Afghanistan’s hunters become hunted as Taliban conquer old order
Sporting a black turban, thick beard, kohl eyeliner and long hair, Noor Ahmad no longer needs to disguise his loyalties.
Before the Taliban conquest of Kabul, the 27-year-old intelligence officer in the Islamist movement went about his duties in the Afghan capital covertly, clean-shaven and clad in jeans and T-shirt or a jacket and tie. His mission — to conduct undercover surveillance operations against assassination targets.
He has no regrets about the victims: “They supported the foreign occupation. We targeted people in very quiet, out-of-the-way places, away from traffic and civilians.”
Following the sudden Taliban takeover of Kabul in August, men like Ahmad have burst into the open after years of hiding from Afghan and international security forces. As one of the winners in Afghanistan’s latest war, he is free to walk among the throngs of Talibs who gather in parks and beauty spots each evening to watch the sunset, eat fruit and chat. The losers are now the ones in hiding.
The abrupt changing of the guard in Afghanistan has blown away hierarchies and conventions in every area of life, with the previously powerful on the run and ordinary people having to adapt to new strictures even though they bridle against them.
Khalid, a former officer in the Afghan intelligence service, has been in hiding since Kabul fell. His job was to interrogate captured Taliban and Isis fighters. He once arrested a man who pretended to be a roadside heroin addict but was actually planting “sticky bombs” on cars in Kabul.
On the morning that the Taliban entered the city, Khalid and his colleagues hastily discarded their uniforms and abandoned their headquarters. There was no time to dispose of documents identifying the staff of an organisation dedicated to infiltrating and disrupting the Taliban.
“On the third day after Kabul fell, I received a phone call saying ‘you are Khalid and it is currently your shift’. They were reading the rota on the wall. I said I’m Fawad and I’m a shopkeeper,” he said. “I got another phone call saying ‘you are Khalid and it is our obligation to kill you’. They said I had been an oppressor and they told me about the operations I had been involved in.”
He does not believe the Taliban’s promise of amnesty for anyone who worked for the former government. Some of his ex-colleagues had been captured during house-to-house searches and killed, he said.
Life has also been overturned for those who were never on the front line in the fight against the Taliban. Hedayatullah Habibkhil, a 39-year-old civil servant, lacked the resources to hide or flee with his family. A former senior clerk to the parliamentary committee that routinely exposed immense government waste and corruption under the former regime, he is trying to adapt to the new order.
He still turns up to work every day at the deserted National Assembly campus, and hopes to secure a salaried job once a purpose has been found for the former home of Afghan democracy.
He has grown a beard and swapped his business suit and tie for a traditional shalwar kameez and black turban. He tries to make himself useful to the group of 50 Talibs who guard the complex by advising them on building maintenance.
“We are professional people with years of experience as administrators. It is hard to take orders from these illiterate people,” he said. “They have come here by force and we have to do what they tell us.”
Kabul’s female professionals are testing the limits of life under a regime that is yet to allow most girls to return to school and where the women’s ministry has been scrapped and replaced by the Taliban’s morality police.
After weeks of uncertainty and staying at home, some have returned to work in segregated offices. Women can still be seen out shopping and without a male escort, albeit in low numbers and conservatively dressed.
Shakiba Haidery, a 20-year-old student, has made one concession to the Taliban: a black cloak worn over her otherwise fashionable clothes.
“I am not very comfortable . . . because I believe people should be free to decide what to wear,” she said. “But I’ll wear it if it means I can go out. If the Taliban don’t allow girls to get educated and go to their jobs, then families are not going to be able to afford to eat.”
With more than 150 news organisations shut in recent weeks, Haidery said she would be unable to fulfil her dream of becoming a journalist.
Even Taliban fighters are having to adjust: Mohammad Rassoul Syed Ghazniavi said he was exhausted from dealing with members of the public who flock to the mayor’s office, where he now works.
“This job is much more difficult than jihad,” he said. “It was easier before because our only focus was doing operations and trying to stay safe. Now we have to look after all these people and worry about how they are going to find enough food to eat.”
Khalid, the former Afghan intelligence service interrogator, said it was impossible for those in his situation to adjust to the new Afghanistan. He is trying to find a way to get his family out of the country and is getting desperate.
“There is no place for us here now. We have not even been able to go back to our house since the Taliban came,” he said. “Either we escape or we will run out of money and die here.”