Maryam* is near the top of her sixth grade class in Kabul, which under Taliban rule means that her education should be ending in a few months.
But the 10-year-old, whose name we have changed to protect her identity, has a strategy to stay in school for another year, and her eyes dance with satisfaction as she explains her plan. “I will make sure I don’t answer too many questions right. I have decided to fail, so I can study sixth grade again.”
This is Afghanistan nearly a year after the Taliban seized control of the country in a lightning advance, moving so fast to take Kabul they surprised even their own leadership.
The country’s brightest young citizens are harnessing their intelligence to self-sabotage, because in a twisted system the group has created, that gives them more hope than success.
In their campaign for Afghanistan, and in international talks with the US, the Taliban offered an implicit promise, that in return for a slightly tempered version of their puritanical extremism, they would at least bring peace and stability to a country racked by decades of war.
Women had an Islamic right to education and to work, their envoys said at international conferences, and without constant war the Afghan economy would have more room to grow. As hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled, many others welcomed the silencing of the guns with hope.
A girl participates in a class at a secret school in Afghanistan. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
Nearly a year on, that vision looks increasingly hollow. Talking about the seismic shift last August, Taliban refer to before and after “the victory”. Ordinary Persian-speaking Afghans in the capital speak about life before and after “the fall”, or “the collapse”, suqut in Afghanistan’s Dari dialect.
The Taliban are an isolated pariah state, not recognised by a single country, even erstwhile allies. Their embrace of their old, violent allies was dramatically exposed last week when the US killed the leader of al Qaida in the heart of Kabul’s elite Sherpur neighbourhood.
Before that though, they had spent months out of the global spotlight. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a gift to the Taliban, drawing the world’s attention away as the group cranked up their extremist policies.
Women face harsher restrictions here than anywhere else in the world, barred from secondary education and most work outside healthcare and education. They are forced to be accompanied by a male guardian for all but short journeys and required to cover their faces in public.
Restrictions are enforced intermittently but, particularly for poorer and more vulnerable women including those without a guardian, the fear of enforcement alone can be crippling.
“Three times now I’ve seen women being beaten in the market by Taliban. Some were wearing trousers they thought were too tight, you should have seen how broken they were afterwards,” said Farkhunda*, 16, who had to stop school in September and has been battling depression.
“Another time they beat girls just for smiling and talking too loud. It’s a natural thing to chat about dresses you are buying and things,” she said.”
She doesn’t have Taliban-regulation long, black abaya and the family can’t afford to buy one. “Since then I’ve even stopped going to study at the madrassa [religious school], it’s better to be at home than run into these animals,” she said.
Members of the Taliban greet each other outside the district governor’s compound in Jalrez. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
The economy has collapsed by at least a third, after international sanctions on the Taliban cut trade, the aid that had sustained the last regime dried up, and a militant group ill-prepared to shift from fighting an insurgency to running a government stumbled in their management. “We weren’t politically linked to the last government, but the Taliban are just taking revenge that we were here doing business,” said one major entrepreneur who has laid off almost 500 staff after equipment was confiscated and licenses suspended across several sectors.
He is frustrated but also baffled by the authorities’ short-term approach. His businesses sit idle although the new regime knows from experience how lucrative they can be. “I had paid them over $3m in forced ‘taxes’,” before they took over, he said. “So many businesses have already collapsed, and if things continue, more will go.”
For the previously rich, the downturn has brought an end to luxuries, but many of the former middle classes have been plunged virtually overnight into poverty and hunger. At least half the population now rely on food aid, if they can get it.
Sardar* and his wife had government jobs in the security forces, and earned enough to buy land and build a house. They were both fired when the Taliban came to power. Today, she sits at home while he touts for manual labour by the roadside and is lucky to get a day’s work in a week, for 200 afghanis ($2).
“I’ve never done this in my life and it’s tough for me because I am not used it, but I have a family to support,” he says, as his four children play at his feet. “I swear that currently I don’t even have 1,000 afghanis in the house, my mother has diabetes and we don’t have money for her medication.”
At times the country’s new leadership has been stunningly callous about this suffering, telling Afghans they should trust in God to feed them, not their government. But they are also aware the crisis is eroding any trust they may have.
“They are losing domestic support and very aware of it,” said an Afghan analyst with connections to senior Taliban, who asked not to be named speaking about internal issues within the group.
The Taliban were always going to struggle with the transition from running a decentralised rural insurgency to taking over the administration in Kabul.
Rahmanullah, 12, applies for aid at the district governor’s house in Jalrez in the province of Wardak. Rahmanullah’s father was killed just after he was born and as the only child he provides for his widowed mother. On the wall, the Taliban has written the name of their unit. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
“Running a government is the biggest nightmare they should have. They were surprised with all the development,” said an Afghan source with close Taliban links, who said the leadership were out of their depth after they arrived in a capital that had been transformed from the city they abandoned in 2001.
“They are traditional rural forces, they have come to cities, but instead of integrating themselves, they want the cities to be integrated to them, they want us to look like them, have beliefs and hobbies like them.”
