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A Journey through Talibanistan

Since Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2015 the country has been rapidly sinking into one of the worst crises in its history. Deprived of foreign reserves which have been frozen by western banks and ostracised by foreign governments, the new rulers in Kabul have been struggling with the most basic functions of the state, a situation not helped by the fact that women have been dismissed en masse from their jobs and soldiers and public servants have been replaced by Taliban fighters and officials.

In an attempt to reassure the outside world that they have changed since their last stint in government from 1996 to 2001, promises about girls' education and amnesty for members of the previous government have been made and broken. Following a bout of summary executions of their enemies, the Taliban are now trying to present a more orderly administration that has restored peace and is worthy of sanction relief and foreign aid.

Pascal Maitre has been documenting Afghanistan since the 1980 and embarked on a journey across a ravaged country facing widespread food shortages and social collapse.

The one dubious achievement of Taliban rule has been the cessation of fighting which has raged in some parts of the country, largely uninterrupted, for the past 50 years. Thus, while hospitals are seeing fewer injuries from fighting and violence, huge numbers of children are being admitted to paediatric clinics with severe symptoms of malnutrition, overwhelming a health system short on resources and staff.

In Bamiyan, the site of the world renowned Buddha statues that were dynamited by the first Taliban regime in 2001, a Hazara family is living in a dank, dark cave in the porous sandstone cliff that once housed the oversized statues. The father worked in Iran until 2020 when the government expelled illegal Afghan immigrants. Back in Bamiyan, opportunities for work are limited to non existent.

Former Taliban are now the administrators and power-brokers. The governor of Bamiyan province, Abdullah Sarhadi, describes a typical biography of a Taliban follower. Once a militia commander, he lost an eye around 20 years ago and spent 4 years in Guantanamo Bay after being captured by the Americans following the 2001 invasion. He declines to be interviewed and sends out a prepared set of responses to any journalists that make their way to his office: 'Security is assured in Bamiyan, Hazaras are not being persecuted, the Taliban government is creating jobs and the economy is normal.' The situation outside shows a very different reality.

In the southern city of Kandahar, decked out with huge white Taliban flags, a more talkative deputy governor agrees to give his view of the situation in his office in a colonnaded 19th century building dating from the brief period of British rule. His aim is to assure foreign media that things are improving and that the Taliban government is trustworthy. He emphasises that the Taliban are there to improve people's lives and queries the wisdom of funds being withheld by western banks in view of the peace his administration has managed to deliver. Kandahar's prison director proudly explains how the institutions operates. His 1,950 inmates are divided into five sections: drug addicts, common criminals, political detainees, women without children and women with children. The vast majority of the prisoners are drug users, some of the tens of thousands of addicts that squat in parks and under bridges across the country, smoking or injecting heroin. The Taliban say they are determined to eradicate drug addiction in the country but the problem is too big for a new and overstretched administration. In Kandahar's prison, addicts are given 'cold turkey' shock therapy, though they're supposedly 'free to leave'.

Other aspects of daily life have also changed in line with Taliban ideology. Smaller legal disputes are now adjudicated by local Taliban officials according to Islamic law and for many Afghans who have lived through decades of war and insecurity, seeing one corrupt government after another pass down the corridors of power, the Taliban's simple and straightforward justice is a welcome change.

The madrasah has become the dominant form of educational institution for boys who spend much of their day studying the Quran and other holy texts. Initially girls were supposed to be allowed to go to secondary school but in April 2022 the government changed tack and girls were sent home. Citing a lack of teachers, the Taliban said that appropriate conditions for girls to be educated past secondary school have not been achieved.

While food production has decreased significantly due to shortage of seeds and drought, one crop is thriving. In Helmand province, poppy fields stretch to the horizon as far as the eye can see. While the Taliban officially forbid narcotics and opium cultivation the rewards are too tempting and a blind eye is turned nationwide. Some 90% of the world's opium comes from Afghanistan where a half hectare of wheat can yield about $ 700, vegetables around $ 2,000 but the same area planted with opium produces $ 7,000 worth of crops.

The only serious opposition to Taliban government now comes from Islamic State, a more radical and violent group that has been targeting mainly Shia Muslims across the country but has also attacked civil infrastructure, killing hundreds since the Taliban take-over. There are clear links between Islamic State Khorasan Province, as the local outfit is called, and the Taliban via another militant group called the Haqqani network but for now, the Taliban seem to be in the ascendancy and despite widespread incompetence and malpractice, firmly in control of the country.

Pascal Maitre spent 10 days on the road, documenting the life under the second Taliban administration.
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