DISPATCHES FROM AFGHANISTAN: Three Months of Life Under the Taliban Rule, How Scams Target Evacuation Efforts and Future of Mining
Life Under the Taliban in Afghanistan
It is hard to believe that it has been more than three months since the Taliban took the Presidential Palace.
Afghans are resilient people, and life goes on—even without the buzz of music and foreign cash flow. Cafes and restaurants are still open (and many can be spotted smoking cigarettes or the popular waterpipe known as Hookah), commercial airplanes have resumed transits across the country and to some international destinations such as Islamabad and Abu Dhabi, hotels lure tourists, and cars continue to clog the narrow and ancient Kabul streets.
Yet the doom and gloom of a humanitarian catastrophe cling as the winter winds roll in and snow glazes the serrated mountains of the beautiful, bleeding country. It is a dilemma that the United States and much of the international community will be forced to painfully reconcile with—either recognize the new Taliban regime and release the funds that could stop innocent Afghans from starving to death or pariah the country and hold out for a longer game in the hopes the regime eliminates terrorism and values human rights.
Let’s not be tone-deaf here. Before 2001, there was no government as isolated as the Taliban. Nations refused to recognize them and refused to give them money. But you know who did provide them with a couple of million to marginally stay afloat? Osama bin Laden.
HOW SCAMS TARGET EVACUATION EFFORTS IN AFGHANISTAN
Earlier this month, the decimated bodies of four Afghans – two women and two men – were discovered in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the northern Balkh province, several days after being reported missing.
One of the dead, Frozan Sanfi, was a prominent women’s rights activist in the city – and thus one of the vulnerable and deeply desperate to flee the beleaguered country following the August Taliban takeover. An individual contacted the four, posing as someone operating evacuation flights. Only when the victims showed up to a designated meeting point to be transported to a supposed flight, their money and belongings were taken – along with their lives.
According to Qari Sayed Khosty, spokesperson for the Siraj Haqqani-run Ministry of the Interior, two suspects “confessed during questioning,” triggering a deeper probe into what other players are involved.
One Afghan in touch with the grieving families said that this endeavor was incredibly organized, extended over several days. The person on the other end was aware of their name and personal information.
Only, the searing murder is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an ever-evolving rash of criminals and organized criminal enterprises cashing in on the frantic U.S. departure from Afghanistan, after two decades at-war and exploiting the many pleading for a new start abroad.
Since the tragedy, several Afghans have come forward with chilling tales of having been contacted via WhatsApp under the guise of being a U.S. evacuation authority and collecting the exposed individual’s private details, documents, and identification cards.
One such scam number answered, speaking the local Afghan language of Dari and claiming that they can “only help if you have a case number with the U.S. State Department” and that this message “will be communicated once verified.”
A second number was the cell phone provider MTN’s customer care line, and a third was turned off.
Yet sometimes, escaping hopefuls are also forced to pay vast sums of money upfront, with criminal outfits cleaning out their life savings.
“It seems to be quite organized because very often the numbers are not Afghanistan – the calls are coming from overseas numbers like America and the U.K, so people then think it must be legit. This isn’t a random thing,” observes one Kabul-based, western security professional. “It is very well thought out; people are so desperate. We have seen a lot of this, and the schemes will only escalate.”
The security pro notes that a standard racket is to claim to be taking Kabul residents to HKIA, but at the last-minute insisting that they must pay thousands of dollars to be driven 300 miles north “because the flight changed to Mazar-e-Sharif.” And then suddenly, the prey is informed that the evacuation flight was canceled at the last minute. Thus they must fork out copious amounts more to be transported another ten hours on the heinous journey home.
WHAT LIFE IS LIKE UNDER THE AFGHAN TALIBAN
Three months ago, a band-aid was ripped for a bullet wound. President Ashraf Ghani fled the Presidential Palace on the searing Sunday afternoon of August 15, paving the way for the encroaching Taliban to storm right in without a crescendo of bullets. Two weeks later, the last U.S. evacuation aircraft rose into Kabul’s night sky from the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), dramatically drawing to a close a bitter and bloody twenty-year war.
So what has become of life under the Taliban three months into their iron-clad rule over Afghanistan?
Indeed, it marks a bizarre and brash maneuver from insurgency and into forming a government in charge of 38 million people. Much of the leadership has little experience running formal procedures, a far cry from wielding an AK-47 as a mountain militia. Those in top positions typically prefer to conduct business inside a mosque or away from the confines of an office. If they do show up, it is usually only for a few hours—with ministries and directorates effectively shutting shop after 2 pm.
The Taliban is in over its head—and it is all coming at a time when the nation is on the brink of a harrowing economic collapse.
In the streets—from Kabul to Kandahar to Khost and beyond—life on the surface has resumed; only Afghans are becoming hungrier, poorer, and more desperate and afraid by the day. In less than twelve weeks, the Afghani currency has devalued from around 73 AFG to one U.S. dollar to 92 AFG.
