It was almost midnight in Kabul. I was in a Turkish-style café on the top floor of Afghanistan’s only shopping mall with a few young Afghans, waiting for green tea and rice pudding. My Afghan friends were chatting loudly, in a fluid blend of Pashto and English. I, only half-understanding them, was puffing away at a cigarette while I watched Terminator: Dark Fate subtitled in Persian on the television above us. A few tables away, some Talibs were talking quietly and occasionally glancing over at the other patrons smoking hookah and thumbing their phones.
I glanced at Google Maps to see just where we were. We were in the heart of Kabul, in the area once reserved for government elites and foreign diplomats, and thus with the highest concentration of hotels, restaurants, and government offices. Next to the mall was the office of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, now shuttered. The new Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, charged with ensuring compliance with Taliban social regulations, had claimed the building. Half a mile away was the house where the leader of al-Qaeda had been pulverized by an American drone strike a few months before I arrived; Google still marked it as the “Ayman al-Zawahiri Residence.”
Our rice pudding arrived and I looked out the window. In the daytime, Kabul is anything but pretty: millions of people—no one really knows just how many—arranged chaotically in dense and disordered enclaves, sprawling endlessly, with beige hovels nestled into the mountains that ring the city. But at night, the hills of Kabul can be surprisingly beautiful, unfolding endlessly, sparkling with the lights of amusement parks and Indian-style wedding halls, curiously reminiscent of Los Angeles.
As we ate our rice pudding, the conversation turned to the things I was yet to see in Afghanistan. I had spent most of my time in Kabul, and was preparing for a trip into the rural countryside. My Afghan friends were suggesting a few places to see: Bamiyan, which hosted what remained of the massive Buddha monuments destroyed in the 1990s, and Band-e Amir, with its extraordinary blue lakes.
But I was in a more adventurous mood. I wanted to see something much less scenic, with none of the natural beauty of rural Afghanistan. And I had a particular spot in mind. I had passed it the night before, on my way to have dinner with the grandson of a prominent warlord who liked telling me about Habermas: it was the bridge that Kabulis call the Pul-e Sokhta—“the burning bridge.” It traversed a certain stretch of the city’s Kabul River, one that was really more of a dried and odorous riverbed. Stray dogs guarded the trickle of brownish water. It was not a pretty spot.
But there was a reason people knew about it: underneath the bridge lies a zone of concentrated and perfect misery. In the years of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, the Pul-e Sokhta became the most popular site for the city’s drug addicts, who would go to the bridge to get high and, not infrequently, overdose and die. Sometimes, the authorities would fish out the bodies. Other times, they left them to rot.
Usually, their drug of choice was opium, Afghanistan’s main export; in the late 2010s, the country produced 90 percent of the world’s heroin supply. But increasingly they preferred methamphetamine, which had made a disruptive market entrance in the 2010s. First, it was produced using cheap cough syrup—you can buy anything in an Afghan pharmacy, no questions asked—and exported into Pakistan and Iran, where prices are higher. Then someone figured out how to manufacture meth using a wild mountain shrub called ephedra, which grows in central Afghanistan. Soon scores of Afghans were hooked.
For years Kabul was full of these addicts. One could find them in alleys, in parks, nestled in strange places inside ancient monuments. They are less visible now. The Taliban has made a point of rounding them up and placing them in drug treatment centers, where they undergo harsh methods of rehabilitation—forced detox, dunking in cold water. But you can still see some addicts smoking and trading drugs on the side streets and in the parks, and even a few addicted children begging outside stores. A lot can be learned about a society, I reasoned, by talking to its drug addicts. So I suggested to my friends: what if we finish our tea, make a late-night excursion to the bridge, and interview them?
The Afghans with me represented a cross-section of the country’s plugged-in youth. They described things as “based” and joked that people were “triggered.” When they were teasing each other, they used the term “soyboy,” which was by now a couple of years out of date in America. One was a YouTuber with a large audience in the Middle East, who produces Arabic-language content about Afghanistan; another was an ambitious entrepreneur, born in a refugee camp over the Pakistani border, and now a successful saffron exporter with side ventures in journalism and cryptocurrency; another, my first contact in the country, was an influencer whom I’d grown to trust over games of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
None of them wanted to go. The YouTuber had gone before for a video, but he wasn’t in the mood to go tonight. The entrepreneur demurred as well. I accepted that we wouldn’t go that night. “It’s fine if you’re scared,” I teased. But the entrepreneur said safety wasn’t the reason. It was just late. Wasn’t Afghanistan, against all odds, now shockingly safe?
