound of airstrikes and gunfire.”

The family took shelter in a corner of their house and the ground shook beneath them as they waited, terrified, for the onslaught of airstrikes – either carried out by the Afghan or US air forces – to subside, at which point they made a dash to safety out of their village. Najibullah was carrying his two-year-old daughter in his arms as he ran. He looked down at her as they were making their escape, only to realise she was not moving. “My entire world stopped,” he said. “The fighting around me seemed to just melt away as I tried to wake my baby girl, but it was too late – she was dead.”

He believed the terrifying ordeal had led her to have a heart attack. He and his wife were forced to bury her at the side of the road; they stood together and cried as they said goodbye. They were then faced with the new reality of living in a tent in a makeshift camp for 250 displaced families, with no work, little food and just a few blankets to keep them warm during the freezing nights. Returning home was a risky endeavour – even if their house was still standing, the entire area was likely to be laced with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), planted by the Taliban to prevent the Afghan forces from advancing once they had left the area. By the summer of 2021 there would be 3.5 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan. Many, like Najibullah, just wanted the fighting to end, and could see only one way that could happen.

“We just want peace. I’m not scared of the Taliban but I’m scared of the air strikes. We cannot ignore what the support of the international community has brought us – roads, schools – but the Taliban want the US to leave, which will bring peace,” said Najibullah. I heard his sentiments echoed in other parts of the country, as well as a frustration with the government, widely perceived as corrupt, and with the US, which for years had acted with seeming impunity and killed many civilians in drone strikes.

Throughout the spring and early summer of 2021 the climate of fear intensified amid increasing attacks of all types; explosions became a daily occurrence in Kabul and targeted assassinations of journalists, human rights defenders and government officials wracked the country.

On Friday 2nd July the US military quietly departed Bagram airbase, the operational heart of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, in the middle of the night. For the buoyant Taliban, which had been making rapid gains on the battlefield for many weeks, delivering devastating blows to the Afghan government as scores of districts fell, this was another victory. Although President Biden insisted that the Afghan security forces had the resources, experience and firepower to fend off a Taliban advance, confidence in the Afghan army was dwindling and deals were being struck between local authorities and the Taliban. In July, 1,600 Afghan government troops in the northern province of Badakhshan fled across the border into neighbouring Tajikistan amid the looming threat of a Taliban onslaught.

Displaced Afghans reach out for aid at a makeshift IDP camp in Kabul, 10th August 2021

Displaced Afghans reach out for aid at a makeshift IDP camp in Kabul, 10th August 2021. Photo: Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

On the evening of 3rd August 2021, 12 days before the Taliban captured Kabul, a huge suicide attack targeted government officials in the capital. A car laden with explosives crashed into the home of the then-government’s acting defence minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, who was not at home at the time. Shortly afterwards, gunmen entered the nearby guesthouse of the then-MP for Baghlan Province Mohammad Mosini, where people had gathered to pay their respects to Mosini’s mother who had passed away a week earlier. A five-hour gunfight ensued between the Afghan security forces and Taliban militants. Eight people were killed in the attacks, including at least four Taliban fighters. It was the largest ground attack Kabul had witnessed in months.

Two days after the attack, I visited the charred remains of Mosini’s guesthouse. It was a shocking sight. A pair of glasses sitting in a pool of dried blood in a downstairs room marked the spot where one victim was shot dead. Dark red splatters up the stairwell wall next to a pair of abandoned shoes indicated two further victims’ futile attempts to evade their attacker. Glass fragments crunched beneath our feet, the noxious smell of smoke permeated the air and the huge pot of rice meant for dinner on the night of the attack sat cold on the stove.

A flood of heavily bearded men drove into Kabul, marvelling at the city they had claimed”

On the night of the attack, Kabul erupted with chants of “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”) as its residents took to their rooftops and united in a show of support for the Afghan security forces while simultaneously denouncing the Taliban. It started quietly at first and it took me a minute to realise what it was, but when I did, I ran up to the roof and listened in the darkness to the sound of voices raised in unison. It had been planned in advance and the fact that it followed the attack was pure coincidence, but it lent extra weight to the show of solidarity.

