I was on my way to the mountains of Nuristan in eastern Afghanistan when, on 8 August, the Taliban accelerated their offensive that would, a mere week later, sweep them into the presidential palace in Kabul. During the four days I spent in the mountains, the Taliban captured 10 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals in addition to the two they had already taken over on 6 and 7 August.
This happened often without a fight, resembling the fall of districts that took place in a first wave of Taliban advances between May and July. Footage on TV channels on 11 August showed police and army vehicles leaving the northern towns of Fayzabad and Pul-i Khumri in the darkness of night, only illuminated by ghostly headlights. The Nuristanis who hosted me and followed this news on TV had come to an arrangement with the Taliban. They had only recently overtaken the last tiny islands of government control in their remote home districts of Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal, but the Nuristanis were not jubilant. They were quiet. And concerned. It looked bad for the Afghan republic. The Nuristanis and a taxi driver in Kunar began to refer to the situation as an “enqelob” – revolution – a term that I hadn’t heard Afghans use before.
On my way back to Kabul, I spent a night in Asadabad, the then government-held provincial capital of Kunar. When night fell, machine-gun fire rang out. “Nothing to worry about. The Taliban just shoot at the outposts as they do every night,” locals reassured me. The next morning, on 13 August, just when it got light after morning prayers, the shooting resumed, this time more intensely. “This is also normal,” the residents said again. However, with one after the other provincial capital falling – some without much, if any, warning – I deemed it better to leave.
After an uneventful drive, I reached Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, the most important province in eastern Afghanistan. Jalalabad was as always: bustling and stifling hot. The streets were crowded with cars and the much more numerous rickshaws. The place from where shared cabs and buses leave to Kabul was as busy as ever, with drivers fighting over passengers like vultures over carcasses. The thought went through my head: “Business as usual, so at least this part of the country won’t fall immediately.”
Arriving in Kabul a few hours later, any sense of normality did not last long. The next day, on 14 August, Asadabad fell to the Taliban, apparently with less fighting than I witnessed the day before. On the same day, the Taliban took over the northern hub of Mazar-i Sharif – notably, after Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, traditional anti-Taliban powerbrokers in northern Afghanistan, had vowed to fight until the end. Nonetheless, when the then Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, addressed the nation on the same day, he did not offer a resignation or some plea for negotiations. He defiantly announced to defend Kabul.
This announcement was detached from reality. On 15 August, Jalalabad surrendered without a shot being fired. Kabul was effectively surrounded, hard, if at all possible, to defend. Ghani’s assurances that the capital would make a stand evaporated. Government forces melted away and by night the Taliban had entered the presidential palace. Ghani and other high ranking officers had fled the country. While significant Taliban advances had been expected, the practical full takeover – and particularly its speed – stunned residents of Kabul as the fall of numerous provincial capitals had stunned Afghans only days before. It was arguably a mix of various reasons that caused the collapse: supply issues, poor leadership and strategy and, last but not least, low morale spiralling out of control.
Reactions on the next morning varied. Some Afghans, fearing that the Taliban might clamp down and take revenge on people linked to the overthrown government or international military forces, frantically rushed to Kabul’s airport, hoping to get on flights out. “They are going to kill us,” many said, expressing fears that were arguably often exaggerated. The mass of people immediately overwhelmed the airport, also because the procedure of how to get them on evacuation flights was, and still is, improvised and flawed.
However, many more, like the Nuristanis in Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal, decided to stay, or resigned themselves to the fact that they had no reasonable way out of the country. Some continued their lives without any interruption, for example opening their shops despite the Taliban takeover. Most stayed in their houses to wait to see how the change in power would play out. With government troops not having put up any notable fight and the Taliban keen to display themselves as a responsible force and not the barbaric butchers they are often portrayed to be, the situation in the city remained surprisingly quiet. Members of the Talib manning checkpoints in the city interacted little, if at all, with civilians, letting them pass mostly unharassed.
“I am happy that the Taliban are here,” an elderly woman selling snacks at the roadside told me. “All is peaceful and they leave regular people alone.” Others echoed similar sentiments. However, the atmosphere felt subdued and hushed, as if many residents, wary of whether the relative peace would last, were holding their breath to see how the Taliban will actually govern and how this will affect their lives. Then reports about Taliban atrocities began to surface. Often they were vague and unverified but sometimes they were credible, raising spectres from a darker past. Numerous people who seemed unperturbed at first would later ask me privately whether I could help to get them a visa.
Apart from some vague general statements, the Taliban have still not explained the path forward that they envision. As a result, the same situation persists: the old system has been overthrown with people wondering – or fearing – what the future might bring.