As the Taliban return, Afghanistan's past threatens its future

The freedoms Afghans have gained since 2001 are in jeopardy as extremists complete their takeover of the nation, spurred by U.S. exit.

Landlocked and mountainous, Afghanistan borders six countries and is dominated by the imposing Hindu Kush range, which towers here (upper left) over Kapisa Province. The country’s strategic location has drawn traders and invaders for millennia, while the rugged topography has stymied foreign and domestic armies and sheltered guerrillas.

Hear more more stories of Afghanistan before the fall on our podcast, Overheard at National Geographic.

In the blue haze of hookah smoke that filled Kandahar’s Cafe Delight on a recent weekend afternoon, it was easy to forget there’s a war outside.

Young male professionals with well-groomed beards and mullet cuts, slumped in plush chairs, sipped espresso drinks beneath flat-screens that pulsed with racy Turkish and Indian music videos, the bare midriffs of women blurred by channel censors.

This was still Afghanistan, a conservative Islamic society. But the patrons belonged to a more permissive, urbane generation that came of age after the fall of the Taliban, with vague to no memory of the oppressive, fundamentalist regime, born in this southern city, that banned television, music, and cinema; forbade men from trimming their beards; and forced women to wear head-to-toe burkas.

Café owner Ahmadullah Akbari returned from two years in cosmopolitan Dubai in 2018 to start his business in Ayno Maina, a sprawling modern development on the outskirts of Kandahar. Behind the café counter a few months ago, Akbari monitored closed-circuit TV cameras he had recently installed to thwart “sticky bombs”—crude explosives triggered by mobile phones—that were targeting officials, activists, minorities, and journalists, as well as random civilians, part of the extremists’ strategy to eliminate dissent and project fear deep into urban centers. Emboldened by a February 2020 agreement with the United States that sidelined the Afghan government and paved the way for the withdrawal of American forces by the end of August this year, the Taliban had established their grip on rural areas and were closing in on cities at breathtaking speed.

Still, with its eucalyptus-lined streets, luxury villas, and shopping plazas lit by nearly round-the-clock electricity, the Ayno Maina gated community offered an atmosphere of suburban normalcy for middle- and upper-class Afghans, many on a government payroll. “We have no worries here,” said Suleiman Aryan, 28, an English teacher who works and lives in the complex with his wife and two children.

That was then. The calm has been shattered.

On August 15 the resurgent Taliban entered the capital of Kabul, as President Ashraf Ghani was reported to have fled the country and gunfire and panic broke out in the streets. Days earlier, the radical Islamist militants had seized Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, along with a string of provincial capitals.

The State Department and Pentagon were racing to evacuate personnel and some of the Afghans who worked for the American government from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, where the American flag had been lowered, drawing comparisons to the fall of Saigon.

Twenty years have elapsed since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to rout the al Qaeda terrorists behind the September 11 attacks and toppled the Afghan Taliban regime that sheltered them. Taliban leaders took refuge in neighboring Pakistan, and when Washington’s attention swung to war in Iraq, they mounted a comeback. An infusion of military and development funds to the post-Taliban government followed, mostly from the U.S., totaling more than 150,000 international troops and nearly seven billion dollars in annual aid at the height in 2011. But the surge failed to quash the Taliban, and the U.S. eventually decided to end its longest modern war.

As of this week, Taliban militants have taken back nearly all the major cities, and contest or control most local districts across the country’s 34 provinces. More than three in four Afghans today are under 25: too young to remember the Taliban’s reign of fear and, especially in urban centers, too accustomed to freedoms to be eager to relinquish them. Some in rural areas see the fundamentalists’ return as inevitable and preferable, but many Afghans shaped by the post-2001 reality are defiant, unwilling to revert to a reactionary and repressive past.

Less than five miles outside Kandahar, the Arghandab River was already a front line months ago. On a clear morning in March, an Afghan Air Force A-29 aircraft wheeled and dive-bombed a mud-brick target on the Taliban-held side, sending a rumble through the valley. The militants responded with erratic rocket fire of the kind that has killed civilians and turned a nearby market into a ghost town.

