One thing never changes in Afghanistan, no matter who is in power. And that’s lunch.
Whether it is a meeting with an official or a visit to someone’s home, it almost always finishes up with an invitation to break bread.
It’s often awkward for the host—especially if it is a poorer family. They may not have enough food for their own needs. But not to offer would be worse. Caring for a guest is fundamental to Afghan culture. And upholding the tradition means being prepared to sacrifice everything. The Taliban themselves are the best example. When they refused President George W. Bush’s demand to hand over Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, they lost a whole country. In their view, the brutal tactics they employed to reclaim power never broke these hospitality principles, as they were aimed at repelling invaders, or infidels. Now, back in charge, the old guest code applies once more.
That’s how I ended up having lunch with a suicide bomber.
I was at the Kabul airport, not for a flight but for a story: to sit in on a meeting between one of its new Taliban managers (Taliban-agers?) and a businessman I was profiling. The meeting was a flop. The airport manager said he needed “higher authority” before approving the businessman’s request. But he insisted we all stay to eat.
As we waited for the food, a Taliban soldier came in to prepare himself for his midday prayers. If you wonder about the word “soldier,” he hardly looked like a guerrilla, clad instead in top-of-the-line tactical equipment that had recently belonged to U.S.-trained Afghan commandos. After peeling off his gear, he dropped it on a chair, along with his U.S. assault rifle, and then left to pray. He clearly had no qualms about leaving his weapon with a group of people he had never met, foreigners among them.
Caring for a guest is fundamental to Afghan culture. And upholding the tradition means being prepared to sacrifice everything. The Taliban themselves are the best example.
Afghanistan is all contradictions these days. As I dug into the ample plates of lamb, rice, and beans laid out for us, I remembered the convoy I’d seen leaving the airport that morning, trucks laden with emergency aid from the European Union. The United Nations’ World Food Program is warning that more than half the Afghan population may not have enough to eat over the coming winter. The signs are everywhere, from a spike in child malnutrition to the pop-up markets you see around Kabul, where people are selling their belongings to earn cash for food.
And economic sanctions imposed by the United States after the fall of Kabul are making things dramatically worse. The measures may be aimed at the Taliban, but they hit all Afghans. And as more people are driven into poverty and hunger, the contradiction of the West’s simultaneously sending aid while strangling the Afghan economy with an embargo is looking not just punitive but perverse.
The Taliban have hardly endeared themselves so far, stonewalling both on women’s rights and on making its government more representative. If there is one small consolation, it is that Afghanistan has so far escaped a new coronavirus wave. The Taliban claim credit, though it probably has more to do with the country’s youthful population—at least two-thirds of Afghans are under 25.
After peeling off his gear, he dropped it on a chair, along with his U.S. assault rifle, and then left to pray.
It was a short midday prayer, and the Taliban fighter returned minutes later to retrieve his gear and join us. Relaxing into the armchair, he said he was from Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace, before asking us where we were from. “Are you married?” he continued. When we asked him the same question, he didn’t miss a beat: “There was no point. I was supposed to be a martyr, a suicide bomber.”
He told us he was a member of a Taliban special-forces unit known as “Badri 313,” the name derived from a seminal seventh-century Islamic battle. Its fighters played a decisive role in the Taliban’s blitzkrieg-style takeover this summer, many working undercover inside the U.S.-backed government. A pledge to turn yourself into a weapon when ordered is a prerequisite for Badri 313 selection.
And now? Did he still want to blow himself up?
“I still want to meet Allah,” he replied. “But my father is trying to arrange a wife for me in Kandahar. Now the war is over.”
It may just have been a chat over a chance lunch, but over several weeks in Afghanistan I heard much the same line of thinking, whether from fighters on checkpoint duty or senior Taliban managers getting used to their new offices in Kabul, occupied until recently by officials from the U.S.-backed government.
You could summarize it thus: everyone has paid a price, the Americans and their Afghan and NATO allies; the Afghan people and the Taliban too. Now that the war is over, it’s time to move on and be friends.
But while the war may be over, the humanitarian crisis worsens, and the tone is becoming more desperate. “We are drowned in our problems,” said the Taliban’s co-founder and now caretaker prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, in a recent address as he pleaded for increased international aid. The Taliban, he said, want good economic relations with all countries.
It is not so simple—certainly not for the U.S., still coming to terms with the spectacular full-circle failure of its 20-year Afghan intervention. And from Washington’s point of view, the Taliban administration looks distinctly unfriendly, with at least one individual that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist serving in a ministerial post.
That U.S.-designated terrorist is Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the eponymous Haqqani network and mastermind of some of the most deadly attacks of the war. U.S. personnel were among his many victims. Now serving as interior minister, Haqqani is also the ultimate boss of my impromptu lunch partner.
Yet nothing is as it seems. There have been well-sourced reports that the media-shy Haqqani also has a technocratic bent, and has been advocating for universal female education. And while most girls in grades 7 through 12 are stuck at home, there has been no blanket ban, so some have returned to school. Some women are still working, even in government offices, and continue to go out alone—dressed as they did before the Taliban arrived, in long coats and scarves rather than body-hiding burkas. It is hardly freedom, but neither is it a full return to the Taliban past.
One explanation may be a shortage of enforcement manpower—with Taliban ranks depleted by years of punishing U.S. air strikes, many of the checkpoints are staffed by Taliban in their late teens. Sometimes, when they see a foreigner in the car, they ask: “Can you take me to America?”
But many fear this is all just a mirage, with the Islamist movement trying to appear less repressive while resisting significant concessions, as its leaders try to coax Washington to ease its embargo.
Despite Taliban promises of an “amnesty” for their opponents, reports of vendetta-style killings and beatings continue. Taliban leaders claim renegade elements are responsible and say the perpetrators will be arrested. Those sound like hollow words for the many Afghans with past ties to the American military or the previous government—and who couldn’t get onto U.S. evacuation flights in August. Hundreds of thousands are still desperate to find a way out, whether by foot, car, or plane.
A further complication is the threat from ISIS-K, the Afghan offshoot of the terrorist organization, which has claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings since the Taliban takeover. After years of using the same tactics, the Taliban now find themselves on the receiving end. The former insurgents (such as my lunch partner) are now the security forces, and they find it just as difficult as the Americans and the U.S.-supported Afghan units did to stop such attacks.
Taliban leaders are also worried by the challenge from ISIS-K, as the ultra-extremist group seeks to position itself as the true defender of radical Islam and steal its recruits.
A recent Taliban media-censorship proclamation—barring female characters in TV dramas—was partly a message to its rank and file. In fact, major channels removed their most risqué offerings several months ago. Yet there is no sign it has changed anything. The more conservative Turkish soap operas still airing have their women.
The Taliban appear to be resistant to making a clear commitment to allow all girls back to school, for fear of stoking internal fractures and driving hardline elements into the arms of ISIS-K, amid reports that ISIS-K is offering higher salaries to fighters who join its ranks.
Most damaging of all would be losing people such as my lunch partner, with his special training. America’s longest war may be over, but in Afghanistan real peace looks a long way off. And even as it licks its wounds, the U.S. risks pushing the country into a whole new crisis with its embargo.
Andrew North has been covering Afghanistan for two decades and was previously based in Kabul for the BBC