PATAN KHEL, Afghanistan — "How beautiful is the spring of freedom!" exclaims elegant Pashto graffiti on a highway stop out of Kabul. The graffiti, in a Taliban stronghold, celebrates their forces' sweep into the Afghan capital in August 2021.
Now, a year later, the Taliban preside over a divided country with a battered economy, where hunger is rampant and human rights are assaulted; a country that aid groups fear has receded in the rearview mirror of the West.
Yet for the Taliban's loyalists and fighters, there is much to celebrate.
"This is freedom. This is real freedom. The invaders are gone, and now we have true Islam," says Ahmed Shah, a 40-year-old Taliban supporter.
After two decades of insurgency, the Taliban exhausted the world's most powerful military and their NATO allies, which agreed to withdraw from the country in a deal signed in February 2020. As Western troops were concluding their withdrawal last summer, the Taliban oversaw the rapid surrender, defeat or co-option of Afghan security forces — forces they saw as aiding a foreign occupation.
Today, the Taliban's particular interpretation of Islamic law is being imposed in fits and starts, largely over women and girls: Most girls cannot attend secondary schools. They may not travel long distances without a male guardian. Women report being hounded out of their jobs. They've been ordered to cover their faces in public, although the rule is only applied to women on television so far.
There are changes perhaps less noticed outside of Afghanistan: Afghans are living in relative security for the first time in decades. Aid groups reach areas that were previously off-limits. Primary-age boys and girls are attending schools in greater numbers, because it is now safe for them to go. "Of course, it's very cynical of the Taliban to say: We brought peace, I was shooting at you and now I stopped shooting at you," retorted a Western official who closely follows the Taliban, and who requested anonymity so he could speak freely.
The Taliban have raised some $2.5 billion through customs revenue and mining. They're shipping so much coal to Pakistan that there's a truck shortage. "They're working on energy and infrastructure projects in a way that looks like it's moving better and faster than under the Republic," said the Western official, referring to the former Afghan government.
Families are left to grieve those killed in the war
Ahmad Shah's family paid dearly in service of the Taliban's victory.
Two of his brothers, Taliban fighters, were killed six years ago by a drone strike after ambushing Afghan forces. His cousin, another Taliban fighter, was also killed.
Shah lives in the village of Patan Khel, roughly 75 miles southwest of Kabul. To get there, our vehicle juddered over enormous potholes, caused by explosives planted by the Taliban over two decades to strike their foes. The road is flanked by graves of fighters on rocky hills, marked with small flags hoisted on poles: white flags, green, red, even leopard print. The colorful cloth signifies a man who died young.
We veered off the highway and drove through mudbrick villages of the Shneez valley to reach Shah. Over lunch of bread and yogurt, he said when the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, villagers saw divine intervention. "It was not possible but with the help of God."
Shah says villagers would fight for the Taliban again if they have to. For now though, their rivals are defeated.
Around Patan Khel, the families whose sons fought the Taliban have fled, fearing retribution. We ask Shah if he thinks those families grieve their slain sons, as he grieves his brothers.
Shah says he thinks they grieve more.
"I'm sure those people feel more pain than us because we lost our men fighting for the sake of Islam and Afghanistan, so we are comforted by that. What did their men die for?"
The words sting Mohammad Qassim, who we meet in a nearby market town. He was the oldest of six brothers. Now, they are four.
The brothers lost their father when they were young, and Qassim became a veterinary pharmacist to support the family. His brother joined the army for the same reason, and paid with his life — he was killed last year by an explosive planted near a checkpoint. "He was my beloved brother. He was the backbone of this family," Qassim weeps.
Qassim said his youngest brother didn't understand the sacrifices they made — and ran away to join the Taliban. Shortly afterwards, he was killed in a drone strike.
"The war has bought us disaster," Qassim says. "In our village, you will see widows and orphans. Their fathers were killed in the fighting. Now they're destitute."
As the Taliban took power, Western countries cut off aid
That destitution is palpably seen across Afghanistan, which was plunged into crisis after the Taliban seized power. Western aid that propped up the former Afghan government was cut off. Sanctions on Taliban leaders — now in government — dried up most international trade and banking. Washington froze Afghanistan's central bank assets held in the U.S.