“Rockets and shells are launched blindly every day,” said Hayatullah, a farmer who like many Afghans uses just one name. He fled his village months earlier with only the clothes on his back and was living in one room with his wife and nine children. Like thousands of displaced families in the south, they were awaiting government aid that hadn’t come. “The fighting has destroyed our homes and crops, and we are not safe here,” he added, flinching at the sound of artillery fire from a former U.S. base now used by the Afghan Army.

In summer, the river valley that gives its name to the surrounding district becomes a dense maze of lush fruit orchards, canals, and earthen walls that gave militants cover to ambush American soldiers here a decade ago. Security later improved, allowing farmers to harvest the grapes and pomegranates for which the valley is famous. But locals said the relative calm was undone by rampant graft, tribal favoritism, and predatory policing that alienated a population bereft of basic services. Twenty-five years ago, discontent with corrupt warlords helped enable the Taliban’s rise to power. Today similar abuse is fueling the group’s resurgence.

A few years ago, “Arghandab was the most secure district in the region,” lamented Shah Mohammad Ahmadi, a former district governor. “The U.S. did what they should have done; there were many good projects here. Unfortunately, some of our corrupted officials have betrayed our country and fed only themselves. When people are not heard by the government, they seek help from others such as the Taliban.”

Haji Adam, a tribal elder on the Taliban-controlled side of the river, said, “For 20 years the whole world came and money poured in, but how did it help us? If the water was in our control … if there was electricity, we would have products instead of war. If the roads were paved, there would not be so much destruction.” Instead, “nothing significant has been built” in Kandahar since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, he asserted. The region’s only large-scale hospital, he noted, was built by the Chinese in the 1970s.

These days, Mirwais Hospital, known as the Chinese hospital, is packed with casualties. A pair of police officers shot on patrol laid on gurneys, dead on arrival. In intensive care, three men recovered from a roadside bomb blast. Down the hall, 16-year-old Lalai was in critical condition from a stray bullet fired in a Taliban-ruled district six hours’ drive away. Relatives brought him to Kandahar after two failed surgeries at a local clinic.

“He’s an orphan,” whispered his uncle. “His parents are gone, and his older brother was killed three months ago.” After a month of care, Lalai was getting worse. Ten days later, he died.

Afghanistan's urban-rural divide has only widened in the past 20 years, and ruling classes ignore it at their peril. Since the late 19th century, “we have had at least a dozen cycles of rural elites who came and captured power in Kabul, became rulers, and then eventually became almost alien to their former bases,” said Tamim Asey, a former deputy minister of defense and founder of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think tank. It’s a “war of two worldviews and systems of values. On one side are people in major cities who are more liberal, moderate, and educated but have grown out of touch with the rural population. On the other are conservative, rural Afghans who feel neglected by a centralized state run by elites.”

For 50 years, Afghanistan has swung from coups to conflicts. In 1973 an Afghan general ousted the king and declared himself president. Five years later, Afghan communists assassinated him and seized power. The Soviet Union invaded the next year to prop up the unpopular communists, sparking a decade-long guerrilla war. The U.S. funneled billions of dollars via Pakistan to anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters from across the Islamic world—including the Saudi jihadist Osama bin Laden—and they eventually forced the Soviets to withdraw. A power-sharing deal failed, and the militants fractured into warring factions. The Taliban emerged in the chaos and seized power in 1996.

The Taliban soon grabbed headlines for ruthlessly enforcing an eye-for-an-eye brand of sharia law, brutally oppressing women and minorities, destroying cultural treasures, and sheltering al Qaeda. After 9/11, the U.S. invaded to root out those behind the attacks, but another, less clearly defined mission took shape. U.S. and NATO leaders hoped economic opportunity and democracy would inoculate the country from becoming a terrorist haven again.