Earlier that day, we had been talking about his relatives in the West, and what they made of their new homes there. They were horrified by the alcoholism of the locals, the alienated families (some saw their parents and uncles only twice a week, unthinkable in Afghanistan), the danger of the streets at night, and the random disorder that they said was so frequent in American cities. But my Afghan friend reassures me: that type of thing, the random crime and violence, isn’t a concern in Kabul anymore. The Taliban had dealt with it.
“Nobody is going to hurt us, dude,” he said, curling his lips into a smile. “We’re not in San Francisco.”
Welcome to the Islamic Emirate
Who in their right mind would go to Afghanistan today? It is hard to think of a country with a more negative reputation. For years, Afghanistan was one vast abattoir, jostling with Somalia and Syria for the title of Most Dangerous Nation on Earth. The State Department still advises U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the country at all costs, due to “armed conflict, civil unrest, crime, terrorism, and kidnapping.” The name alone invites a string of unsettling associations—suicide bombings, backward customs, wretched poverty—that drive away anyone sensible. Afghans recognize and detest this reputation, but it is hard to escape. Even I, curious enough to make the journey there, spent a few anxious days before my trip researching the current market rates for foreign hostages.
It is not hard to see why. A few weeks before I arrived, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)—the Islamic State’s local affiliate, and a bitter sectarian rival to the Taliban government—attacked a school for Kabul’s Hazara Shia minority, killing more than 50 young girls. The specter of another attack hung over the entirety of my trip. I was lucky that none occurred while I was in Afghanistan. But a few weeks after I left the country, the hotel where I’d stayed—nicknamed “the Chinese hotel” by Kabulis for its ostentatious marketing to visitors to PRC nationals—had been bombed and stormed by ISKP.
But the sense of danger didn’t drive me away. There is a reason why generations of Westerners, bored by a rather sedate and comfortable world back home, have found themselves fascinated by this remote, mountainous country—Kipling and Kafiristan, Byron and Oxiana, Newby and the Hindu Kush. To those that can tolerate the danger, Afghanistan offers a certain mystique: enigmatic, rugged, romantic, and undeniably violent. Beyond the highlands of Papua New Guinea or the jungles of the Amazon, few places seem so exotic.
I was fascinated, above all else, by the force now so closely identified with the country’s fate: the Taliban itself, which has governed Afghanistan since its spectacular reconquista in the summer of 2021. In the West, “Taliban” is a byword for all that is brutal, primitive, and fanatical, the ultimate antithesis of the tolerance and progressive attitudes of the civilized world. I wanted to see for myself how they were doing in power.
Their government—still “the Taliban” to outsiders, “the de facto authorities” to foreign governments, and “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in their own words—is, without a doubt, the most unusual regime on Earth. It is a near-perfect hermit kingdom: no country has recognized the Taliban government, with only a few countries operating embassies inside Kabul. The Islamic Emirate is denied representation in all global bodies, widely sanctioned, and shunned by multinational banks and corporations. The United States still offers a $10 million dollar bounty for its interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, whom it classifies as a “specially designated global terrorist.” Even as the government of a large nation, the Taliban acts as a secretive armed brotherhood, opaque to outsiders. Many of its officials still operate under their noms de guerre from the insurgency, though they no longer tend to bring their AK-47s to the office. The government does not have a constitution, written or unwritten, and there are no plans to create one.
The final say on all government decisions lies with the emir, “prince of the believers”—the cleric Hibatullah Akhundzada, an alumnus of the Taliban’s first government in the 1990s. Akhundzada is, much like the Taliban’s founding emir Mullah Omar, nearly hermitic in his reclusiveness. Akhundzada refuses to have his photo taken, such that there is only one undated image of him available. He communicates policy decisions through written letters from Kandahar—having refused to relocate to Kabul—and makes only a few public appearances a year. More irreverent Afghans will speculate, probably wrongly, that he is dead.
Strangest of all, however, is the extraordinary degree of ideological sovereignty the Taliban seems to possess. It disdains the “blind imitation” of the West—taqlid is the Islamic term—that, in one way or another, characterizes other Islamic regimes. Unlike almost every other government in the world, it makes no reference to democracy, representation, or “the will of the people.” Its mandate comes from more ancient things—conquest, negotiation, and the will of God.