The shockwaves of the blasts had severely damaged the surrounding houses, offices and shops; a huge clean-up operation ensued. Kabul residents had been reminded of just how serious the Taliban threat was.

The Taliban marched onwards as heavy fighting erupted in provincial capitals, which fell one by one. In a shocking show of speed, amid heavy fighting and new deals being done with local authorities, the group gained control of 26 of the country’s 34 provinces in the ten days leading up to 15th August. Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, fell on 12th August, shortly followed by Herat in the west and Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand Province in the south. The gains were met with disbelief and rising fear both by Afghans and the international community, and the noose began to tighten around Kabul.

In the second week of August, the US authorities issued a revised prediction of how long it could be before the Afghan government fell – three months instead of six. In the end it turned out to be a matter of days. Few could have predicted the reality but as conversations among friends became focused on the Taliban’s gains and people began making the tough decision to leave the country, a sombre mood hung over Kabul, while panic over the prospect of bloody warfare mounted.

By Saturday 14th August, many who planned to leave, both Afghans and foreigners, were heading to the airport or signalling to embassies that they wished to take up the offer of evacuation flights. The streets had been busy for many days as people streamed in from other provinces in the hope of finding help in the capital, turning local parks and empty strips of land into makeshift IDP camps. But that weekend, the scenes became chaotic; people queued for hours outside phone shops in the hope of purchasing new SIM cards in case networks went down and cash machines were besieged as residents tried to access their life savings. People were stocking up on food and preparing to bed down with relatives as they braced for what they thought was impending bloodshed.

Photo: Charlie Faulkner

I spent 15th August, my birthday, in the car of a taxi driver I had known since I’d arrived, running final errands with the expectation there would be just a few more days before violence broke out in the city between the Taliban and government forces. My driver, a usually stoic man, broke down at the wheel of his cab. He was terrified of the Taliban and of not being able to feed his family. The owner of the taxi company had fled the country that morning meaning these were his last few hours of work. He was also owed his wages. “I’m so worried about my family,” he told me. “The only way I can earn money to take care of my family is to join the Taliban. What should I do?” The birthday messages coming through on my phone seemed frivolous.

A short while later, reports emerged of Taliban fighters in Kabul – although we later found out this was not the case, they remained on the outskirts of the city until that evening. Panic erupted further in the already gridlocked city and my driver asked if he could drop me off and head home to his family. His usual 40-minute journey took more than three hours as he fought his way through the traffic, his wife calling him frantically throughout.

By afternoon, the pandemonium that had plagued the streets throughout the morning had melted away to an eerie quiet; no vehicles, no people, barely a sound, as people waited to hear the noise of clashes. We heard that President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country – reportedly with bags containing huge sums of cash – deserting the people he had promised to protect. And then suddenly, without facing any resistance, the Taliban seized power, returning triumphantly to the capital after a 20-year absence.

On the first morning under Taliban control, as I cautiously ventured outdoors wearing my headscarf in a tightly wrapped hijab for the first time in the capital, I spoke to a mother and her four children who were standing awkwardly with their suitcases at the side of the road in the centre of Kabul. “We’re waiting for a taxi,” said Shamshad. She and her children had stayed with relatives the previous evening, expecting violence to erupt throughout Kabul once they’d learned that Taliban fighters were in the city. As the onslaught never came, the family was returning home, still not quite sure what to make of the country’s new reality.

“Everybody is scared and I am very worried about how my daughters’ education will be impacted,” she said. One daughter held a plastic bag containing burqas, full veils that cover the whole face and body that were mandatory for women to wear during the Taliban’s previous reign. “Just in case,” said Shamshad.

