The first two Taliban I encountered when I entered Afghanistan did not wear a turban. Very young —one of them still almost beardless—, they seemed not to believe in their own role as guardians of access to the Islamic Emirate. Their work uniforms looked more like pajamas, but the Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders removed any doubt. When I first crossed this border 20 years ago, the United States had just bombed the Taliban out of power, and no one bothered to ask for a passport. Today, Islamic militiamen ask, look and ask again, but they don’t stamp the document either.
In fact, it had passed through the filter before, on the Pakistani side. Long chained corridors lead to Afghanistan after passport control (and vice versa). Designed for a typical traffic of 10,000 people in each direction, it is impressive to find them empty. Only a few families cross in the opposite direction.
Three weeks after taking control of the country, militiamen assigned to the Torkham border post have seen several foreign journalists pass by. But the absence of cameras and equipment seems curious to them. A woman alone, too. They call the boss, a guy who combines the traditional shalwar kamiz (long shirt and baggy pants) with a bulletproof vest made in USA and high-top sneakers, the latest model, as if out of a movie in the series mad max. The novelty attracts two others. One of them looks blatantly. In the end, the journalist is confined to a corner, while the boss settles the matter with the driver who came to pick her up.
Afghanistan remains a country of men. They are men who drive the numerous trucks loaded with grapes and apples and who wait for several kilometers to cross the border and take dividends from the agricultural production of the neighboring province of Nangarhar. They are also men who swarm through the markets of the small towns that dot the side of the road until reaching Jalalabad. The capital of Nangarhar seethed as if the regime change had not represented a revolutionary upheaval.
On the way, however, the barracks and checkpoints are empty, hastily abandoned by the police and soldiers who occupied them until a month ago. A white flag in place of the tricolor (black, red and green) indicates who the new lords are. But most of these posts remain empty. The Taliban didn’t even bother to take people there. In fact, it doesn’t maintain a very conspicuous presence along the way.
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If there is one place that symbolizes the failure of the new Afghanistan project over the past two decades, it is the development hub of Ghazi Amanullah. This industrial district, crowded and ready to attract companies, remains empty. The new city, with its cricket stadium, was a mere project, and the few completed houses “are not inhabited by their owners, but by other people,” as one man explains. words like occupation and homeless haven’t arrived in the language yet Pashtun.
Further on, in Saracha, a group of girls return home after leaving class. “Private schools, for boys and girls, are open; but the publics have not yet resumed their activities”, explains one father, attributing the delay to back wages.
The landscape has changed a lot in these 20 years. To start with, you had to stay overnight in Jalalabad, and then there were 10 hours left on a cobblestone track that didn’t deserve the name of a road. Now, the asphalt looks decent, and the journey from the border takes six hours — for a total of 226 kilometers… But, above all, the appearance of the villages has changed, which now have schools, clinics, gas stations , food stores and other basic services, something then unimaginable.
At the entrance to Jalalabad, a crane is dedicated to tearing down the concrete walls that protected the entrance to the airport and the former army barracks. This is a popular measure because the closure of streets greatly hindered local traffic. Next to the park that houses the Akbar Khan mausoleum, there is an open market with fruit and vegetable stalls. And dozens of rickshaws offer their services to passersby. On the way out of town, the large wedding halls, so popular with Afghans, draw attention.
“They didn’t close them, but the owners stopped playing music because they know the Taliban doesn’t like it,” says the driver. The man, originally from the region, also points out as a curiosity the Women’s Park, next to the Darunta Dam. “The government built it because here women don’t go to parks where there are men,” he explains. Unwittingly, he touches on one of the most delicate subjects for the Taliban Government. Will they have the same sensitivity towards women? Many Afghan women doubt and, despite the risks, speak out so they won’t be forgotten.
From there, the path to the capital winds along the course of the Kabul River, upstream, until reaching the impressive gorge that gives access to the capital. Some patrols pass in pickup trucks belonging to former security forces. In the back, half a dozen guerrillas dressed in mismatched uniforms, and sometimes incongruously combining civilian and military attire. At major intersections and at city entrances, pairs of militiamen tell vehicles to slow down and take a look at their occupants. In all, there are six controls between the border and Kabul. Only at the entrance to the capital does a man ask the driver for documents. Don’t even look at them. But, with his countenance, he already showed his authority.
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