Loosed from the restraints that seem to fetter other regimes, the Islamic Emirate is emboldened to do more or less as it wishes: of any Islamist government, it advances perhaps the most stringent version of Sharia law. Music has been banned in public; images of sentient beings, even store mannequins, have been veiled or defaced; corporal punishments, mainly public floggings, have been reinstated. Most controversial of all, however, are the Taliban’s policies on women’s education. In early 2022, by the decree of the emir, girls were banned from attending school from grades six through twelve. At the end of the year, after months in which Taliban officials promised the ban would be reversed, Akhundzada extended the policy to cover universities as well.
The backlash to the Emirate’s education policies—from Westerners and bodies like the United Nations, but also from groups like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, many Afghans, and even some prominent Taliban supporters—has not dissuaded the Taliban leadership. In one of Akhundzada’s rare public appearances as emir, he said that Afghanistan is “sovereign,” and not in place to fulfill the wishes of others. “You are welcome to use even the atomic bomb against us,” he continued, “because nothing can scare us into taking any step that is against Islam or Sharia.” On walls throughout Afghan cities, the regime has emblazoned a slogan representing its remarkable confidence: “First Islam, then Afghanistan.”
Yet these otherworldly aims stand in sharp contrast with the mundanity of everyday life in Afghanistan. I had been trained to view the Taliban as a sort of Islamist variant of the Khmer Rouge, intent on a total transformation of Afghan life, a movement that presided over a country whose situation the United Nations had described as “near apocalyptic.” But I found few hints of the apocalypse in Afghanistan. Mostly, life was ordinary: families sat in restaurants; kids rode around on bicycles affixed with little flags of the Islamic Emirate; street vendors sold produce and clothing. It was obviously a desperately poor and undeveloped country, and it was hard to ignore the young children—almost toddlers—selling trinkets or begging for change on the streets. But this poverty, though made more severe by the country’s economic isolation, was not new. Nor was it unique to Afghanistan.
On most issues, in fact, Taliban governance has had a much lighter touch than most imagined. In the bookstores of Kabul, at least, one can still find books by Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama; contraception and tobacco are available, and the Taliban has yet to regulate internet access like other Islamic governments. One can find gyms and restaurants that play Western music, sometimes with young Taliban guards as cautious patrons. Every woman wears a veil of some kind—as was the case before the Taliban took over—but the blue burqas so associated with Taliban rule in the West are worn by only a minority of women. Almost every man in Kabul has a beard, but the Taliban do not bat an eye at the clean-shaven.
Ordinary Taliban guards are prohibited from enforcing rules about Islamic personal conduct. For now, the Taliban has mostly confined itself to the path of “suggestion,” like putting up signs in government offices praising men who choose to grow a beard. More blunt confrontations, usually over insufficiently modest clothing, are left to the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. But this morality police is severely understaffed: in the entirety of Kabul, a city with more people than Rome or Berlin, they have just two hundred agents. Thus they are often invisible—I did not see a single one during my time in Afghanistan. The poor logistical capacity of the state has proven the most important limit on the Taliban’s ability to reshape Afghan life.
In truth, Taliban rule seems to have done surprisingly little to change the contours of everyday life. Once it took power in Kabul, the Emirate declared a general amnesty, promising protection not only for minorities like the Shia but also for employees of the previous government, including soldiers who had fought against it. This extended even to high-level figures like Hamid Karzai, the Republic’s first president, who continues to reside in Kabul. Bureaucrats of the former regime have been retained in their posts, with Taliban mujahideen installed above or beside them. The animosities of the war years have simmered, at least for now. In a cafeteria in the Islamic Emirate’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I enjoyed a simple meal of rice and bread alongside both holdover bureaucrats and the Taliban officials who worked beside them—thinking, the whole time, that they had been trying to kill each other a few years ago.
In most areas of public administration, the new government is largely continuous with the old one. On signs for government offices, “Islamic Republic” has been hastily painted over and replaced with a handwritten “Islamic Emirate.” For prosaic matters unlikely to excite the special interest of Taliban clerics, government policies have simply been carried over from the Republic. Even visa stamps still read “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and carry the Republic’s official colors.