Taliban fighters stand guard along a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul

Taliban fighters stand guard along a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on 16th August 2021. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

In the days that followed, people – and particularly women – largely remained inside, out of fear of what might happen if they dared to step out onto the pavement. Kabul was polarised between a crippling fear among the majority of its residents and the jubilation felt by the Taliban fighters who, for some, were experiencing city life for the first time, having spent all of their lives in the most rural corners of the region.

A flood of heavily bearded men drove into Kabul, their rifles packed in beside them and their faces marvelling at the city they had claimed. I saw a couple of Taliban fighters greet one another in the middle of the road with no concern for the traffic, another casually eating ice cream as he crossed the street; this land was now theirs. Many of the fighters donned the uniforms of the previous government and rode around in commandeered police pick-up trucks, beaming at locals and taking selfies.

At a quiet junction and checkpoint in central Kabul, a spot previously occupied by Afghan security forces, I saw bored-looking Taliban fighters slouching lazily on chairs in the street. “There is no problem, as long as you dress appropriately,” said one called Abdull Ghafor Razi Khattab when I asked him what they thought about foreigners being in Afghanistan.

The men were from the eastern province of Logar and this was their first encounter with someone not from the region. The interaction seemed like a novelty to them and they laughed coyly as they chatted about how they felt having taken control of the country.

 New Zealand Defence Force soldiers watch over crowds at the airport in Kabul

New Zealand Defence Force soldiers watch over crowds at the airport in Kabul, 25th August 2021. Photo: New Zealand Defence Force via Getty Images

“We’re feeling very good at the moment and the country feels safe. We’ve lost many brothers during this fighting but right now the country is safe because the Islamic Emirate is coming,” Khattab said. “The people are afraid because until now they haven’t known how to save the country or protect their lives. Now we’re here.” The fighters said residents had brought them food despite the fact they have their own, and that they had spent time talking to many of them. “They like us,” said Khattab.

In contrast to the relatively quiet streets of the capital, scenes of chaos were unfolding at the airport as thousands of Afghans tried to flee the country before the US troops left on 31st August and evacuation flights ended. In the searing midsummer heat, roads leading to the airport were choked with traffic as people tried to break through the Taliban checkpoints in a desperate bid to reach the airstrip.

Scenes of chaos were unfolding at the airport as thousands of Afghans tried to flee”

In those first two weeks of Taliban control, I was near the airport most days witnessing the bedlam as Afghans attempted to escape. Whole families, as many as a dozen at a time, crammed into individual cars and inched along the highway. The repeated crack of gunfire cut through the beeping horns and rumbling engines. Whenever I stepped out of the car to talk to people, I was surrounded by crowds waving visas, passports and travel documents. “Please, you have to help me,” many pleaded in English and Dari.

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the 26th August suicide bomb attack at the airport in Kabul

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the 26th August suicide bomb attack at the airport in Kabul. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

On one occasion I spoke to a mother and daughter braving the midday sun as they tried to find a way to get inside the airport, despite having passports but no visas. “I worked at the airport as part of the government’s security. My husband got sick and died so it’s just me left to support the family. My brothers-in-law are Taliban and they have already threatened to kill us because of my job. I’m so scared,” Bashira, 38, told me. Her hands shook and she fought back tears as she showed the paperwork she had brought to prove who they were. “We don’t believe the Taliban’s assurances,” she said, referring to the group’s promise of amnesty for government workers.

Her 13-year-old daughter Aadila said the Taliban had become a frequent topic of conversation among her friends before schools closed at the end of the previous week. “We heard the Taliban kill people, they destroy cities and they forbid women from going to school. It’s just the beginning at the moment so we don’t know what will happen but the stories about them are not good and we’re all very afraid,” said Aadila. “It is our right to have an education.”

For days security warnings had been issued regarding the threat of an attack at the airport, but it didn’t stop thousands of Afghans trying to get inside and onto a flight. Then, on 26th August, a suicide bomber who had made his way into the crowds at the Abbey Gate entrance to the military side of the airport – the main entryway used by those trying to flee – detonated the explosives he was carrying.

