After the Fall: What Afghanistan Looks Like Since the Taliban Takeover

A Taliban militant at a checkpoint outside the former U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, in October.

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.

Taliban fighters with gear left behind by U.S. forces provide security for a Taliban politician at the Kabul airport in September.

Now I was back in a place I had first started photographing in 2009.

From top: Writing outside the former U.S. embassy in Kabul in September reads “Oh my country, congratulations for your freedom!” Vendors sell Taliban flags outside the Central Bank of Afghanistan. Images of women have been painted over outside many beauty parlors.

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.

A burqa-clad woman sits near a blast wall in an area formerly called Massoud Square in Kabul in September. Named after Ahmed Shah Massoud, who fought against the Taliban up to his assassination on Sept. 9, 2001, the square is awaiting a new name.
From top: The market in Kabul’s old city. Street sellers outside a hospital in central Kabul in September. Families buying and selling silverware and household utensils in Kabul in March. Men arrested by the Taliban are held at the Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul in October. The prison used to hold thousands of Taliban captured by the previous government.

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.

From top: Sheikh Mohammad Khalid, leader of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, speaks at Abdul Rahman Mosque during Friday prayers in Kabul in September. A Taliban member at the mosque in September. Gathering for Friday prayers. After the Taliban took over the capital, it replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the ministry of virtue and vice.

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 kameezand 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.

From top: A woman in front of the former U.S. embassy in Kabul in September. A 7-month-old named Sama was malnourished in March. The hospital in Kabul gave her family therapeutic food packets for home treatments. A doctor sees a malnourished child at the Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul in March. Students at a girls’ high school in Kabul in September. In March, girls were banned from attending classes beyond sixth grade.

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.

A Taliban poster hangs outside a police station in Kabul in October. Many police stations have been taken over by the Taliban, with members now policing each area of the city.

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.

From top: Customers queue in front of a Kabul bank from the early hours of the morning in September. The currency exchange market in Kabul in October. The Mujahideen Bazaar — formerly known as the Bush Bazaar, named after the U.S. president who launched the invasion.

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.

From top: Scenes from a public Taliban flag-raising ceremony.

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.

Men near the Qargha Lake in October. The area outside of Kabul is a popular tourist destination for families on the weekends. The Taliban recently banned men and women from visiting amusement parks on the same day and in some parts of the country from dining out together.
About this story

Lorenzo Tugnoli is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist based in Barcelona. He is a contract photographer for The Post.

Design and development by Frank Hulley-Jones. Editing by Olivier Laurent, Madison Walls and Brandon Ferrill. Copy editing by Jennifer Abella.