At these practical arts of governance, the Taliban has proven itself surprisingly adept. Dishonest officials, whose venality had defined the previous regime, have been disciplined or removed from office; even critics of the Islamic Emirate’s policies will acknowledge its success in reducing corruption. With less corruption, tax collection has grown more efficient: increased revenue from taxation prevented a fiscal crisis after the withdrawal of foreign aid, which made up three-quarters of the previous regime’s budget. This has allowed the Islamic Emirate to maintain most government services undisturbed and continue paying government employees, including some who have refused to return to work since the takeover. They have even commenced new infrastructure projects: Afghanistan’s road system, which had degraded significantly due to the war, is being refurbished and expanded.
Taliban officials thus find themselves reborn as ordinary bureaucrats. The Taliban’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues statements on climate change summits, Malaysian elections, and International Women’s Day. My own discussions with Taliban diplomats betrayed a clear eagerness for foreign acceptance, investment, and, if at all possible, official recognition. In their public communications, Taliban officials can seem comically similar to bureaucrats from any other government: they trumpet their success in increasing tax revenues and expanding fruit exports.
The longer I stayed in Afghanistan, the more the contradiction between the Islamic Emirate’s otherworldly aspirations and the compromises demanded for stability and development became evident. The telos of the Taliban governance project remained indeterminate. Was their project a religiously-inspired developmentalist nationalism, conservative but conciliatory, a tempered “Taliban 2.0”? Or was it, as Akhundzada and the hardliners around him seemed to want, a vision of total purity, a complete rejection of Western influence—an outpost of medieval Islam, permanently segregated from the outside world?
For now, the emir’s vision is winning. But his program is hegemonic neither in Afghanistan, where even many Taliban supporters have criticized his most hardline edicts, nor within the Taliban itself. Most Taliban officials will do little to hide their unhappiness with Akhundzada’s policies on girls’ education. Powerful leaders within the regime have offered thinly-veiled criticisms of the emir’s approach, remarkable in an organization that places such high value on deference: these include not only known moderates among the Taliban leadership, like the deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, but also figures as influential as Sirajuddin Haqqani—previously thought to be the most hardline among the Taliban elite—and Mullah Yaqoob, the defense minister and son of Mullah Omar.
Seeing these disagreements, many Afghans, prone to rumor in a country whose politics are often mysterious and conspiratorial, will speculate about a factional conflict within the upper ranks of the Emirate. There is talk of palace intrigue, coups, even a return to civil war. But the divide within the Taliban is unlikely to get so far. Outsiders have long predicted factional splits within the Taliban that have not come to pass. The Taliban has thrived precisely because of its culture of loyalty.
Instead, the likely outcome is a sort of deadlock. Akhundzada’s policies preclude broader international acceptance or the alleviation of the country’s economic isolation, and thus much in the way of meaningful development or durable stability. But there is no mechanism for his decisions to be challenged; the emir’s power is absolute, and the Taliban are bound to obey him. It is thus not hard to imagine the country limping along in its current state, a long stasis interrupted only by occasional attacks from ISKP—isolated, peripheral, and wretchedly poor, but functioning.
Even the triumph of the emir’s program represents only a fleeting victory. It harkens back to a rural Pashtun culture that is fading, even in a place as anachronistic as Afghanistan. It has little to say to younger Afghans, or even to younger Taliban—often more exposed to global culture and prolific in their use of social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram.
I had observed these rank-and-file Taliban—toting AK-47s, sitting at traffic junctions, walking through Kabul holding each other’s hands—with a sociological intensity. But among these mujahideen, much feared in the outside world, I found none of the hostility or inflexibility I had expected. For all the ideological baggage that had been attached to them, the Taliban I met were hardly threatening—just scrawny teenagers and twenty-somethings from the mountains of rural Afghanistan, men who saw Kabul as a city of cosmopolitan wonders, who had joined what they saw as a war of liberation against an enemy whose technologies were so superior as to render them almost on the plane of aliens. They regarded the outside world not with hatred, but with a rich and earnest curiosity; they bore no ill will toward the West. As a guest in their country, they treated me with deep warmth.
One evening, as a local friend and I stood on a hill overlooking Kabul, we watched some Taliban perform an attan—the traditional victory dance of the Pashtuns. A young Talib, overhearing us talking, approached us and asked, in Pashto, where I was from. I had come in on a German passport, which I gave to him for inspection.