I had been in contact with a local journalist I had worked with in Kandahar as he had tried in vain to enter the airport with his wife and four young children, having been told he was on an evacuation flight list and was eligible to relocate to the UK. For three days he didn’t sleep in the hope his name was called, while trying to keep his family safe amid the chaotic crowds. Just a few hours before the blast took place, he decided he’d had enough. A soldier had told him he would try to get him in if he and his family waded through a canal of sewage water. But he said to himself that if he was going to leave his beloved country, he would leave with dignity, so he turned around and left the airport. That decision saved his life.

Scenes of chaos were unfolding at the airport as thousands of Afghans tried to flee

Afghan evacuees board a US Air Force aircraft at Hamid Karzai airport on 24th August 2021. Photo: Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa

More than 170 people were killed that day, although the exact number that died as a result of the blast is unclear because US soldiers opened fire amid the panic of the suicide attack, and bullets were found in many of the bodies. The Pentagon admitted the possibility of US troops being responsible for some of the deaths but officials said soldiers were responding to IS-K gunmen who opened fire. A large number of the dead had been so desperate to leave the country that they had waded through the stretch of filthy water, hoping to be helped through by the soldiers manning the area.

The car dipped and bumped as its wheels navigated their way around blast holes in the asphalt. It was 11th September, almost a month after the fall of Kabul, and I was on my way to a district of Kandahar Province called Shah Wali Kot. The highway was so badly blown up in some places that the only option was to steer the vehicle off-road around the ruptures in the ground.

This part of the southern province had been largely cut off from the provincial capital, Kandahar city, until the Taliban took control in August which led to the removal of explosives laid by the group that had littered the road. Places like Shah Wali Kot have seen little of the benefits of the international community’s involvement in the country since the invasion of 2001, but have certainly felt the impact of the conflict. Being isolated has meant difficulties in accessing proper healthcare facilities, education and markets.

I was in Shah Wali Kot to visit a small clinic run by the Afghan Red Crescent to understand the importance of facilities that rely on international funds, amid an ongoing freeze of millions of dollars of aid money since the Taliban came to power. At the clinic, I met 45-year-old farmer Hafiz Allahuldin. “We were bullied by the local police here during the last government,” said Allahuldin. “I moved my family to Helmand ten years ago; we only came back 18 months ago. The night we left here in 2011, local police officers forced their way into our home and beat me and my family. That night we fled with just the clothes on our back.” The family had stood at the side of the road in the dark and waited for vehicles to take them away from the place they had come to fear so greatly.

The small gains women have made over the last two decades now look to be in jeopardy”

Allahuldin, who went on to work as a mullah in a madrassa – an Islamic religious school – in Helmand, denied having any links to the Taliban. He accused the police officers whom he alleged beat him of being after money. His claim was echoed by many others: many members of the Afghan security forces I had met around the country before the Taliban took control had been either poorly paid or not paid at all, and were severely under-resourced. There was some sympathy from the public towards the security forces, despite the chronic corruption blighting the institution, because people understood local police officers needed to feed their families just as much as they did. But it also meant the public often lacked respect for the security forces, and had little faith in their capabilities when it came to protecting their country.

But Allahuldin’s anger was largely directed at other nations. “I’m upset with the international community. Foreign forces came and fought here for 20 years but they failed and then they left. They have not been loyal to the Afghan soldiers who fought beside them all these years. And then foreign embassies and companies left documentation with Afghan staff members’ personal information in their offices for the Taliban to find as they escaped the country,” he said. He believes that the conflict won’t end, it will just change. “I’m pleased there is peace for now, but it won’t last. There will always be two groups fighting for Afghanistan. The killings won’t stop,” he said.

“The US said it would bring peace to Afghanistan,” he continued. “It should have stayed here and made sure a peace deal was reached between the government and the Taliban. The Russians did the same thing – they left the country to collapse. We didn’t trust the peace process, but we were hopeful about it.”

