Twenty years since the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban have once again seized power of the country. In the months leading up to the fall of the nation’s capital, National Geographic photographer Kiana Hayeri and writer Jason Motlagh heard the stories of young Afghans struggling for a better future.
PETER GWIN (CO-HOST): Twenty years ago, the United States went into Afghanistan to pursue Osama bin Laden. Now U.S. forces are withdrawing and the hard-line Islamist Taliban regime has once again seized control of the country.
Several months ago, National Geographic sent a team to report on life in Afghanistan, a country that’s experienced two decades of war and extensive multinational efforts to build a Western-style democracy.
But now, the elected Afghan president has fled the country and the Taliban are back in charge.
To help us tell this story, we’re joined by Senior Executive Editor Indira Lakshmanan, who first reported from Afghanistan in 2001 and who edited our special package for the September issue of National Geographic.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN (CO-HOST): Thanks, Peter.
I’m Indira Lakshmanan, and this is Overheard at National Geographic.
Two trillion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money and 170,000 mostly Afghan lives have gone to fighting the longest war in modern U.S. history. The original goal was to hunt down the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks. In time, the aim evolved into helping Afghans build a more modern, inclusive, and democratic society. Now, 20 years later, the Taliban have seized power again with lightning speed as the U.S. pulled its last troops out.
Left behind are 38 million Afghans. Western-trained police, soldiers, aid workers, community organizers. Female business owners and politicians. Girls and boys attending public schools. Young people who never lived under the Taliban’s oppressive rules.
I’d like to tell you their stories.
More after this.
LAKSHMANAN: I’d like to take you back just a few months to a modern gated community, a residential and shopping complex near the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second biggest city.
(Sound of café)
LAKSHMANAN: It’s late at night at Cafe Delight. The music is loud, and spirits are high. Young professionals are gurgling tobacco smoke through hookahs.
KIANA HAYERI (PHOTOGRAPHER): This is a café, so it's not a bar. You only get coffee and juices and cakes served to you. The lighting definitely really stood out because it's very colorful. It looks like a disco club to me.
LAKSHMANAN: National Geographic photographer Kiana Hayeri, who has lived in Afghanistan for six years, described the purple mood lighting, the upscale lounge vibe, and something else a bit more surprising…
HAYERI: The most interesting part was there was a TV installed in the café that was playing video music—the ones that involve dancing and bare skin.
LAKSHMANAN: So why would music videos at a nightclub be shocking? Well, context is everything. Kandahar, in the socially conservative south of the country, was the birthplace of the Taliban.
HAYERI: In the ’90s, during Taliban ruling, TV was banned, music was banned, capturing in any form film or photography was banned. And here we are in Kandahar, where used to be the capital of the Taliban back in ’90s. There is a music video on TV in a café playing Indian music.
LAKSHMANAN: Even all these years later, under a more liberal government, not everything goes. The bare midriffs of the Bollywood dancers were blurred by channel censors. And while female patrons weren’t banned, only a few women have ever come to the café. But the contrast with the past is still astonishing. When the Taliban were in power 20 years ago, a place like this would have been unimaginable. I know, because I was there.
Everyone has a 9/11 story. If you’re old enough to remember that day, it was like the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing for an earlier generation. You remember where you were when the twin towers came down.
This episode isn’t about that day, but I’d like to tell you my 9/11 story because it gives some helpful context for understanding Afghanistan today.
I was almost on American Airlines flight 11, the fateful first plane that was hijacked into the World Trade Center. But I changed my flight in the last minute to return a day earlier to Asia, where I was the correspondent for a large U.S. newspaper. I had just landed at Hong Kong airport when that first plane crashed into the north tower of the trade center. U.S. intelligence swiftly concluded that al Qaeda was behind the attacks, and that night I packed my bags for Pakistan, the closest entry point to Afghanistan.