The mujahid found this exotic and fascinating. He told me his name was Hakmal and peppered me with questions about my strange country. Did they speak Pashto there, he asked, or Persian? (Something else completely, my friend told him in Pashto.) Were the Germans Sunnis, or were they Shias? (Something else again, my friend said.) All of this piqued Hakmal’s curiosity. Could he come back to Germany with me, he asked, and see the country for himself? It sounded so fascinating, he said. I smiled. I hardly had the heart to tell him that the Germans probably didn’t want him as a tourist.
The Balance of Terror
Afghanistan was as different from the West as I had hoped. This was true materially—even in the center of Kabul I saw carriages drawn by donkeys, and men pulling rickshaws filled with fruit—but also culturally. Afghans, loyal to social forms extinct in the West, dazed me with their immediate and overflowing generosity: the guest right enjoys enormous strength in Afghan culture. Perfect strangers would beg me to join them for dinner, and—after the feast—to sleep over and have tea with them in the morning. Walking through the western city of Herat with a local friend, we found ourselves in an unfamiliar area around the evening. My friend muttered to himself in Persian that we were lost. A random passerby intervened: “You are never lost. Join me for tea.”
That was urban Afghanistan. Rural Afghanistan, meanwhile, was like an alien world. Four-fifths of the population resides in the countryside, in innumerable small villages of unimaginable archaicity: places untouched by modernity, where life is not so different than it was a few centuries ago—rough-hewn peasants with near-toothless smiles, farms employing oxen and plow. Traveling through this strange world requires tremendous patience: a trip between Kabul and Bamiyan covered only about a hundred miles, but took most of a day. The roads were gashed by old IED blasts, requiring us to halt every minute; we drove past endless villages nestled into the mountains of the Hindu Kush, playing American rap as musical accompaniment. We switched to a Taliban nasheed whenever a checkpoint approached.
That I could enjoy these things in a country still called “the most dangerous in the world,” and do so with little thought of imminent death, was owed to the fact of Taliban rule. Afghanistan is the safest it has been in decades. The withdrawal of American troops, rather than pushing the country into a new sequence of slaughter, preceded a quick and largely bloodless succession. Now, for the first time since the late 1970s, a single government controls the entirety of Afghanistan. There are no more U.S. soldiers, and no more midnight raids or drone strikes, save the solitary killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri. There are far fewer insurgent bombings. The mutating war that had deformed Afghan life for decades is over.
It is hard to overstate just how significant this state of peace is to ordinary Afghans. Nearly every Afghan lost something in the war years: everyone has family members who were killed, often on both sides, and it is common to encounter people throughout Kabul who lost limbs in the war. This was the case with a man I met named Didar, a shy clerk working for a tailor: as a child, he had picked up a brightly-colored Soviet land mine, thinking it was a toy. It blew his right arm off, and would have killed him if not for the skillful intervention of a local doctor. And Didar was not alone: the country is full of people who lost limbs in one bombing or another. The most unfortunate lost both legs, and now live out of small red wagons as paraplegics. For these people, and the many others with horrific memories of the war, peace is nothing less than a godsend.
The more mundane species of disorder that predominated in Afghanistan have also been corralled. This, too, is a major improvement. Hobbled by corruption and persistently weak state capacity, the government of the Republic had proven unable to control its own country: power was effectively ceded to a network of regional warlords—from Abdul Raziq, strongman of Kandahar, to the infamous Abdul Rashid Dostum, pasha of the Uzbek north—who straddled the line between statesman and crime boss.
In the cities, a rapid and anarchic urbanization, driven by rural chaos and lavish foreign aid spending, created vast lawless realms governed by gangs. In the countryside, opium production swelled, turning heroin into the country’s leading export and the cornerstone of its rural economy. Afghans became not just producers but consumers themselves, with nearly ten percent of the population addicted to drugs. The cities became unlivable: kidnapping, robbery, and murder made going outside at night a suicidal endeavor.
But the Afghanistan of today could not feel more different. Now, I found, the streets of Kabul and other major Afghan cities were remarkably safe to walk: even as a foreigner, speaking neither Pashto nor Persian, I felt comfortable strolling through the sketchier precincts of Kabul, often alone and after dark. My ethnic ambiguity—olive skin, large eyebrows, dark eyes, not so out of place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—may have helped. So did wearing an all-black kurta. Many Afghans, including a few Taliban mujahideen, told me that I looked like a Pashtun, except for my not having a beard. But whatever my looks, the result was the same: not once was I pestered or harassed, let alone robbed or kidnapped.