Education, political participation, and the status of women improved, but a deluge of foreign money exacerbated urban-rural fault lines. Aid and military contracts stoked a bubble economy in cities. But most Afghans still scrape by on subsistence agriculture, despite the $144 billion-plus that the U.S. has invested in reconstruction since 2001—far more, even in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it contributed to rebuilding Western Europe after World War II.

Keenly aware of the disparities, Afghanistan’s first elected president, Hamid Karzai, launched ambitious rural development programs. Led by then finance minister Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official who is now the country’s president, the central government directed almost three billion dollars from international donors to self-governed community councils to fund local priorities and loans. Donors spent billions on road construction to connect villages to markets. The oft-repeated mantra justified the investment: Where the road ends, the Taliban begin. (Ironically, better roads have helped militants and opium traders extend their reach too.)

“Access to roads, modern education, health care, electricity—all of that was going to help stabilize the country,” said Richard Boucher, the top U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia from 2006 to 2009. The theory was good, but the implementation, he said, was flawed. “We should have put more effort into training the class of Afghan technocrats, the people who administer programs, who could account for money and could carry out government policies … We were spending a lot of money on ourselves and our contractors, and not so much on the people of Afghanistan.”

Reconstruction and security contracts were controlled by warlords and elites who fed patronage networks along ethnic, tribal, and family lines. According to Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an anti-corruption nonprofit, nearly all major contracts still go to people with close ties to officials. “By now we should have institutions,” says Rahmatullah Amiri, a security analyst from Kandahar. “Instead we have individuals.”

An October 2020 report by the U.S. inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan found that of $63 billion in reconstruction funds reviewed, nearly a third, roughly $19 billion, was “lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.” Some of that money is flaunted in the capital, Kabul, where so-called overnight millionaires shuttle between high-rise towers and fortress compounds in armored Lexus SUVs, trailed by convoys of gunmen. Some made fortunes in new industries after 2001, but untold millions in cash have been whisked away to Dubai by officials and cronies, stashed in bank accounts and luxury condominiums.

A top-down culture of corruption fueled by foreign money has had an exceptionally damaging effect on police. “If a police station needs 15 officers, there are only three; the rest of the money is stolen,” said Ahmadi, the former district governor in Kandahar Province.

Poorly equipped, police also are widely loathed for shaking down people to make up for unpaid salaries and scarce supplies. “The Taliban don’t provide any services, and they don’t build houses or clinics, but they do not steal,” asserted Abdullah Jan, an unemployed farmer who fled Arghandab, echoing a common refrain among rural Afghans.

Armed with the right connections, Mahmood Karzai left behind a string of Afghan restaurants in the U.S. and returned home to stake his claim to the post-2001 construction boom. An older brother of then President Hamid Karzai, he became the driving force behind Ayno Maina, one of Afghanistan’s most successful private developments.

“I always took the risk. If I had a million, I’d gamble it in Las Vegas,” said Mahmood, holding court beneath a crystal chandelier in his Italianate headquarters in the heart of the complex. An oil portrait of another Karzai brother, Ahmed Wali, hung by the door. Until his 2011 assassination, Ahmed Wali was head of Kandahar’s provincial council, the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan and a symbol of a flawed U.S. mission. He was a businessman and political enforcer, allegedly on the CIA’s payroll, believed to have used his position and ties to cover drug trafficking and money laundering on a grand scale.

Mahmood’s rise likewise was shadowed by allegations of foul play, notably a 2010 scandal at Kabul Bank, then the country’s largest private bank, in which he was the third largest shareholder. Rumors the bank was failing sparked a run that nearly caused its collapse. An independent investigation found about $900 million had been stolen from the bank, 8 percent of the country’s $12 billion GDP at the time. A U.S. grand jury investigated Mahmood over allegations of racketeering and tax evasion on a property sale in Dubai but never charged him.