In December 2001, I was in the first convoy of reporters to reach Kandahar the day after the Taliban regime was ousted from its final stronghold. We walked through the bombed-out remains of al Qaeda’s most infamous training camp, Lewa Sarhadi, stepping gingerly to avoid land mines, and sifting through abandoned composition books with notes on how to ambush a target or how to make bombs from fertilizer and fuel oil. We sent stories home on satellite phones about Afghans celebrating the end of a dark era of harsh repression, of public stonings and hangings of those who dared to disobey the Taliban.
It took two months for the U.S. and Afghan militias to unseat the fundamentalist Islamists who had harbored Osama bin Laden while he plotted the September 11 attacks on the U.S.
I spent the next year and a half reporting on the changes in Afghanistan. I made it back a few times over the next dozen years and was astonished at how much had changed...and what hadn’t.
To get a closer look at what life was like a few months ago, we sent Jason Motlagh, a correspondent who’s made many trips to Afghanistan over the last 15 years. He decided to focus on the chasm between urban and rural Afghanistan, and between older Afghans who lived through the repressive Taliban era and a younger generation that came of age after 9/11.
JASON MOTLAGH (REPORTER): My name is Jason Motlagh. I'm a freelance journalist and filmmaker. I’ve reported from more than 60 countries around the world primarily on conflicts and human rights issues. But my focus has been Afghanistan throughout.
LAKSHMANAN: Now’s probably a good time to review some history.
Afghanistan has been mired in nonstop conflict for 40 years, since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to prop up a communist government.
Pakistan and the U.S. backed a guerrilla campaign by anti-communist mujahideen—including Osama bin Laden himself—who after 10 years prevailed, and the Soviets withdrew. A power struggle among the victorious fighters devolved into civil war, chaos that paved the way for the rise of the Taliban.
MOTLAGH: The initial core of the Taliban were former mujahideen, Afghan holy warriors, who had, you know, with U.S. and Pakistan support, fought against the Soviets and kicked them out of the country. And so the Taliban was able to take over almost 90 percent of the country and ruled from ’96 to 2001.
LAKSHMANAN: The word “taliban” means students—as in students of Islam.
The militant Sunni group adheres to a fundamentalist, eye-for-an-eye interpretation of the Quran.
When they ran the country for five years, they banned television, cinema, music, and other pastimes they considered sinful. They forced men to grow out their beards and required women to cover themselves from head to toe in sacklike burkas and forbade them from studying, working, or even leaving the house without a male relative.
They were also sheltering Osama bin Laden and allowing al Qaeda to use the country as a training ground and launchpad for foreign terrorist operations.
After the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban, President George W. Bush declared the mission a success and touted the nation’s new beginning:
BUSH: In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban, many terrorists, and the camps where they trained.
LAKSHMANAN: That was true, but the terrorists who weren’t killed went into hiding. When I left Afghanistan that year, it was still violent and unstable, but change was in the air. Girls were back in school, women shed their burkas in cities and returned to the workplace. Some even joined newly created police and military units.
Over the next year, the Afghan government ratified a new constitution and held a democratic election for president. Foreign aid increased access to education and health care and improved roads and infrastructure. Over the next two decades, the U.S. and its allies poured hundreds of thousands of additional troops and trillions of dollars into Afghanistan to give the new government a fighting chance.
But by the time Jason got to Afghanistan, the Taliban had begun to regroup, and security had deteriorated.
MOTLAGH: When I arrived in 2006, the Taliban was already coming back. Attacks, suicide bombings had multiplied, I think, by a factor of four compared to the previous year. And I experienced one just several days into my arrival. I remember just being rocked out of bed by an explosion and ran out in the street and, you know, the usual chaos, glass, and debris. And it was jarring. It was like, well, this is—this is very real. And it was a sign of things to come. And so, you know, you could sense that things were starting to—to unravel at that point.
LAKSHMANAN: So what do you reckon went wrong?
MOTLAGH: It’s a very complicated answer, and you know, books could be written on that and a lot of different theories swirling down, but I think the bottom line is that for all the money spent and the effort made, we were never able to get people to really buy into the idea of a functioning central government that could deliver services and rule of law for all Afghans.
