As I got off the plane at Kabul’s international airport in September, a group of Taliban fighters was on the tarmac. All of them were wearing Afghan special forces uniforms and carried U.S.-made weapons left behind in the chaos of America’s rushed withdrawal. Six weeks prior, I had left a country run by a Western-backed government, where I had carried out several photography assignments in the past year. So I had missed the Aug. 15 fall of Kabul to the Islamic insurgents.
Now I was back in a place I had first started photographing in 2009.
I had met with the Taliban before.
I had done embeds with the group in 2019 and 2020, when I photographed its commanders and fighters. Their attitude toward foreign journalists, once they were in control of Kabul, was generally friendly and inquisitive. They were happy to have publicity. But their takeover was difficult for me to process. For the losing side, the long years of death, pain and struggle now seemed pointless; the U.S. promises of democracy and civil rights, particularly for women, rang hollow, as the old order and its institutions were quickly swept away.
Some aspects of the urban landscape remained the same.
People had returned to their jobs, and the rush-hour traffic was back to its usual madness — but much was different. Around the city, the symbols of the previous government had been erased. The blast walls of the former American Embassy, once covered with pro-government imagery, were now painted over with the Taliban flag and a new slogan: “Oh my country, congratulations for your freedom!” Around the former so-called Green Zone, which used to be heavily patrolled by security forces and where photography invariably raised scrutiny, nobody minded my camera anymore.
A new atmosphere of stern religiosity permeated Kabul.
Gone were Western-looking clothes, the cleanshaven bureaucrats and hip youngsters in their skinny jeans and cool haircuts. Men now wore traditional clothing — the shalwar kameez — and they were growing beards. Women were seen less often in public since many had lost their jobs, especially in the public sector. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was shut down, and its building now housed the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — the religious police who enforce the Taliban version of sharia law.
The growing poverty also stood out.
With all their possessions scattered on blankets by the roadside, families were attempting to sell their appliances for any cash they could get. Others waited in long lines outside banks to withdraw their savings. In the main currency exchange market, traders counted bundles of Afghan bank notes that were quickly losing value.
Taliban fighters were in every corner of the capital.
They were often accessible to journalists. A Taliban commander recently released from prison was eager to talk to me about his experiences. That said, not all Taliban members were welcoming to foreigners. One afternoon in October, I was wandering in what used to be known as Bush Bazaar, named after the U.S. president who launched the invasion. It is now called Mujahideen Bazaar. I approached a group of fighters busy shopping. Some of them were curious, but their commander asked me in English to leave. They were part of the infamous Haqqani network, a splinter group of the Taliban known for kidnappings and terrorist attacks against U.S. forces. My interpreter and I did as we were told.
The economy kept crashing under the weight of foreign sanctions.
In the months that followed the fall of Kabul, the Taliban struggled to transform from an irregular militia to a functioning government. Hospitals in Kabul and around the country swelled with malnourished children, many of whom were sent home with packets of therapeutic food because of the lack of beds.
But there was no doubt the Taliban had won.
I stayed in Afghanistan through November, then returned twice in 2022. In March, I watched a crowd of Taliban militants climb a hill in the diplomatic enclave in Kabul. In an elaborate ceremony, a 130-foot-wide Taliban flag was raised where the old Afghan republic flag used to fly. As the flag ascended, jubilant militiamen flooded the stage, brandishing their guns and taking pictures with their phones. It was a moment I never thought I would photograph.