Mahmood dismissed the allegations as smears by Karzai family enemies, but he acknowledged his proximity to power helped him. When his brother was president, the governor of Kandahar deeded him the land for Ayno Maina. Mahmood said he started with $50,000 of his own savings and secured a three-million-dollar loan from a U.S. government agency.

“Wealth came and was consumed by a few, and I’m one of them,” he said unapologetically. “Unfortunately, most Afghans did not get their proper share. We paid too much attention to urban development and forgot rural areas. And rural areas, they have the guns.”

Last year President Ghani named Mahmood minister of urban and rural development. He vowed to make homeownership more accessible to an urban population growing rapidly because of a high birth rate and grim economic prospects and insecurity in rural areas. Mahmood had been expanding affordable housing at Ayno Maina and breaking ground on a bigger project in Kabul: a 12,500-acre, government-funded development featuring U.S.-style residential communities.

“The demand is unbelievable,” he said, with the zeal of a salesman. “If I sell everything, I will be so rich.” Even so, he admitted, “I’m not sure about the future of the country.” When the U.S. leaves, he expects the Taliban “will take the country by force.” If civil war breaks out, he said, he will leave. “I don’t want to be killed.”

Seated in the lounge of the five-star Serena Hotel in Kabul a few months ago, Raihana Azad, 38, exuded the swagger of the capital’s moneyed elite. A member of parliament since 2010, she wore a svelte black business suit without a headscarf, and spoke in a rapid-fire patter that fills the room.

An ethnic Hazara born in a hardscrabble pocket of Daykundi Province, she bore two children after an arranged marriage at 13. The story could have ended there, as it has for countless Afghan women, but Azad stayed in school, got a job with the UN promoting girls’ education, and made it to Kabul, where she earned a law degree. She used her education to break taboos, suing for a divorce that made her an outcast in her own family. She ran for parliament and was elected to back-to-back terms, despite making no secret of her atheism or divorce. “People do not care about my personal life because I work for them and always tell them the truth,” she says with a shrug.

Azad’s brazen style has made her enemies. She survived a suicide bombing and an assassination attempt on a post-campaign trip to the countryside. Death threats forced her to move her children abroad, change locations frequently, and travel in a bulletproof vehicle. “I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “I fight on so that our next generations are not as miserable as we were.”

Her driver navigated a maze of concrete blast walls and checkpoints en route to parliament, where Azad has come for a floor vote to support a female colleague. Women now make up 27 percent of the body, a share similar to that in the U.S., thanks in part to quotas built into the post-Taliban constitution. An independent who refuses to ally with strongmen, Azad has struggled to channel resources to her constituents in Daykundi, most of whom are minority ethnic Hazara in an isolated region that lacks infrastructure. The government and foreign donors “only focus on insecure areas,” she said. “We are an exemplary province, and we have been forgotten.”

About 250 miles west of Kabul, Daykundi is cut off from trade and travel three months a year because roads become impassable in winter. When weather is good, it still takes two days or more to reach the capital by car, on an abominable dirt road prowled by bandits and Taliban. There’s a small airport used mainly by the military; the only alternative, for the well-connected, is UN aid helicopters that climb past snowcapped peaks and settlements that look as if they’ve been carved from rock.

Daykundi has been one of the most peaceful, education-minded parts of Afghanistan, largely populated by Hazara, Shiite Muslims who were persecuted as heretics by the Taliban. Hazara culture tends to be more progressive; boys and girls typically study together, English is widely spoken, and women are involved in agriculture, run businesses, and drive. Hazara students often perform at the top of the national university entrance exam, even when some must take tests outside, squatting in the snow.

“Education is everything here,” said Rahmatullah Sultani, a former shepherd who attended a university and teaches English at a U.S.-funded learning center in Nili, the provincial capital. “It means freedom,” he added, “the ability to think for yourself and choose your own path.”