LAKSHMANAN: Jason explained that the country was dependent on foreign aid. And that money was concentrated in the hands of international contractors and a well-connected Afghan elite. Because of mismanagement and corruption, the benefits rarely reached ordinary people.
MOTLAGH: The money is flaunted all around Kabul. You'll see high-rise towers, and these caravans of bulletproof vehicles, they careen around town like they own the place, you know, 10, 15 deep. Luxury condominiums and other properties in places like Dubai, where tens of millions of dollars have been siphoned away and laundered in property and is hiding in banks.
LAKSHMANAN: One of the people Jason met was Mahmood Karzai, a brother of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who moved back to Afghanistan from America after his brother took office and became a wildly successful real estate developer.
MOTLAGH: So Mahmood Karzai, who built Ayno Maina, this luxury development enclave outside of Kandahar, and you go in, and there are sculptures and oil paintings and marble floors and brass fixtures in the bathrooms. So it's very fancy. And you could, you could be almost anywhere. Once you're in the belly of this place, it's hard to remember that, you know, just outside there's a war going on.
LAKSHMANAN: For a few well-connected people like Mahmood Karzai, foreign aid has been very lucrative. He had access to millions of dollars in international loans.
MOTLAGH: You know, he is very emblematic of this class—some call them overnight millionaires—of well-connected Afghans who were able to take advantage of their ties and networks and almost exclusively gain access to the billions in aid and reconstruction dollars and security contracts that have been coming into the country to get rich at a time that the lives of most Afghans have not improved substantially.
LAKSHMANAN: Out in the countryside, it can be hard to perceive the impact of foreign aid. Ordinary people’s homes are a world apart from the luxury developments of Mahmood Karzai.
MOTLAGH: People in these areas are living in the most basic conditions. These are mud-brick homes that they've built themselves. So, very, very rudimentary. You could be living 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. You know, if not for the cell phone that almost every Afghan now has, there's really nothing to give away that we're living in a modern world.
LAKSHMANAN: Meanwhile, wealthy urbanites had another advantage over the rest of Afghanistan: passports and the resources to leave. Many have moved to other countries, taking their windfalls with them.
MOTLAGH: So much of that money that was meant to improve the state of the country and the services and trickle down to people, you know, it's just not hit the ground. It's been taken out of Afghanistan.
LAKSHMANAN: On a mountain ridge in northeast Afghanistan, Kiana and Jason visited what was at the time a front line between pro-government forces and the Taliban.
HAYERI: And one of the checkpoint we went to, we met two commanders. But one of the commander—we learned at the time that his son was caught planting a bomb on the same path that the father and other comrades would have taken every day to go from the village and back.
LAKSHMANAN: This commander’s son, you see, had joined the Taliban. He was arrested for planting the bomb, and his father refused to sign papers for his release.
HAYERI: So this is how I learned about Samiullah, who is 16, and we went back and tracked him down in a juvenile rehabilitation center back in Faizabad. While I was in the prison, I interviewed two teenagers. One of them was Samiullah. The other one was a little boy, Mohammad Youssef. He was 14 from the Yaftal district, and he also had been charged with political charges for having joined Taliban.
LAKSHMANAN: A 14-year-old and a 16-year-old, detained for joining the armed insurgency. Kiana wanted to know how they saw their future.
HAYERI: I keep challenging them: “How do you see yourself? Where are you going to be in 10 years?” And then eventually Mohammad Youssef shrugged and said, “I don't know. I'll probably be dead.” And that really hit me hard. To this day that has stayed with me, that we're living in a society where there is so little stability, death and loss is such a constant part of your daily life— you're constantly losing friends, loved ones, colleagues—that most young people cannot imagine themselves in five or 10 years of time. And when you push them hard, one of them responds, “I’ll probably be dead.”
LAKSHMANAN: Kiana and Jason saw a clear divide between urban and rural youth. Whereas young people in the countryside mostly saw themselves fighting or victimized by one side or the other, youth in urban areas had more options and dreams.