Within weeks, businesses shut down, banks stopped money withdrawals, salaries couldn't be paid, and mothers began presenting to hospitals with starving babies.
Even for experts who track malnutrition, "what happened after August was really surprising," said Hsiao-Wei Lee, deputy director for the World Food Program in Afghanistan. She spoke to NPR in July. Afghans needing food aid roughly doubled to 20 million people, about half the population. Around 6.6 million need urgent assistance to survive.
Charity, big and small, keeps many Afghans going.
In Kabul, women, mostly enveloped in blue burqas, gather outside bakeries in upscale areas, hoping passersby will give them bread. Dust-smeared boys and girls bang on car windows in traffic jams for money. On the pavement, elderly men and women wait quietly for change.
Laborers often curl up in their wheelbarrows on the roadside, waiting for work that never seems to come. The city is awash in men and boys on rickety bicycles, because they can no longer afford the price of a bus ticket or a taxi.
"My business is good when the economy is bad," shrugs Tawfik Shirzad, a 25-year-old bicycle seller. "It doesn't make me happy. I see people who have lost their livelihoods, and they are buying a bike because they can't afford another way of getting about."
But it is still freedom, one 19-year-old Afghan woman noted. She couldn't be named because she is awaiting asylum in the U.S. due to threats against her family. Under the previous Western-backed government, she had defied conservative tradition to ride her bike to school. "They can do everything they want. But we can't. Like you see boys can go to school, but we can't."
Much of Afghanistan's economic woes, at least, are not only the Taliban's fault.
"The sanctions that have been placed on the Taliban," says Samira Sayed Rahman of the International Rescue Committee, are meant to hurt "a few hundred people in power. But 38 million people are suffering," she says, referring to Afghanistan's population.
While the U.N. has spent some $4 billion on Afghanistan since the takeover, it is less than half of the U.N.'s appeal for Afghanistan this year, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N.'s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan.
Alakbarov says it's a struggle to raise more, because relations between the Taliban government and Western countries are badly frayed. Western representatives accuse the Taliban of breaking pledges they made after they seized power.
Girls are still forced out of school
The most totemic of those pledges was the Taliban's promise to allow girls to return to secondary school on March 23 of this year. That decision was abruptly reversed after a last-minute huddle of senior officials with the Taliban's supreme leader.
Thousands of girls had already turned up to their old classrooms, only to be told to go home. Many left in tears. A lucky few study in secret schools — like the one run by a woman barely older than her students on Kabul's outskirts.
"Specifically, the broken promises on girls going back to school has really taken the international community aback," says Alakbarov of the U.N. "Donors have been watching that space very, very carefully. If the girls were back to school now," he says, alongside lifting other restrictions on women and the media, "there would have been a greater enthusiasm."
Most Taliban loyalists who have spoken to NPR say they don't agree with the ban, from Shah in Patan Khel, to turbaned bureaucrats in Kabul. Taliban-loyal clerics have criticized the ban as un-Islamic.
Yet the ban endures. It signals the ascendancy of what appears to be a hardline minority among the Taliban's most senior men, including the supreme leader himself. He is unlikely to be defied in a group that prizes consensus above all else.
Fraying the relationship between the Taliban government and the international community even further, in late July a U.S. drone struck al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a house in a Kabul suburb. He was there despite a promise by the Taliban to not harbor militants seeking to harm America's security. Taliban spokesmen say they were not aware of his presence in the country.
It is hard to know what Afghans think of all this.
Nearly half of Afghanistan's local media outlets have shut down since the takeover. Critics of the Taliban have been muzzled. It is only a small group of Afghan women who still loudly protest, at a steep price of detention and beatings.
On Saturday, those women — about two dozen in all — marched down a Kabul main street. They shouted, "Bread! Work! Freedom!" Within minutes, Taliban security forces detained several Afghan and foreign journalists covering the protest. Then in a crackling burst of fire, several Taliban gunmen fired over the women's heads to disperse them.
Still, one woman whom NPR reached after the demonstration was defiant.
"After a year of this government, there is no change in the situation. We are showing that we won't stay silent," she said. "It's important to show the world that Afghans don't accept this. We will stand against injustice. We don't consent."