The cities were safe for a reason. After coming into power, the Taliban initiated a hard-edged campaign for public order which has yielded undeniable results. Their methods had been fierce. Not long after taking power, the Taliban had asked neighborhood elders for lists of known criminals; within a few weeks, they had killed all the consensus nominees. Punishment for serious criminals has been swift and vicious. Extrajudicial discipline is common. For certain severe crimes, the regime has started imposing corporal punishments; in December, the Taliban held its first public execution, with a murderer shot to death by the father of his victim in front of a large crowd. Now crime is much scarcer, and the state is far more present: Taliban guards can be seen throughout the cities brandishing AK-47s. (Sometimes they have more intense weaponry. At a checkpoint outside Kabul, I met one Talib carrying a rocket launcher.)
For less severe malcontents, the Islamic Emirate has found more leniency. Beggars, whose ranks had swelled during the war due to the presence of deep-pocketed Westerners, have been collected and assessed as to whether they are “deserving” or “professional.” At least for now, the regime has refrained from banning opium production—a policy it had embraced in the 1990s, before opium became so central to the livelihood of rural farmers in the Taliban’s southern strongholds—and has instead focused on drug abuse. Drug addicts have been taken off the streets, and placed into hard-handed rehabilitation clinics. The anti-drug campaign has, it seems, paid dividends: not long after I left Afghanistan, the Taliban announced that the Pul-e Sokhta bridge had been rehabilitated and cleared of its addicts. To celebrate the renovation, the Emirate hosted a book fair in the area.
These efforts have substantially increased the day-to-day security of Afghan streets—and in such a short time period that nearly everyone has noticed. In Herat, I paid a visit to a young doctor—a well-educated non-Pashtun from a local elite family, fluent in five languages, who was well-acquainted with American culture through years spent on 4chan. He was far from the Taliban’s natural constituency, though his politics were complex: he counted a few friends among the Taliban’s ranks, though he was furious about the policies that prevented his sisters from being educated.
As we walked around Herat in the early evening, he told me that this was the most significant change in Afghan life: even something as simple as walking around in the dark would have been unthinkable before the takeover. Later that night, as we had tea at his house, we heard a few gunshots outside—a few Taliban officers were chasing down a robber. The doctor smiled: ever since the Emirate had taken over, he had begun to miss the sound of gunfire. He had grown so used to the noise that it helped him go to sleep at night.
If there are two highly visible challenges to this state of peace, they come from the Islamic Emirate’s left and right flanks. To the left is the “National Resistance Front,” which seeks to restore the Republic. These fighters were the last holdouts after the Taliban’s triumph until they were routed from the northeastern Panjshir Valley in September. Now based in Tajikistan, it is bankrolled by sympathetic Europeans and the anti-Taliban Afghan diaspora. In terms of support, it coasts on nostalgia for the late warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, “the Afghan Napoleon”—his far less charismatic son is its leader—and seeks to build a base among Afghanistan’s Tajiks. But despite the group’s prominence on Twitter and appearances in the media, the Resistance Front is irrelevant in Afghanistan, with paltry support and no actual presence in the country itself. The younger Massoud is more a punchline than a viable force.
A more lethal challenge comes from the regime’s right flank, in the form of the Islamic State Khorasan Province. ISKP, founded by disgruntled Taliban commanders, accuses the Islamic Emirate of being insufficiently Islamic, tolerant of Shias, Sufis, and other supposed takfiris to the point of heresy, and far too eager for foreign acceptance. ISKP propagandists latch onto any sign that the Emirate is intent on acting like a normal regime, from news of cooperation with China to the regime’s approval of restoration efforts for an ancient synagogue in Herat. But the group reserves particular ire for Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia community. The Hazara had fought in huge numbers against the Islamic State in Syria, on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, at the invitation of their Shia sponsors in Iran. Many of ISKP’s attacks target the Hazaras as a form of payback.
ISKP, unlike the Taliban, is decidedly a minority phenomenon. The Taliban has its roots among Pashtuns, the country’s dominant ethnicity, and is broadly aligned with the popular Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. But in its bid for national supremacy, it showed a surprising degree of flexibility: it included members from all the country’s ethnic groups, built warm relations with Sufi clerics, and even incorporated a few Shia from the Hazara community. ISKP has no such flexibility. As a franchise of the Islamic State network, it is committed to a Salafist vision with little indigenous basis in Afghanistan outside the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar.