HAYERI: In Kabul, one of the places that I visited was Afghanistan National Institute of Music, and I think it's one of the greatest example of what was done right in the past 20 years.
LAKSHMANAN: Kiana got to know a teenage music student.
HAYERI: Her name is Sumbul. She's 17, and she plays the violin. She's this beautiful, beautiful, confident woman. And she's so good at what she does.
LAKSHMANAN: Sumbul is from rural Nuristan Province. Her older sister started studying music first... with serious consequences for the family. Their father, a telecoms engineer, supported his daughter’s music education, but he faced constant threats from the Taliban.
HAYERI: So Sumbul’s father, he’s still back in Nuristan. And he was kidnapped three times by Taliban to be forced to take his daughter out of music school.
LAKSHMANAN: Each time, local elders paid a ransom to free him.
HAYERI: And her father kept joking, like, “I hope you don't follow the path your sister did.” So she hid it from her father for two years.
LAKSHMANAN: He found out when Sumbul appeared on national television, playing in an orchestra in Kabul. Kiana explained that when the sisters came home to visit their parents, they had to cloak themselves in chadors, large shawls or burkas, to obscure their identities.
HAYERI: They do go back once in a while, very rarely. But they put on chadri, they go and they stay inside the house, and the relatives know that they're back. They come for a visit, but they rarely leave the house. And then coming back to Kabul, they again put on the chadri, the burka, and they drive back to Kabul.
LAKSHMANAN: In another part of the capital, our team met 26-year-old Nilofar Ayoubi, a prominent female entrepreneur who grew up in the northern city of Kunduz.
HAYERI: Nilofar has got a very interesting story. Both of her parents were teachers, and her father actually dressed her up as a boy up until a certain age.
LAKSHMANAN: In the Taliban era, it was not uncommon for parents to disguise girls as boys to enable them to attend school and get around the other restrictions on females.
NILOFAR AYOUBI (ENTREPRENEUR): So I have been raised like a boy because my father wanted me to experience everything—in society. And it wasn't possible, being a girl. So I was a boy for 13 years. And then after that, I couldn't be a normal girl.
HAYERI: Little girls dressed up as a boy, they call them bacha posh. “Bacha” means boy, “posh” means clothes. So these bacha posh: Now you meet them, and you can see how that period of life has impacted their personality and the paths that they've taken in life.
LAKSHMANAN: In other words, some of them are more bold or may walk more like a young man or may have the confidence that comes with not, you know, with being bold on the street the way that young boys could be in that time.
HAYERI: Exactly, exactly.
LAKSHMANAN: As Nilofar approached her 13th birthday, it became impossible to continue pretending to be a boy. She told Jason that the process of transitioning to life as a girl was incredibly painful. So painful that her parents felt they had to send her to Kabul to live with relatives and get a fresh start.
MOTLAGH: So if you had not left Kunduz, where do you think you would be right now? What would your life be like?
AYOUBI: Maybe dead?
AYOUBI: Because I seriously couldn't stand the situation where I was. When I left, I was at the edge of my life. I was almost suicidal. That's why my father decided to send me off.
LAKSHMANAN: Today, Nilofar owns several businesses, including a boutique for designer clothes that are hard to find in Afghanistan.
A store run by a woman where other women could come by themselves to buy fancy clothes and jewelry? Well, it would have been unthinkable under Taliban rule. And it’s just one example of the kinds of small freedoms that she and other urban Afghans who grew up in the last 20 years have become accustomed to.
HAYERI: If you come to the larger cities like Kabul, like Herat, like Mazar, there is this scene of young people who are go on with their lives, very much like other young people. So they go to cafés, they go to libraries, they go to university. They hang out.
LAKSHMANAN: On the surface, it seems like a more carefree life, but at any moment, violence can disrupt that apparent normalcy.
HAYERI: Young people carry notes in their pockets with their names, their phone numbers, their blood types, and an emergency contact. And they would have several of those notes planted in their pocket, in their wallet, in their backpacks, in case if they're caught in a suicide bombing, somebody can identify them and let their families know.
