The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fear and anticipation on the streets of Kabul as Afghans adapt to Taliban rule

A Taliban fighter stands guard as acting higher education minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani (not pictured) addresses a gathering on the Taliban's higher-education policies Aug. 29 at the Loya Jirga Hall in Kabul. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — The woman had never seen a Taliban fighter before. An artist and former social media influencer based here in the Afghan capital, she had spent most of her adult life in the city’s liberal circles. Taliban rule felt foreign and frightening.

The city’s swift fall to the militants this month was “terrifying,” she said, and she spent days locked inside her apartment. She feared a knock on the door and a swift death sentence.

When it didn’t come, she ventured downstairs. In place of the guards who ordinarily sat outside her building were Taliban fighters. She froze — but then said hello.

“I was shocked: They were respectful,” she said. They exchanged pleasantries. “It made me think: Maybe these people are not who we thought they were.”

Still, she has yet to leave her apartment building. She has seen reports on television and heard stories from friends and family of arbitrary beatings and extrajudicial executions. She doesn’t know what could await her just a few blocks away.

Taliban leaders are promising peace, order and amnesty in Afghanistan. They promised that last time, too.

Two weeks after the Taliban overran Kabul, seizing control of the capital and the country for the first time in 20 years, Afghans across the capital are bracing for what comes next. For some, each day is now infused with crippling fear. Others say the city is in a state of limbo.

Some Afghans — particularly former government officials and members of the security forces, fearful of Taliban retribution — have been in complete hiding since the Taliban swept across Kabul. One former Afghan special forces officer, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said he has had to change his safe house multiple times after receiving threatening phone calls.

“I don’t know how long I can live like this,” he said Sunday as the realization sunk in that he would not be evacuated from the country like many of his colleagues, and he would have to move again. “The city has become a prison.”

But on the streets, shades of normality are returning as some residents are attempting to return to life as usual — while tiptoeing around their new rulers.

On a recent morning, the owner of an electronics shop collected thick stacks of paperwork as he prepared to confront the Taliban commander who commandeered his family’s home after Kabul’s fall.

“We always heard they were less corrupt than the previous government, that their justice is swift. Now I will see,” said 74-year-old Muhammad Ameen, who was living outside the country the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. He donned a skull cap and scarf, traditional elements of Taliban garb, to prepare for the meeting. “See — now I’m a Talib,” he said, and chuckled.

But when asked about business his mood shifted. Sitting in a tidy shop stocked with flat-screen televisions and modern washing machines, he has hardly sold $20 worth of merchandise since the city fell. The Taliban takeover brought with it a freeze on the country’s financial reserves and a halt in much of the aid that has kept Afghanistan afloat for years. Banks have not fully reopened and people cannot access cash.

“Yes, there are people in the markets,” he said, pointing to pedestrians and traffic outside his door. But now people come into my shop begging to sell their personal belongings, not asking to buy anything.”

The Taliban has retaken control of Afghanistan. Here’s what that looked like last time.

On the edges of Kabul’s old city, fabric shop owners also grumbled about a drop in sales since the Taliban takeover, but many blamed the international community for imposing financial restrictions and largely stopping aid. The only sales that have increased, they say, are of conservative clothing for women.

“Women want to wear darker color abayas now,” said Muhammad Younis, helping out in his family’s shop until he can return to studying Islamic law at a university. The 19-year-old described himself as a conservative Muslim, but said he was also afraid of what a Taliban takeover would mean for Kabul.

“But when they came,” he said, “it wasn’t that bad.”

A handful of fighters visited the shop a few days after he reopened and looked around. “I asked them about the future,” he said, “and they said there is peace now and it will improve day by day as long as the foreigners leave and don’t betray us.”

Younis said he didn’t support the previous government because of crime, corruption and the poor economy, but he isn’t convinced Taliban rule will be better.

“Right now, we are just hearing them talk,” he said. “Only after we see their behavior and their actions can we make a decision about them.”

Across town in the neighborhood of Karte Parwan, Safiullah Nasri said he closed his bookstore the day he heard the Taliban had pushed into Kabul, and didn’t expect to reopen for weeks, if ever. The modern shop stocks materials ranging from religious texts to American and European novels. Koranic volumes are neatly displayed across from a table stacked with copies of “Eat Pray Love.”

Nasri, 30, expected the militants wouldn’t approve of his business. But less than a week into Taliban rule, a commander showed up at the shop and demanded it be reopened.

He ushered his fighters in and "they immediately started looking through” the study guides, he said, and pulled a few examples off the shelves. The fighters were young, and were attending university or preparing to return. “They were mainly interested in books about Islamic political systems and economics.”

“I was so surprised” at the level of education he observed among the small group of fighters in his shop. “I think they know that they need to study these things if they want to have a government.”

In quest for legitimacy and to keep money flowing, Taliban pushes for political deal with rivals

Next door, Zabiullah Qadiri is running one of the few businesses that has seen an improvement in profit since the Taliban took over Kabul: a motorcycle repair shop.

The previous government, unable to control petty theft and the wave of targeted assassinations carried out largely by people on motorcycles, banned the bikes from Kabul’s streets.

“I’m happy about the improved security situation,” said Qadiri, 40. He doesn’t worry about crime the way he did just a few weeks ago. He said corruption, along with the government, appeared to vanish overnight.

“Every time the officials would come to collect my taxes they would always ask me for more money. Now that doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s possible the new system could be better.” But like many others, he hasn’t made up his mind. He’s waiting to see if the militants impose restrictions of the sort they enforced during their rule in the 1990s and how they approach public services such as education.

Taliban leaders say they will announce new laws once a government is formed. The group is in negotiations to reach a power-sharing government with the former Afghan officials who remain in Kabul.

Muhammed Shoaib, 26, works in a trendy barber shop in Kabul’s Chandawal neighborhood. He said he can’t decide how he feels about the Taliban until the group announces its new laws. “We don’t know if we will be able to shave or to wear our hair like this,” he said, referring to the modern, asymmetrical cuts displayed in photographs on the wall behind him.

A photographer in a nearby store expressed the same anxious wait. “We hear they have changed, but we don’t know if they still see our occupation as illegal, as against Islam,” Muhammad Sadiqqi, 47, said in the photography shop established by his grandfather.

During the Taliban rule of the 1990s he was imprisoned and beaten for having a photography studio. The shop was closed for five years; it reopened in 2001 after the United States invaded Afghanistan and took control of Kabul.

“I’m still afraid of them,” Shoaib said, “but we are still a bit hopeful because they haven’t banned television, so maybe they also won’t ban photography.”

Others whose professions were strictly illegal under the Taliban’s previous rule aren’t taking a chance this time around. Among the tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated by the United States were activists, government workers, proponents of women’s rights and members of the security forces.

One women’s rights activist who couldn’t flee the country instead fled her family home and is in hiding with a friend.

Once the Taliban took over, she said, the education and career that once made her proud now make her feel threatened. She’s deactivated her Facebook account and rarely ventures out into the streets. “The few times I have been out,” she said, she’s noticed fewer women on the street, and their clothing has changed.

“The clothes of young girls, which used to be colorful, are now black and long. Everyone tries not to be seen,” she said. “The Taliban have announced amnesties and made moderate promises, but I never trust the Taliban to be honest in their actions,” she said. “I think they are just waiting to be recognized by the international community and then they will implement their strict policies.”

Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.