It is expected only to get worse.
“We rely purely on Allah,” Ghaws-u-deen, thirty-five, who sells Afghan fried food on the street, tells me with a brave smile.
THREE MONTHS INTO THE TALIBAN RULE ECONOMIC, HUMANITARIAN AND SECURITY CATASTROPHE EXISTS
On a quiet late fall afternoon, groups of women huddle over overflowing rice plates and tea in the “family garden section” of a popular Kabul café. Since the sudden Taliban takeover on August 15, it has remained a safe space for all walks of life to venture from their homes.
“You are a journalist? I don’t think so,” one lanky Afghan man sneers at me, interrupting lunch and claiming to be Taliban intelligence. “Where is your identification?”
It marks the first time since the dramatic government change that such an intrusion in a private place has unfurled. It left me with an unsettling sensation of what is to come as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan consolidates controlling powers across the struggling nation of 38 million.
Initially, crime rates drastically dropped throughout the Taliban’s early tenure – with mafia groups and lone-wolf robbers fearing a return of the hand-chopping and public hangings that punctured the Taliban rule of the 1990s. But when it became evident that the new regime would be holding off on draconian punishments in a desperate bid for international recognition, the security situation has slipped again.
What’s more, the ascent of terrorist outfits such as ISIS-K – which carries out almost daily attacks – has left many on edge. On the margins of Jalalabad, an ISIS stronghold in the east, decapitated bodies have become a signature sight for the wounded and worried.
However, the rapidly unraveling sense of safety is hardly the biggest problem for Afghans left behind.
Three months since the ouster of the U.S-backed government, and Afghanistan is the embodiment of a country on the fringe of falling apart – the most flagrant is the devasting economic crisis hitting every Afghan hard.
Shah Agha, 48, a currency exchange teller in the Shar-e-Now district of Kabul, stresses that people cannot withdraw U.S. dollars, and when they try to exchange, it is at a considerable loss.
“If it continues the same, we will have lots of worries because people are getting poorer by the day,” he says wearily. “People are selling their household items to provide for their families. That is affecting the economy because, at the end of the day, the people won’t have anything.”
The Afghani currency is devaluing by the day. Three months ago it stood around 73 Afghanis to one U.S. dollar. Three months on, it has crumbled to around 95.
“There are big concerns about the Afghani’s devaluation, and a big problem we have is with outward international payments and interbank transactions. The outward transactions have stopped. Transactions can take place on only a few items, and not all traders can transfer money,” laments Mohammad Mahmood Arzoyee, 41, Zone Deputy of Operation for the state-run New Kabul Bank. “Nothing is coming in.”
AFGHANISTAN FRONTLINES: INSIDE CHINA AND RUSSIA’S GEOPOLITICAL MINE FRENZY
Deep inside the voluptuous valleys of Afghanistan’s isolated and least populated province, Nuristan, young locals – their eyelashes caked in debris – blast dynamite through a cave wall in a desperate bid to unearth treasures.
The young men – just sixteen and twenty-three – have placed thin mattresses inside their dark cave. Further down the winding, lush mountain range, they live with a bevy of other miners in a one-room stone hut. Life, day and night, revolves around scouring the untapped field for enough gems – from tourmaline, kunzite, aquamarine, spodumene and beryl – to sell at the local markets to make ends meet.
It remains a deeply dangerous vocation – with the men sharing stories about friends “dying and becoming disabled” due to blasting and entire mines collapsing. Only now, their dominance in the mining sector across the vast valley is in jeopardy. The miners claim they have spotted foreigners, possibly Russians, surveying the mineral-rich area.
“But if they come in, maybe we can get a proper salary and it will be safer,” one of the young miners tells me, stressing they are welcome to the idea of outsiders entering.
The United States Department of Defense has estimated that Afghanistan rests atop more than $1 trillion in natural resources – from precious and semi-precious stones, gold, copper, iron, and lithium, to ore and hydrocarbons – all ripe for large-scale mining.
With the United States departed from the region and the Taliban in charge, countries hostile to American interests have the ability to make it rich. In September, the Taliban top echelons announced their government would chiefly depend on China for financial assistance, prompting the U.S. and other global monetary bodies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to freeze aid.
The outside interest in Afghanistan mines comes as the Taliban undergoes a dire financial crisis, while also controlling for the first time in history the picturesque Panjshir province – the only parcel of Afghanistan they could not domineer during their last reign from 1996 to 2001.
“Half the wealth of Afghanistan is in Panjshir,” Haji Asad, a Taliban Commander stationed in the heart of Nuristan’s neighboring valley, boasts. “And now we have it.”
For those interested in learning more about the aftermath of war, please pick up a copy of my latest book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.”
Photos courtesy of my brilliant photographer @JakeSimkinPhotos. Please consider a paid subscription to allow us to continue this work.