LAKSHMANAN: Oh, that is just heartbreaking. It's like soldiers having to wear dog tags to identify themselves if they're killed in battle. And the idea of young people having paper dog tags in all their pockets in case they're blown up, it's horrible.
HAYERI: This is something that I hear more and more every day where my Afghan friends, Afghan colleagues, every day they leave their house, they say goodbye, thinking that they may not come back the next day.
LAKSHMANAN: After the White House confirmed it would pull out its last troops after 20 years, the Taliban began slowly and surely extending their tentacles across the countryside, inexorably closing in on cities, squeezing government forces back from front lines.
In fact, it took the resurgent Taliban just two days from overrunning Kandahar and a string of other cities to seize the capital, Kabul. On August 15, 2021, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, fled the country. And just like that, the Taliban are once again in charge.
Kiana was in Kabul that day chronicling the chaos, photographing desperate Afghans trying to pull their money out of a bank, when she heard the Taliban were coming. She was evacuated to a U.S. military base in Qatar that night, where we caught up with her on the phone.
HAYERI: We knew we had to leave, that it was just a matter of time, right? And I should have thought ahead of time and packed, but I didn't. Then I told my driver, Let's go back quickly. So we hopped in the car. As we're driving back, I noticed on my street people were ripping photos of women off the beauty salons, and that scene really shook me.
LAKSHMANAN: When she got back to her apartment block, there was panic.
HAYERI: Everyone's running from one unit to another. They're packing, they're putting—like I saw my neighbor, we both started crying, and she said, Did you hear? They’re in the city; they're moving forward. I go upstairs. I got a phone call from the New York Times. They told me I have 20 minutes to pack and leave to the airport. Which was very, very, very difficult. And yeah, so I packed. I packed, and by the time I was going down the stairs, my apartment building was empty.
LAKSHMANAN: After calling Kabul her home for six years, she doesn’t know if she can ever return.
HAYERI: You know, today my—we have somebody who is very dear to us who helps out with the housework. And she called me today from the apartment and said that she's gone. She's done my laundry, and she's cleaning the house for our return. And she asked permission if she can take the food items that will perish in a month. And I had to explain: I think you need to take everything because I don't know when we're going to be back. But I do hope that we're going to be back at some point... Let's hope ... yeah.
LAKSHMANAN: Jason and Kiana’s full story can be found in the September issue of National Geographic. In addition to photos and stories of the people they met, there are detailed maps and graphics showing how Afghanistan has changed over time.
We’ve included a link to the story in our show notes, where you can find other articles about the history and culture of Afghanistan, including the bacha posh [BATCHA PUSCH], women like Nilofar who were raised as boys.
You can also read about one of National Geographic's most famous cover photos ever, known as the Afghan girl. When photographer Steve McCurrry made a photograph of Sharbat Gula in 1985, her identity was unknown to the world. She soon became the face of Afghan refugees.
All this and more can be found in our show notes. Look for them in your podcast app.
And while you’re there, please consider leaving a review. It really helps other listeners find us.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Marcy Thompson, Ilana Strauss, Laura Sim, and Jacob Pinter.
Our senior producer is Carla Wills.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our executive producer is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers for this episode are Heidi Schultz and Robin Palmer.
Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.
This episode was sound designed and engineered by Ramtin Arablouei.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I’m your host, Senior Executive Editor Indira Lakshmanan. Thank you for listening. See you all next time.
Read Jason and Kiana’s full article about the people of Afghanistan, just a few months before the Taliban takeover.
After her evacuation from Kabul, Kiana sat down with us for an extended interview.
Learn more about the life of Sharbat Gula, the famed “Afghan girl,” whose portrait became National Geographic’s most famous cover photo ever.
In Afghanistan, girls are sometimes dressed as boys to avoid the stigma and restrictions of being a girl. But for many of these bacha posh, going back to life as a female is difficult.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.