An entire generation of educated Afghans has fled, or is looking for a way out. The desperation to leave was not surprising, given that the Taliban had targeted professionals across media, civil society and government for assassination for years. While the widespread orgy of killing some feared the Taliban would unleash on Kabul never took place, dozens of people have been assassinated because of their links with the previous government and its security forces.
One former member of the intelligence service told the Observer how he had surrendered the day the Taliban reached his town, but had been arrested three times subsequently while trying to work. Now he barely leaves his home.
The brain drain has made running the country even harder. The central bank, struggling with frozen reserves and sanctions, has kept on only mid and low-level staff, with the most experienced senior managers fleeing abroad, one banker who has been involved in months of crisis talks told the Observer.
One area where the Taliban registered some success was battling the obscene levels of graft that have scarred the administrations of the past 20 years, but their progress there is slowing.
“Corruption is not as bad as under [former president Ashraf] Ghani, when you entered an office to sort something out and everyone from A to Z wanted something. Now there are just a couple of specific people, but it is expanding,” the businessman said.
A flag painted with a rose, a tulip and a drone releasing bombs flutters flutters over a small cluster of graves in the village of Ismail Khel. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
Between the apple groves of Ismail Khel village, barely an hour’s drive southwest of Kabul, a flag painted with a rose, a tulip and a drone releasing bombs flutters over a small cluster of graves.
To the right are the abandoned ruins of a house, where 14 years ago, at least eight women and children died in an airstrike. They were buried beside their home.
To the left, Haji Yahyah, 66, still lives with his wife and a niece in the patched-up wreckage of their home, hit by a second bomb that killed his daughter-in-law and his nephew. They never got compensation from American forces to rebuild, and stayed because they had nowhere else to go.
Villagers say those were the only aerial attacks on this farming community, but for over a decade the area was racked by death and violence, as foreign and government troops would land in helicopters and storm through the houses.
“We have four graveyards in this village. Twenty years ago we had just one,” said Ainullah, 53. “A charity came to the village recently, looking for kids who had lost a parent, to help them with food. They could hardly find a house in the village without at least one.”
Every man stopped by visiting journalists (women rarely speak to strangers in a conservative rural area) had a harrowing story of losing civilian brothers, cousins, uncles, executed during these raids, sometimes in front of their children, always within earshot.
These night raids and the deaths of civilians were powerful recruiting sergeants, and one reason the west and its allies lost their war.
“Many, many people joined the Taliban because of the pain of these cases. If your father or son is killed in front of you, wouldn’t you want to take revenge? And the way to do that was to join the Taliban,” said Mohammad Habib, 26.
“When people heard the choppers at night they would do their ablutions, so at least they would die clean, and get dressed so their corpses would be decent.”
Mawli Jannat Gul, who was injured by a mine during the American war in Afghanistan, has come to apply for aid at the district governor’s compound in Jalrez. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
In parts of the country like this, where the guns have finally fallen silent after a decade, or even two, villages are coming back to life. Schools are opening in some districts of southern Helmand and Kandahar where security – including threats from the Taliban – made education impossible.
But there are also places that were quiet over the past two decades which are now ravaged by violence and abuse, including slaughter of civilians, night raids, looting and commandeering of civilian infrastructure such as clinics and schools.
From Panjshir province in the north, in Baghlan district and in Balkhab in central Sar-e Pol, videos and reports are emerging of atrocities like those that once fuelled the Taliban. Civilians have been killed, schools have been commandeered as military bases, mosques have been desecrated and homes raided.
Widespread violence across the country or a new round of a civil war that began with the Soviet invasion in 1978 seems impossible for now, but many felt the same 21 years ago. The US was convinced that a crushing military victory in 2001 meant it could impose its political will on a diverse country, where the austere extremists had a real constituency.
“The notion the Taliban movement could be swept away by US military might proved to be yet another case of wishful thinking,” Jolyon Leslie and Chris Johnson wrote in a 2004 book on the troubled new order, Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace. Their startlingly prescient analysis was widely dismissed as gloomy and out of touch at the time of publication. Now the Taliban may be repeating the same error, mistaking their own crushing military victory for a political mandate to control a diverse country.
“The Taliban are representing the Taliban, not Afghanistan. Half of the population has not been represented in government at all in the past nine months,” said the Afghan analyst. As in 2001, whole ethnic, religious and cultural communities have been excluded from a government dominated almost entirely by Pashtun Taliban extremists.
Those groups have a long history of fighting and, if the Taliban cannot ease Afghanistan’s political and economic crises, may too easily be persuaded to pick up guns again.
“Only 2% of Afghans are over 60, and 45% are under 14,” said one veteran of several of Afghanistan’s many civil wars. Give a boy $100 and a Kalashnikov and you have a fighter. We are living with human timebombs. They grew up with weapons and don’t need two weeks’ training: one hour will be enough.”
* Names have been changed for
Additional reporting by Lutfullah Qasimyar