The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghanistan is not the country the Taliban last ruled. Will that matter?

Khaled Hosseini on the vastly changed cultural landscape the new regime faces

In Kabul on Wednesday, a Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon where the posted images of women have been defaced.
In Kabul on Wednesday, a Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon where the posted images of women have been defaced. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
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And just like that, in a matter of days, the Taliban is back. Its flag flies proudly over major Afghan cities, including my birthplace, Kabul — in stunning contrast to American intelligence assessments saying that the capital would take months to fall. The chaotic events make it hard to trust anything American officials say about Afghanistan. The question is, can anything the Taliban says be trusted?

In interviews since the takeover of Kabul, Taliban leaders have insisted that Afghan citizens have nothing to fear, even as searing images of desperate Afghans chasing airplanes on the tarmac of Kabul’s airport were going viral.

Why are Afghans terrified? Allow me to refresh the memory.

For more than 20 years, the Taliban has systematically terrorized, brutalized, maimed and murdered its own people. It has bombed schools and hospitals. For two decades, it has slaughtered countless fellow Afghans — men, women and children, many of them poor, ordinary villagers. The last time the Taliban ran the country, it chopped hands for petty theft and executed accused adulterers publicly. The regime virtually imprisoned women, denied them proper health care and stole their right to education. It whipped them for daring to show their faces in public and beat them for walking outside without a male companion. It struck men publicly for the inadequate length of a beard. It robbed Afghans of the simple pleasures of life: music, art, dance, even kite fighting. It destroyed priceless historical artifacts. Who could forget the shouts of “Allah u Akbar” as the Taliban fired rockets at the beautiful Buddhas of Bamian, which dated to the 6th century?

Others, too, played their part in the tragedy that is Afghanistan today. Neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, are complicit. Afghan leaders deserve great blame for their greed and corruption, for their inability to deliver services, and most important, for their failure to protect Afghan civilians against attacks from the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Then there are the Americans. The United States shares blame as well — and not merely for the strategic missteps and miscalculations that doomed Operation Enduring Freedom. Remember the terrible 2015 bombing of the Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz that killed 42 people? Or the July 2008 airstrike in Nangahar that killed 47 members of a wedding party — including the bride — and the children who were leading the procession? If the Americans don’t remember, the Afghans do.

But the Americans are gone and the Taliban is back. And the Afghan people are frightened.

He spent his adult life helping U.S. soldiers. Now, he’s desperately fleeing Afghanistan.

Is there a remote possibility that they don’t have to be? Maybe the Taliban has noticed that the country it has conquered in 2021 is not the one it decamped from in 2001 — nor is it the quiet, pre-Soviet-era Afghanistan I grew up in, where women wore short skirts, hippies lounged in teahouses, and you could drive across Kabul in minutes unencumbered by checkpoints or barricades fortified with concertina wire. Still, while the Taliban was busy launching RPGs at police cadets, the country was transforming. Over the last 20 years, Afghanistan formed a robust base of educated urban professionals. Young Afghans, male and female, went to school and learned to code. They became software engineers and programmers. Via social media, they engaged with the outside world on human rights, the environment, and racial and social justice. While the Taliban occupied itself firing at Afghan soldiers, young Afghans learned guitar and drums and formed alt-rock garage bands. They bought millions of cellphones and texted their votes for their favorite performers on “Afghan Star,” the country’s version of “American Idol.” By 2020, more than 9.5 million children were enrolled in school, 39 percent of them girls — compared with only 900,000 in 2001, overwhelmingly boys. Young women entered the workforce to help rebuild a country the Taliban left decimated and bankrupt. Afghan life expectancy rose from 56 in 2001 to 65 in 2021. The mortality rate for children under the age of 5 dropped by 50 percent. Thousands of miles of road were built — hospitals, schools and mosques, too. The Taliban knows them. It bombed many of them.

But perhaps, in these 20 years, the Taliban changed as well. Perhaps it sees the wisdom of inclusive, more moderate methods. After all, it is one thing to conquer a nation but a whole other matter to govern it. In the 1990s, too, the Taliban took control of the struggling country with ease, but it left Afghanistan in 2001 in near-total economic collapse. Today, wouldn’t the know-how and education of young Afghans serve the Taliban well to rebuild civil society and steer the nation toward a more stable and prosperous future? Couldn’t it use the grit of determined young women like education activist Pashtana Durrani, 23, who vows to start an underground school if the Taliban limits teachers? Wouldn’t women like her make for formidable partners? Wouldn’t inviting them to play a meaningful part in rebuilding the country win the Taliban lasting good will at home and eventually even abroad?

Afghans were willing to fight. But we abandoned them on the battlefield.

Maybe the Taliban is not prioritizing those things. But it should — if not for the good of ordinary Afghans, then for its own. Moderation and inclusivity would help secure its place as a credible player in the region and help ensure its durability far more than whips and guns and gallows.

In all likelihood, this is an exercise in wishful thinking. A few days ago, I saw images of “thieves,” faces painted black and nooses around their necks, paraded by the Taliban through the streets of Herat. Those photos might as well have been snapped in 1996. And on Wednesday, the Taliban shot into a small crowd of protesters in Jalalabad and killed three people.

Nevertheless, for the last few days, Taliban leaders have been saying the right things on TV, on occasion even to female Afghan broadcasters. The Taliban claims it has changed. It insists it will honor the essential human rights of Afghans. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid vowed that the regime will respect women’s rights — though, he was careful to qualify, within the norms of sharia law. Still, despite the Taliban’s recent pledges, those people clinging to American military airplanes as they took off clearly didn’t believe them.

The Taliban has a golden chance to prove them wrong. I hope it does. I doubt it will.

Twitter: @khaledhosseini

Read more from Outlook:

America was finally using Biden’s Afghanistan strategy. Then he pulled the plug.

The U.S. is dragging its feet on getting Afghans to safety. There’s a faster way.

Where are the women fleeing Afghanistan?

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