Mullah Naqibullah, a slim, young Taliban fighter, tossed a shawl over his shoulder and adjusted his rifle. He walked from under a mulberry tree to the courtyard of a small mud-brick mosque in Sangesar, a small village in the southern province of Kandahar, Afghanistan, and went inside.
He stood a few inches from a microphone wrapped in colorful cloth to keep dust out, and in a mock verse he called on the faithful to pray.
It was here that in 1994 Mullah Muhammad Omar founded the Taliban movement. The group continued to capture Kabul in September 1996 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which established a narrow definition of Islamic jurisprudence that forbidden women and girls go to work and school. Omar’s decision to provide a safe haven to Al Qaeda ultimately led to the collapse of his government after the September 11 attacks. But the Taliban never go far.
I first went to Afghanistan in 2009 to document the war. At the time, the United States was in a brutal conflict against the Taliban, who had staged a formidable insurgency to regain control of the country.
Besides the war, the US is trying to help form a government in Kabul while the US military is trying to build an Afghan Army in its own image.
But for Afghans, this is just another chapter of foreign intervention in the country’s long history of struggle, including colonialism, tribalism, monarchism, communism property and strict Islamic law. Americans didn’t realize how fragile the system they had created was until it all fell apart.
I went to Afghanistan in July 2021 to document the US withdrawal. When things started to fall apart around me, I stayed. On the morning of August 15, I stood outside the US Embassy and photographed US Chinook helicopters moving to evacuate staff. That afternoon, I was photographing the Taliban fighters as they entered the city.
Before that day, Taliban fighters seemed like ghosts. I rarely see them, but I always feel their presence. It was surreal to watch them roll over explosive walls erected to keep them out and gather under graffiti left behind by the US military.
In May, I returned to see how Afghanistan had operated under Taliban rule. Nine months after their stunning victory and takeover, they are still struggling to transition into a political, ruling force.
I found a country that continues to lack a functioning economy. Crowds of women were waiting outside the bakery to be distributed. Men who used to work in offices now have to sell vegetables at the market or at street vendors so they can buy some food to take home. Merchants have seen their customers dwindle as prices soar.
In the countryside, where the fiercest fighting has taken place, Taliban fighters now haunt former US-occupied military installations. They marvel at the luxuries their rivals enjoy as they spend years sleeping in the mountains, evading American drones.
The Taliban are all too aware of the fragility of their control. They champion a brutal style of rule. The same struggle could easily be waged against them.
Mohammad Usman Hamasi is a Taliban commander from the Chak district in nearby Wardak province. During the war, he trained as a suicide bomber but was captured before he could complete his mission. “At that time, I did not have a wife and children. I would 100% want to make such an attack, but God does not want me to be a martyr,” he said.
Mr. Hamasi told me that he was very disappointed by the leadership’s refusal to allow girls to go to school. In fact, many mujahedeen are not satisfied with the closure of schools, he said. “I am here,” he explained, speaking of his hopes for the movement, “so that my sister or daughter can go to school and be educated according to the framework of Islam, Shariah and the hijab. .”
It is Afghan women who are the victims of the Taliban’s return to power. Despite the Taliban’s commitment to defending their rights, they have seen progress dwindling.
Ogai Amil, an educator, journalist and civil society activist, watched the country fall to the Taliban from her small apartment. She hoped things would be different this time. “People think maybe the Taliban has changed and their takeover will be easier, governance will be better, security might be better and the country will be at peace,” she told me. By May, women are instructed cover their faces in public and avoid leaving the house.
She told me that over the past year she had been dealing informally with many Talib officials. “I tell them, ‘I’m not your enemy, but I want you to stop all these restrictions,’ she said. “These are our human rights, given to us by God. Don’t take them away from us”.
Initially, the Taliban assured Afghans that girls of all ages would attend public schools when they reopened last September. But they came back about that promise.
I met two sisters, Basma and Bahara Ahmadi, at their family home in a hillside neighborhood on the edge of Kabul. Uncertainty about the Taliban’s restrictions has shaken them.
Since they could no longer attend high school, they spent their days ardently studying English in the looming room where their family weaved carpets to make ends meet. They hope perfect English will be their ticket to a scholarship that will allow them to study outside of the country.
The rapid collapse of the government built by the West was a milestone in the centuries-long struggle for self-determination thwarted by outside interference. After more than a decade of reporting, I have come to understand that, for many people, Taliban-like malformations occur, for some they are a repetition of the process, not a deviation from it. . Having lived under many regimes, many Afghans wonder how long this regime will last.
It is impossible to know what the future of the country will hold, but the next chapter must be written by the Afghans themselves.
Victor J. Blue is a New York-based photojournalist who covers the legacy of armed conflict, human rights and the protection of civilians.