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, bloody warfare has ended, crime rates have significantly fallen and many Afghans – even those with staunch anti-Taliban views – say the security situation has dramatically improved. It’s worth remembering, though, that the group played a huge part in destabilising the country over the last 20 years. Yet Taliban officials were quick to boast about this apparent new stability, including the governor of Helmand when I met him in Lashkar Gah a few days after leaving Kandahar.

“How is the security situation?” he asked me, fishing for a positive answer. Through my translator I answered him honestly.

“I have not experienced any issues yet and the country is more accessible than it has been for many years, yes. But you [the Taliban] were the threat we foreign journalists faced up until 15th August,” I said.

He said I was repeating anti-Taliban propaganda.

Businessmen talk of expanding their enterprises now they can move between provinces without the risk of being killed by a roadside IED and the chances of being kidnapped by criminals has been reduced; organised crime groups no longer have the monopoly on the fuel market; young men hang out together late into the evenings without fear of being robbed; and residents in rural areas previously cut off from neighbouring towns and cities due to the conflict are able to visit hospitals and markets.

But in exchange for that safety, the small gains women have made over the last two decades now look to be in jeopardy, despite reassurances from the new government that they will be afforded their freedoms “according to Sharia law”.

In the western city of Herat, once a thriving place of bustling restaurants, shisha cafés and juice bars, the absence of women in public was immediately apparent. They had chosen to stay at home amid a swirl of stories about the way the Taliban are treating women.

A restaurant owner told me female customers had been harassed by Taliban fighters in his venue; an unmarried couple were forced to get engaged, women were accosted for the way they were dressed in public, and mothers out with their children were told they should be ashamed for not having their husbands with them.

Members of the Taliban have also visited shops and restaurants to deliver operational rules. The problem is that each has a different opinion on how the businesses should be run when it comes to women; women shouldn’t work there at all, female customers should be served by women only, husbands should sit away from their families in the male section and so on.

A decision by the Kabul administration to prevent girls from returning to secondary school caused uproar and sparked protests by women around the country. The reasoning by the new government was that more time was needed to adjust the studying conditions and update the syllabus. By the end of November, the Kabul administration’s policy on this remained unmoved, but a number of the country’s provinces had started taking independent action to resume lessons for secondary-age schoolgirls.

Despite a relative calm across the country, thousands remain desperate to leave and many are in hiding, often too scared even to visit the passport office which has finally resumed operations after months of delays. Foreign friends and I frequently receive messages from Afghans pleading for help to leave the country; some we know well but most we don’t, and a few are complete strangers who have got hold of our phone numbers in desperation. Most interactions now with Afghans usually result in a request for assistance to get them out of Afghanistan. There is little we can do.

Protests that took place in September ended in violence. Afghan journalists were tortured after being arrested for covering a demonstration in Kabul and two people were killed at a protest in Herat. Despite the reduced crime rate, targeted attacks are still being carried out, particularly in the east of the country, and IS-K attacks are on the rise. The IS-K group claimed responsibility for the devastating suicide attacks on Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar on 8th and 15th October. Shia Muslims account for 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan’s population and have repeatedly been targeted by IS-K, which considers them to be heretics.

“While there were security issues [during the previous government], we’ve never witnessed something as devastating as this here in Kandahar,” said Shia community leader Murtaza Khaliqi, 33, who was at the mosque at the time of the attack. The blasts in the two cities which targeted worshippers attending Friday prayers killed at least 100 people. The Taliban have since said they will increase security around Shia mosques, with plans to deploy police units to replace the local volunteer guards currently providing protection. On 2nd November, Kabul’s Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan hospital – Afghanistan’s biggest military hospital – came under attack by IS-K gunmen. At least 25 people were killed and more than 50 wounded.