This allegiance serves as a structural limitation on ISKP’s appeal: while the Taliban was always a mass movement with an enormous social base in the rural areas, ISKP is too religiously marginal to hold territory beyond a few remote eastern mountain outposts, let alone to ever govern the country. Its insurgency is limited to organizing underground cells to launch terror attacks in urban areas, with the aim of destabilizing the country and profiting from chaos.
At this, however, ISKP has certainly succeeded. Focusing on targets that will harm the Taliban’s global public image—like a school for Hazara girls, Sufi mosques, hotels, and foreign embassies—ISKP has undermined the Taliban’s narrative of security. In turn, the Taliban reserves a fierce and unalloyed hatred for the Islamic State—“Khariji rats,” as one local called them, in reference to a medieval Islamic sect known for its cruelty toward fellow Muslims. When the Taliban captures an ISKP militant, they will typically torture him for information before a swift and brutal execution. The emptying of a canal in Nangarhar in the summer of 2022 uncovered the bodies of more than a hundred slain ISKP militants.
Tea With the Mujahideen
Apart from the widely-hated ISKP, the Taliban faces virtually no organized opposition. The entire elite of the Republic era has fled abroad. Unlike the 1990s, when the northeast was always controlled by the Northern Alliance led by Massoud and Dostum, the government has unchallenged control of the entire country. Nor does any foreign power have the desire to involve itself in Afghan politics after the American experience. Even Pakistan, which has long meddled in Afghan affairs, has sought to extricate itself. There is no force inside Afghanistan strong enough to displace it, and no force outside Afghanistan that cares enough to interfere. It is hard to imagine a more complete resolution to the struggle over Afghanistan’s future.
Thus the Taliban has cemented its place in Afghan history. By dissolving the patchwork of warlord fiefdoms that made up the previous regime and uniting the country under one government, the Taliban had—for all its backward-looking inclinations—already done much to modernize a still-archaic country. Theirs was a golden opportunity: if anyone could transform a country so impervious to intervention from above or outside, it was them.
And yet I could not help but detect a surprising fragility to Taliban rule. The Taliban had intrigued me because they, alone among the regimes of the global periphery, seemed capable of articulating an alternative civilizational vision, one that was not merely an antithesis or restatement of Western modernity. I had come to Afghanistan because I wanted to see something truly different from the West. But even in the Islamic Emirate, I could sense a creeping Westernization.
I saw it, above all else, in many local Afghans whom I met and befriended. These were not Western liberals: they had friends among the Taliban, and were quick to defend regime decisions I found abhorrent, like the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. But these subjects of the Islamic Emirate could not be kept from watching Stranger Things or Game of Thrones or Japanese anime; they had a better knowledge of Breaking Bad than I did. On Twitter—they, like so many Afghans, were avid users—shared soyjack memes and called themselves “sigma males.” They talked about feminism, “LGBTQ,” and pronouns—strange things to complain about in a country where women can’t go to school. They were becoming Westerners: culture war, America’s most successful soft-power export, was their induction. The younger members of the Taliban, online enough to follow Andrew Tate, were not immune.
And while these young men were still a tiny minority, they were also the bleeding edge. Social modernity is not kept out by the barrel of a gun: the internet is the ultimate vector of Westernization. Status flows downward, and ostentatiously so in a country as peripheral as Afghanistan. The U.S. was gone, but American culture was still the thing to imitate. In “the best steakhouse in Kabul,” the chef mimicked Salt Bae, and my friends joked with me about whether I could be in Manhattan. In the cafés, we could play Mortal Kombat while drinking coffee and listening to Western music. On Valentine’s Day—the celebration of which is forbidden in Islam—peddlers in the streets of Kabul were selling heart-shaped balloons. It wasn’t America, but it was trying.
The Taliban won the war; but in the long run, the social modernity they so bitterly resisted is on its way. Even as my Afghan friends professed their conservatism and religiosity, they were yet to get married or have children—at ages long past when their parents were doing so. The direction of things to come seemed obvious. For decades, the age of first marriage has been inching upward, particularly in the cities; since the late 1990s the fertility rate has fallen drastically. The literacy rate among young women, just 11 percent in 1979, had grown to 42 percent by 2021.
