It was a stunning rout.
A year ago Monday, a ragtag army of extremists swept into Kabul without firing a shot after having seized most of Afghanistan. After spending trillions on military and humanitarian aid, the two-decade U.S.-led international campaign to remake the desperately poor and violence-ridden country was over.
Western nations raced to depart in a largely chaotic and embarrassing exit, and the victorious Taliban, whose previous government was toppled in the aftermath of 9/11 after refusing to hand over the author of the attack, Osama bin Laden, promised to form an “open, inclusive Islamic government.”
Instead, after the collapse of the U.S.-backed administration of Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban introduced policies that “form a system of repression that discriminates against women and girls in almost every aspect of their lives,” according to a recent report from Amnesty International that said the “suffocating crackdown against Afghanistan’s female population is increasing day by day.”
The group had decimated protections for those suffering domestic violence, detained women and girls for minor violations, and contributed to a surge in child marriages, the report said, adding that it had reneged on promises to allow women to continue to work and girls to continue their education. Some of those protesting against the restrictions had been tortured and abused, it said.
Malika, 21, said she lived in daily fear for her life because her husband, Bashir, was being hunted by the Taliban because he used to be a government worker.
“If the Taliban finds us, they will immediately kill us,” she told NBC News from Kabul this year. “When the Taliban want someone, they will arrest their whole family until they get the person they want,” she added. “Then that person disappears and nobody knows if they are alive or not.”
As a result, she said they were living in a secret location in Kabul.
Bashir, 45, has heart problems and is unable to leave the house to work, so she was earning $3 a day by washing clothes, she said. This was not enough to cover their costs, but she said their landlord had allowed them to defer their rent.
Like all of the Afghan’s featured in this article, NBC News has chosen not to use Malika’s last name because of fears for the family’s safety. Taliban officials did not respond to requests for comment on allegations of abuse, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Jawed, a former prosecutor who tried corruption cases and worked to improve women’s rights, said he was also living in hiding because of his former job.
“I’m not often in my house, I’m mobile, staying with relatives,” he said, adding that he feared for his wife and children, the eldest of whom is 10.
“They will immediately kill me,” he said, adding that Taliban members had already been to his house and beaten a relative when they found he was not home.
If he is arrested, he said he had “set up a secret password with my wife so that she will know what is going on. Then the plan is for her to move into my father-in-law’s house and she will stay there until they decide what to do with me, whether that is jail or something else.”
Repression and economic hardship
With the collapse of Ghani’s corruption-riddled Western-backed government, nearly all of the country’s population was thrown into poverty. As the world halted financing in response to the takeover, millions were left unable to feed their families. The economy collapsed.
Even those not living in fear of arrest or death were struggling, with the crisis hitting people in all sectors of society.
With food prices on the rise because of the war in Ukraine and a shift in international focus toward eastern Europe, almost 20 million people, or half of the country’s population, are “experiencing high and critical levels of acute food insecurity,” the United Nations and other aid agencies warned in June.
According to the World Bank, per capita income fell by over a third in the last four months of 2021 as the economy, previously buoyed by huge inflows of foreign aid, reeled at the withdrawal of much of these funds.
And from September to December 2021, around 37 percent of Afghan households did not have enough money to cover food, while 33 percent could afford food but nothing more, the World Bank said.
Describing Afghanistan’s economic outlook as “stark” in its latest overview of the country, published in April, the World Bank said the Ukraine war, combined with sanctions on the country, “may have significant exacerbating impacts via increased prices for imported food and fuel.”
The imploding economy “really affected my business,” said Abdul, 30, a construction company owner from Takhar province. He added that he had been forced to lay off 75 of his 100 employees in recent months.
“It is possible that my company could go out of business because its existence directly depends on construction projects,” he said. “So if all the people are thinking about is their daily survival, we could collapse like other companies.”
“There are lots of jobless people, and of course if there are no jobs, there is no income,” added Abdul, who is married with a 2-year-old son.
In Kabul, Samira, 25, said she had seen her once comfortable life turn upside down.
“Everything is in the market, but the prices have risen a lot,” said Samira, who teaches English and Islamic studies at one of the few private elementary schools left open.
Samira, who lives with her mother and sister, said that 10,000 Afghans, or around $110, used to pay for all the food required to feed her family for a month. Today it only pays for rice and flour.
And the signs of destitution surround her, she said.
“I see hundreds of beggars asking for money,” she said. “The unemployment rate is too high and a number of people are known to have sold parts of their body, like their kidneys or worse, their sons and daughters, to survive.”
Hope to hard line
After the Taliban swept into power, Abdul said lots of people, including himself, had hoped that corrupt officials would be forced out and that the Taliban would form a coalition government. Instead the new regime is solely made up by members of the militant group.
Rather than focusing on “the economy and other issues, like being a proper independent country,” he said they appeared to be focusing on minor issues like the length of men’s beards.
He added that he was growing increasingly worried by the group’s hard-line stance, including its decision to backtrack on its promise that high schools stay open for girls and their decree that all Afghan women wear head-to-toe clothing in public.
Women are also being discouraged from working, and told to wear all-encompassing outfits and not leave home without a male chaperone.
Samira also said she was “deeply concerned” about these decrees. She added that they reminded her of the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, when they banned female education and most employment.
Her students, she said, were “pretty hopeless because they cannot see any future for themselves.”
The Taliban’s increasingly hard-line policies disrupted efforts to “win recognition from potential international donors at a time when the country is mired in a worsening humanitarian crisis,” said Michael Kugelman, the deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
The decision not to allow girls back to school “was a genuine blow and a surprise to many Western capitals and many donors,” he said, adding that it made it “even less likely that the international community will provide the type of financial assistance that the Taliban appear to want, namely assistance that goes beyond humanitarian aid.”
“I think it goes to show, the Taliban prioritizes ideological issues over practical issues like getting assistance and recognition,” he said.
“If the world is so disgusted at Taliban policies that it does not want to entertain the idea of providing assistance to the government, it’s the Afghan people who will lose out the most,” he added.
While he said he thought the U.S. and its allies evacuated Afghanistan too quickly in August, Jawed, the former prosecutor, said the Taliban had exploited people to take power.
Now, he said, “there is a sense that European countries and the international community are busy with Ukraine. This is fortunate for the Taliban because they can do whatever they want in Afghanistan. No one is watching.”
“The victims are Afghan poor people,” he added. “Common people.”