Relatives and friends gather during the funeral of victims of a suicide bomb attack on worshippers at a Shia mosque in Kunduz

Relatives and friends gather during the funeral of victims of a suicide bomb attack on worshippers at a Shia mosque in Kunduz , 8th October 2021. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Beyond sectarian tensions a dire humanitarian crisis is building thanks to a bottoming-out economy and an already huge unemployment problem that has been vastly exacerbated since the Taliban took control. The banking system is barely functioning – for weeks no one was able to access any of their money. Since banks began operating again, withdrawals have been capped which is extremely problematic for businesses. Billions of dollars of Central Bank assets and aid money have been frozen and government offices remain largely empty because people are either too afraid to return to their jobs, or they don’t see the point because they were already owed wages from the previous government and the Taliban has no money to pay them now. Female civil servants in Kabul have been told not to return to work if their jobs can be filled by men.

If that weren’t enough, the country has been plagued by one of its worst droughts on record, with the World Food Programme saying that over the course of 2021 an additional three million people have been placed at risk of famine. It was already a major issue and humanitarian organisations on the ground were distributing food and drought-resistant seeds, but with funding frozen and uncertainty on how to operate, few of those organisations are active right now.

I drove to Herat Province’s western district of Ghurian towards the end of September. As we headed out of the rabbit warren of mud houses within the district’s built-up area and on to the flatness of open farmland, Sufi Ghulam Sayed told me all of his crops had failed this year. Standing on the arid earth, he pointed to a dry irrigation canal. “This year we’ve not seen water in the canal since the spring. It’s normal to see it dry up from time to time but not for this length of time,” he said. “Last year I harvested 30 kilos of wheat and 700 bundles of straw. This year we have nothing.”

Ghurian is on the border with Iran and used to be a notorious hotspot for drug smugglers. But in the last few years the smuggling has fallen, in part due to Iran’s brutal punishments for those who are caught.

Over the course of 2021 an additional three million people have been placed at risk of famine”

“This will become a problem for the West,” said another local I talked to. “People can suffer not eating for a week but if they continue to not be able to eat they will turn back to things like smuggling and those drugs will end up in Europe, not to mention the numbers of people who will flee the country just to survive. The consequences of this crisis will hit the West.”

People outside of the country – Afghans and foreigners – keep asking me what the situation is like on the ground and it’s so difficult to explain. Day to day life in Kabul is heavy and heartbreaking. There is still a great deal of fear both of the Taliban and of being able to survive amid the economic turmoil. Afghans feel abandoned. It is also disorientating being confronted with a group we as foreigners had also feared for so long who we must now report to and essentially work with if we want to continue operating in the country.

Boy stands in extreme drought, dried cracked earth.

“Over the course of 2021 an additional three million people have been placed at risk of famine.” Photo: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

During my reporting in Kandahar in September, a member of the Taliban was assigned to me and the local journalist I was working with. It was to help us find the people we needed to speak to for a specific story out in the rural part of the province. He was a quiet but very polite man, and he made it clear that he respected the work I was doing. He told me how pleased he was that I, a foreign journalist, had taken the time and effort to come to this area of the country to see the reality on the ground for myself. We ended up asking him to stay with us for a few more days to help us with access to other people and places. The local journalist and he got on well, and they found lots to talk about. We talked about politics and religion, and he was someone I found to be very likeable.

Then, one day, he told us how proud he was of his brother who had detonated a suicide vest and killed Afghan and American soldiers a few years ago. And just like that, your breath is taken away and your mind has no idea how to make sense of everything you’ve learned about this human being you have spent the last few days forming some sort of shared understanding with.

The most common response to the Taliban I have encountered is that no one trusts them. The new reality in Afghanistan is awful for many reasons but the violent approach to law enforcement the Taliban were famous for during their previous reign has not yet been reimplemented. Yet nobody believes the Taliban will continue with this relatively light-handed approach in the long term.

Everyone is waiting: waiting to see if the Taliban – or as they refer to themselves, the Islamic Emirate – will be officially recognised by the international community; waiting to see whether they can run the country, considering the vast majority of Afghans can barely keep food on the table; and waiting to see whether claims they have reformed their previously brutal ways are anything more than empty words. The fate of 39 million people rests on the outcomes.

For an interview with Charlie Faulkner, the author of this article, about living and working in Kabul after the fall, see our Q&A here

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