The more time I spent in Afghanistan, the more I doubted that the Taliban had an affirmative social vision to counteract this Westernization. The jagged conservatism of Akhundzada, spiritually situated in the Pashtun hinterlands of the twentieth century, was a purely negative answer. Beyond that, the Islamic Emirate seemed to offer nothing that could match Western culture for charisma. When they tried to emphasize normalcy and functionality, it was by showing that they, too, could meet Western norms.
It hasn’t been enough to win long-run loyalty as people vote with their feet. Young Afghans see little future in the country: nearly anyone with a chance of getting out is trying to leave. Classes for English, German, and Turkish are full of young men and women trying to secure a foreign university scholarship; signs advertising help with asylum cases and visa applications are easy to spot throughout urban centers. Desperate Afghans will flood toward the airport at the slightest rumor that they can leave the country. Many educated Afghans will try to get political asylum in the West by claiming that the Taliban will kill them, often on dubious grounds. The poorest and most desperate, meanwhile, will simply be trafficked into Pakistan or Iran as cheap and expendable labor.
On my last Friday in Afghanistan, I was nervous: attacks tend to occur on Friday morning during prayers, and—with a few weeks having passed since ISKP’s attack on the Hazara girls’ school—Kabul seemed overdue for a bombing. Some of my companions, feeling the same way, were joking about finding a good corner in the prayer congregation to avoid an attack. Not being a Muslim, I was happy to walk around the less-populated parts of the city and read.
An American who had been in Kabul during the U.S. occupation told me an urban legend, probably false, about suicide attacks: on Thursday night, the planners would give the martyr-to-be—usually some teenager—a potent drug, perhaps meth, to induce agitation and excitement. Then they would have him stay up all night, driving him into a frenzy with talk of jihad and martyrdom. In the morning, they would release him to detonate himself in a populated area. This was initially the story whispered about the Taliban. Now it was being whispered about ISKP.
It wound up that I did encounter suicide bombers that Friday. But circumstances were such that I was their guest, not their victim: we were sharing tea and crackers at their group house. I had been invited to interview them, since I had expressed a desire to meet some suicide bombers. As a matter of fact these were “inactive” suicide bombers—not very successful if they’re still alive, I joked with them—who had signed up during the war but hadn’t gotten the chance to kill themselves.
Even as the mujahideen told me of the various methods for carrying out a suicide attack—the car bomb, the vest bomb, the rare turban bomb—they regarded me with curious eyes. They were members of the Haqqani network, the only part of the Taliban classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. The network is known for its links to al-Qaeda, its military sophistication, and its authorship of the most lethal suicide attacks of the war.
Thus, these men were among the Emirate’s warrior elect: one was missing a leg, sacrificed in a skirmish in which five Americans had died. They hailed from the southeastern province of Ghazni, an area known for producing suicide bombers; accordingly, they had all signed up to detonate themselves during the war. Now they were all bureaucrats in the interior ministry, which had been granted to Sirajuddin Haqqani’s men. A solitary Dell computer sat in the corner of their room like an heirloom. It did not look like they had much use for it.
What was it like, I asked, to make the transition from mujahid to bureaucrat? The one who spoke the best English—he had given himself the moniker “Mr. Young”—responded quickly. “Very boring,” he said. “We are happy for peace, yes, but we miss the thrill of fighting. The feeling of the ambush, the moment of waiting for the American convoy, the excitement of the battle. We miss it.”
I asked if he wanted to go back to fighting. “Yes,” Mr. Young said, “the moment we get the opportunity. We still want to martyr ourselves, and we would do it at this very moment if we could!” Now he was getting excited. “Martyrdom,” he said, “would make me much happier than being a bureaucrat and working in the ministry. On the word of Sirajuddin Haqqani, we would happily blow ourselves up tomorrow!”
Hearing his words, it was hard not to feel the sense that something had passed away. It was like listening to a cowboy reminiscence about the closing of the frontier. The Taliban had won their revolution, and had everything they’d ever wanted. But now they confronted the truth that all successful revolutions face: winning a state is a lot more glorious than managing one. To their new world—a world of responsibility, a world that demanded a different sort of synthesis—they seemed to have little in the way of an answer.
Soon my tea with the mujahideen was over. The suicide bombers walked me to their car, offered me their WhatsApp contact information, and thanked me dearly for coming to Afghanistan. Mr. Young turned to me. “If you ever want to stay with us, then you are always welcome.” He smiled and laughed. “And next time,” he said, “we can show you our weapons.”