Every morning, Nazanin Mohammadi, a fresh-faced 22-year-old, walks four miles from her shared apartment to the university campus. Her home village, 10 hours away by car, has no electricity or running water. Nearly all of her friends married as teenagers, but Mohammadi stuck with school, inspired by her hero in parliament, Azad. Her goal is to earn a master’s in rural development and a job with the Ministry of Agriculture in Kabul, before coming back to help modernize farming techniques. That may no longer be possible, given the Taliban’s advance toward the capital.

Rugged, remote geography is partly to blame for underdevelopment in the highlands, but it hasn’t insulated the Hazara from attacks on religious and ethnic minorities by the Taliban and ISIS, another group of Sunni extremists. With peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban stalled, ethnic militias—including Hazara fighters—have begun reassembling ahead of what many see coming: a return to civil war. Since the U.S. confirmed its troop withdrawal, the Taliban have overrun more than half the 34 provincial capitals.

Boucher, the former U.S. diplomat, is among many in Washington who believed it was time to end a directionless war that cost two trillion dollars in U.S. taxpayer money—as well as the lives of more than 170,000 Afghan civilians, soldiers, police, and opposition fighters; American and NATO troops and contractors; and journalists and aid workers, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

“We’ve been there for two decades, and we don’t have an Afghan government that can protect itself and provide security,” Boucher said.

“The world lost a great chance over the last 20 years and won’t be able to fix it in another 40,” said Amiri, the analyst. “The Taliban are coming, whether we like it or not.” Afghan Army forces are struggling to slow Taliban advances with less U.S. air support, and fatigue and desertions are depleting the ranks.

At a lone police outpost in Panjwai district, a half hour’s drive west of Kandahar, the Taliban’s white flags were visible in the near distance a few months ago. Unkempt and groggy from little sleep, police officer Abdul Ghafoor said enemy snipers armed with U.S. weapons and night vision binoculars, likely confiscated from Afghan troops, were staging attacks after dark and seeding roads with bombs. The ground at his feet was strewn with bullet casings, expired U.S. body armor, and IV bags discarded after a recent attack that critically injured three of his comrades.

Ghafoor, 22, wanted to study medicine. But slim prospects in his home province of Kapisa and a patriotic streak compelled him to enlist for a paltry monthly salary of 13,000 afghanis, or $165. Engaged to be married, he had to delay the wedding because he hadn’t been paid in six months. “Our salaries disappear in the system,” he said, sighing. “But it’s getting worse here, and we have to defend the nation,” as long as “we are alive and blood runs through our body.”

His district has since been overrun by the Taliban.

Three hundred miles away, on a backstreet of one of Kabul’s fancier neighborhoods, Nilofar Ayoubi celebrated the opening of her women’s boutique with balloons and TV cameras: a bold move considering militants and criminals are targeting prominent women. Ayoubi has received death threats and was carjacked in broad daylight but she has refused so far to abandon the relative freedom she’s found in Kabul. “I really don’t see myself anywhere else,” she said.

A Pashtun from the northern city of Kunduz, Ayoubi, 26, recalled her mother being beaten under the Taliban for shopping without a male relative. Now she owns a boutique for modern women who shop unaccompanied. “You have to keep going,” she said.

Even as the Taliban have unseated the Afghan government and taken the country by force, they “cannot rule this new Afghanistan through the barrel of a gun,” asserted Asey, the former defense official. “This freedom-seeking, liberal, and tolerant generation will be the torchbearer of a new Afghanistan post-U.S. withdrawal, and they will not tolerate their mothers and sisters being flogged in front of them, or people hanging in the streets.”

Raihana Azad was less sure. She’s deeply disappointed Washington cut a deal with the Taliban without protections for women and minorities. When we first met, she told me Afghans would stand up to the Taliban. She grew cynical after the U.S. announced a full withdrawal. With two years left in her term, she too was thinking of leaving Afghanistan.

Jason Motlagh is a writer and filmmaker who has covered the war in Afghanistan since 2006. Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian-Canadian photographer, has worked in Afghanistan since 2013.

This story originally published on August 13, 2021. It has been updated to reflect recent events.

A version of this story appears in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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