The white flags of the Islamic Emirate are already frayed. Worn by the wind, pieces of fabric are tearing off, just nine months after the Taliban seized power. Here in Herat, they arrived on August 12, 2021, after several days of a hard offensive around the city. In early August, chants and slogans, repeated from rooftop to rooftop – “Allah Akbar,” “Allah Akbar” – had given the illusion that the city was holding. A few days later, the Taliban arrived at the Arg, Kabul’s presidential palace.
“We had to do it to protect the population, there was no institution left standing. Everything had collapsed,” Shir Ahmad Amar Mohajer, who is responsible for the entire western area for the Foreign Ministry, tells us. “It is an important area, because of the borders with Iran and Turkmenistan. Relations with Iran are not as good as we would like, but they are improving,” he assures.
Mohajer is lamenting the hostility of the international community, especially Washington. He is calling for the release of the Afghan Central Bank funds, about $9 billion, of which $7.2 billion is in the United States. He makes the case for an argument we have often heard repeated in recent days among the Taliban: “the Emirate respected, and still respects, the Doha Agreement,” signed in February 2020 in the Qatari capital with the Americans. It provided for the safe withdrawal of U.S. troops in exchange for the Taliban’s generic willingness to engage in peace talks with other Afghan political actors. How that worked out is well known. But Mohajer claims: “We did not come to power by force. We intervened for the security of the people. It is the Americans who don’t respect the pacts and don’t want to recognize our government.”
In Herat, everything is now in the hands of the Taliban: the cross-border trade, the institutional headquarters, the major customs point. Presiding over it is a mawlawi of imposing stature and with a suspicious look. He speaks little – his name is Saeed, from Kandahar province. How much does the customs collect per month? He says the number is not known. How many trucks cross the Islam Qala border each month? “At least 2,000. No, at least 3,000.” Surrounding him are a dozen or so officials from the old regime. They look at each other, whisper, try to intervene. “Between 3,000 and 6,000,” the quiet mawlawi corrects himself.
A long silence follows the question about the increase in customs revenue. Then the answer: “plus 34 percent.” After all, the cleric explains, “before, 80 percent of taxes ended up towards corruption; now, 100 percent goes to the Emirate’s coffers.”
Outside, in the huge parking lot that accommodates dozens and dozens of trucks and large freight depots, some of the transporters confirm this: “Bribes aren’t being paid anymore, but the economy is at a standstill, there is no money. People are working 50% less than before.”
Just outside Herat, the military base that for long years hosted the Italian contingent – which was responsible, under a NATO mandate, for the entire western area – is also in the hands of the Taliban. Here, on June 8, 2021, our defense minister went to lower the Italian flag. Accompanied by 40 embedded journalists, Lorenzo Guerini thanked the soldiers for being able to “grasp the needs of the Afghan people and their institutions that we have accompanied on the path to building a safer, freer and more democratic country.”
“The road has never been as safe as now,” says the driver of the collective cab that for 500 afghanis (about €5) takes us from Herat to Farah on a 3-and-a-half-hour ride. This is the favorite mantra of the Taliban, of every rank and role: “What about security? Have you seen how much better security is now that there is an Emirate?”
Along the road, as we drive south, there are some tents of the kuchi, the Pashtun “nomads.” Small, bullet-riddled, abandoned military posts bear the signs of war. The larger ones, still active, are a great gift to the Taliban. Shindand and Farah Rud, which used to be among the most conflict-ridden and problematic districts for Italian soldiers, are now peaceful. The sun is beating down hard. There are few cars on the streets. After Farah Rud, the number of those leaving the ring road – the country’s main ring road – and heading towards Farah is even smaller.
The landscape is changing: it becomes more welcoming, the colors turn to sandy yellow. By the roadside, farmers, both old people and children, are cutting and harvesting grain. A young man holds out his hand to his wife as she crosses a ditch. The arch that announces the entrance to the town is propped up with shots. The armed mujahedin manning it are bored: they don’t even give us a glance. In the center of town, under an enormous traffic circle shaped like a fruit basket, a policeman pretends to govern traffic. The headquarters of the Department of Information and Culture is not far away. “Wherever you go, there will be mujahedin to take care of you.” It’s not a good start to the meeting with mawlawi Abdul Hai “Sabawoon,” already informed of our arrival.
He explains that in Farah, we will be constantly followed in our work. “It’s for your safety, to make you feel more calm.” We object: people don’t speak honestly if they see the Taliban; they would not be free to express themselves freely. We discuss for a long time. Then, the compromise: “They will stand at a distance, unseen. But they will watch you, so they will make sure nothing happens to you.” But then, is the Emirate not as safe as the Taliban say? “No, there is security everywhere. But here in Farah you don’t see any foreigners, you don’t know how people will react.”
We go back and forth for a long time, until we divert the discussion to other topics. The mawlawi gets more confident, his answers become more articulate, the first smiles appear. We get comfortable as well, pillows under our arms, half-slumped. We go on for hours. He gives us a little personal biography, a step-by-step guide on what it means to be a Taliban: “We did not join the Emirate, we are the Emirate,” the mawlawi points out, and he insists: “Tonight you’ll sleep here.” We end up on the floor of an office. The next morning, the building handyman arrives, broom in hand: “The employees are coming now, I have to clean up, get up.”