Beneath Kabul’s surprising veneer of normalcy, a precarious balancing act

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KABUL – An uneasy calm has settled in Afghanistan’s capital this summer, a wary standoff between the country’s hardline religious rulers and a nervous, worried population struggling to survive but the punishment of a 20-year war involving foreign forces.

Both sides have tried to maintain a precarious balance. In the hope of further alienating foreign donors, the Taliban regime is sending confused signals rather than an iron-clad order on contentious issues, particularly women’s rights. Citizens, hoping to make it through another tough day without crossing an unpredictable red line, have mostly fallen short.

But as next week approaches the first anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power, the balance has become harder to maintain. A series of violent attacks in the capital have belied the regime’s claims that it can keep the public safe, while the Taliban’s shifting interpretations of keeping teenage girls out of school have left thousands of families frustrated and angry.

In the slums of the poor city, life seems to go on as usual. Summer nights are hot and there are frequent power outages. When the evening call to prayer wafts through the soft air, men sit on cement ledges and turn to corner mosques. Children chase each other down the street. Veiled women huddle under bakery windows begging for a piece of bread.

But, the capital, which increased to 4 million two years ago, is slowly getting hollowed out. In the city center, select parking spots sit empty and drug cartels occupy the sidewalks. Gone is the once-forward traffic gridlock as little kids scurry through cars like fish, trying to wash windshields for pennies.

The illusion of post-war security has been destroyed. First, on July 31, a American drone missile A house in central Kabul was hit, with tremors felt for miles. Soon after, President Biden announced the strike Al-Qaeda leader killedwhich the Taliban agreed to ban in a 2020 peace deal with US officials.

Then, in the next few days, terrorist attacks in Kabul’s Shia Muslim community – including a bomb hidden in a flowerpot and a shooting from an apartment building – dashed hopes that after years of persecution, Shiites would gather freely to celebrate Muharram. A month of mourning for Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain.

“We used to think of the Taliban as a distant monster. Now the demon has come, the government is in charge, so it is their responsibility to protect us. People feel more confident,” said Safar Bakri, 32, two weeks ago as he put up colorful banners for sale during Muharram.

But by last weekend, several people in the area had been killed or injured. Thousands of banners were taken down by police, traffic was banned and the streets were empty except for Taliban troops in armored trucks. Community leaders angrily accused the authorities of “cancelling” their sacred rites instead of preserving them.

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“We took many victims to the hospital, some had legs or arms missing, some had their stomachs tied with gauze, some had burns on their mouths,” said an ambulance driver named Syed Ali, 55, after a bomb exploded in a major square on August 6. “We tried to get all their names, but some couldn’t speak.”

In contrast, the drone strike did not harm any local residents, damaged one house, and targeted a foreign-born militant – Ayman al-Zawahiri – who was not well known to many Afghans. But it sparked a wave of public anger against the United States that had subsided since the withdrawal of foreign troops last August.

There were rude tweets all over the internet, mocking the Taliban regime for its failure to retaliate. There was an anti-American rally in Kabul, with Taliban security forces and marchers holding placards reading “Down with America” ​​in English.

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However, for the most part, the capital soon returned to a familiar, glam routine of making do with very little. In conversations over the past several weeks, people from all walks of life said they are mostly trying to get through each day — and avoid thinking too far ahead into an uncertain future.

In central Kabul, a line of dirty-looking men formed outside a World Food Program depot and stretched for several city blocks. Nearby, other men waited with broken wheels, hoping to earn some money by supplying wheat, sugar and cooking oil to people’s homes.

“This is my third time here,” said Khalid Aziz, a dignitary in his 60s who said he had spent 25 years teaching Persian literature to high school students. “This country has suffered a tragedy and we’re all just trying to survive,” he said. “We fear for the future of our children and we have no hope for tomorrow.”

A few blocks away, a glitzy bridal shop sat empty. A carpeted showroom housed shapely mannequins in sequined, imported gowns, but their faces were covered by masks or wigs, following Taliban instructions. The owner, Syed Hussain, said he had fewer customers now, as most brides could afford simple dresses sewn by local tailors.

“I am always worried and upset. Everyone in this country is upset,” Hussain said, fingering prayer beads nonstop. “We have no idea what will happen next or what our future will be like. When I see hundreds of messages on Facebook, many people trying to leave the country, I think I should take my family.”

Like half-covered statues, Taliban officials have taken other half-steps to enforce their strict Islamic code without turning the public against them. Weddings, the social glue of Afghan society, were already divided into separate rooms for men and women. The regime has allowed weddings to continue but banned live bands known for their ear-splitting, amplified vocals and drums.

The Taliban administration is working to modernize its bureaucracy and soften its international image. Government ministries now include trimly dressed businessmen and spokespeople. There are many Talibs, but they bear little resemblance to the men with Kalashnikov rifles and beards that ran the country in the late 1990s.

At the international airport, arriving passengers are tossed through the once cumbersome immigration lines and uniformed female officers stamp passports in booths next to their male counterparts – even though the government has banned women from most public jobs except in hospitals and detention centers for women.

Inside the glitzy bank, overseas cash transfer services, until recently blocked by international sanctions, are efficiently processed by technicians sitting behind computer screens. The area is spotless and the scene is much more orderly than it was in the pre-Taliban era.

Outside, many women shop with their faces uncovered, without fear of punishment, although the government has advised people of childbearing age to veil themselves in public or, if possible, not leave the house at all. The new rules prohibit women from traveling long distances without a male escort.

Officials refer to the orders as “guidance” only and there have been no reports of women being beaten up in the capital for indecent dressing. But in the rural areas, the religious authorities have begun to impose severe punishments on both criminals and moral offenders. In Zabul province, authorities recently announced the public flogging of two thieves and an adulterous couple.

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Such mixed signals have fueled public opinion on one of today’s most sensitive issues: whether and when the Taliban will allow girls beyond the sixth grade to attend school. Since May, when the government abruptly reneged on its promise to return older girls to the classroom, officials have offered various explanations: the curriculum needs to be reformed; Religious scholars are divided; Some rural men do not want their daughters to leave home.

The wait has become a growing source of anguish and frustration for families in Kabul, whose teenage daughters have been homebound for months — and whose youngest fears what will happen when he finishes sixth grade.

“I feel very sorry for my daughter,” said Ghulam Haider, 38, an engineer who lost his job at a foreign construction company when the Taliban took over. As the family gathers in their parlor on a recent evening, 13-year-old Samia sits shyly on a sofa, looking depressed.

“She loves school, and she’s very bright,” Haider said. Although many of their friends had left the country, the family planned to stay. “We want to see Afghanistan become peaceful and prosperous,” he said. “But now, for her future, we are also thinking of leaving.”

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