Kabul: Taliban foot-soldiers were out on the streets in full strength in Kabul Monday to mark their first anniversary of coming to power in Afghanistan, machine guns mounted on the back of pick-up vans or simply slung along their shoulders, while cries of Allah-o-Akbar were peppered with celebratory gunfire.
The government was shut down in honour of the anniversary. The bazaars were meant to have stayed open, but fear was disguised as concern and most citizens stayed in. The anything-can-happen sentiment was all-pervasive. The city was on high alert.
And everywhere you went, the faces of former Taliban fighters would be wreathed in smiles when they heard that this reporter was from India.
“Hindustan hamaara humsaya mulk hai. India dost hai. India ki hamko zaroorat hai. Yeh accha hai ki India Afghanistan vaapas aa raha hai (India is a close and compassionate neighbour. India is a friend. We need India. It is good that India is returning to Afghanistan),” went the chorus of comments.
It was as if the city was divided down the middle. Cars of all makes, sizes and models ruled the day. Huge petrol-guzzling Land Cruisers and Toyota Prado and other SUVs without number plates, with well-kept men of authority who sat behind darkened windows; as well as ancient motor cars predating even the first Taliban regime from 1996-2001, carrying poorer Taliban foot-soldiers, were being driven around the city. The ubiquitous black-and-white flag of the Islamic Emirate with the “shahada” emblazoned on it (“there is no God, but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger”) fluttered in the wind.
And then there were those Kabulis who had shuttered themselves inside, ignoring the Taliban celebrations and going about their day as if the first anniversary belonged to some other country.
“What are we celebrating? There are no jobs, and those who do have jobs have their salaries slashed. The Taliban is only interested in whether women have covered themselves up properly, they seem obsessed with women’s issues.
“In India you are celebrating your country’s independence and each of you has a flag in your hand. But look at us — we don’t want to carry the Taliban flag,” went the sentiment.
‘We must choose peace for all Afghans’
Clearly, though, even those celebrating among the Taliban foot-soldiers seemed aware that while it was alright to wave their automatic guns in front of the CNN camera and abuse America, some tough choices would have to be made, sooner than later, on improving conditions for the people.
The subject of girls’ school education resulted in the sobering down of the most enthusiastic Taliban fighter. The older men, especially, realised what the stakes could be in the coming months. Significantly, there was not one woman amongst all those celebrating anywhere in the city.
“It is true that our girl children must go to school. Our senior leadership must look at these issues quickly. We have been fighting a war for so many decades that now we must choose peace for all Afghans,” said an older Talib.
But here was a third kind of Kabuli who celebrated the day.
On top of the Wazir Akbar Khan hill, where until the Taliban came, the flag of the Islamic Republic — a gift from India — fluttered from a long flagpole, ordinary folk danced the traditional Pashtun “attan” dance and sang alongside. They wore all kinds of colours — blue and pink and red kurta shirts, a far cry from the black favoured by the Taliban fighters.
Hadn’t the Taliban banned music and dance? Yes, came the reply, musical instruments had been banned, but Afghans could still sing their stuff. On the other hand, perhaps the Emirate was making an exception for the day. It was 15 August, after all.
Later in the afternoon, senior ministers in the government, including Mullah Yaqoob, defence minister and son of the Taliban founder Mullah Omar, deputy prime minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, finance minister Hidayatullah Badri and refugees minister Khalil Haqqani came together at the National Radio & TV to give a report card of their one year in power.
The sacrifices that the Taliban had made these past 21 years in which as many as two million people had died, the Taliban leaders said, topped the speeches. But there was also the plea that Afghans who had fled last year when the Taliban rolled in should come back home.
Outside the building, Emirate soldiers in top security gear stood in protection mode — night vision goggles, black face masks, the M-4A1 automatic machine gun cradled in front of the chest, a dagger slung on the side, knee caps and boots. Above all, black face masks that only left the eyes visible.
The soldiers posed for pictures, quietly. This was not the picture of a bedraggled army, but a disciplined force. The message that spoke louder than words was that this was a fight to the finish. That the Taliban had no option, but to survive.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)