When the Taliban are in your room
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KABUL, Afghanistan – When the Taliban are in your room and there’s a picture of you on the wall holding an American flag, a rifle and dressed as a recruiting advertisement for the Marines, you have to stay the course.
Then there’s the kitsch mug on your desk that you picked up from a store just when Bagram Air Base closed in July. It reads: “I’ve been there… done this / Operation Enduring Freedom.”
And the empty beer can in your trash that you drank the night before Kabul fell in August when you had a feeling it might be the last beer you’ve been drinking in Afghanistan for quite some time because insurgents have become leaders do not like to drink alcohol.
What about that picture of you in uniform? Taken just before the largest operation against the Taliban of the US war in Afghanistan, when you were a navy in Helmand province over ten years ago. That was back when the insurgents were shadows in the opposite tree line, but now, in October, they’re just steps away, standing next to your bed, separated by a decade and a lost war.
But the Taliban are not there to take or kill you, even though they had many opportunities to do so when you deployed in 2008 and 2009. Or when you were a journalist in the country years after.
But they still managed to kill some guys in your unit and blast others in half, something you didn’t lose as they pick up and hand over a memorial bracelet engraved with your friends’ names. (Josh, Matt and Brandon) and a line from a poem by John McCrae: “We have lived, felt the dawn, seen the sunset shine”.
These talibés insist they are there to make sure nothing was stolen from what was once the New York Times office in Kabul, and that everything is where we left it when all The newspaper’s staff fled the country, as thousands of other Afghans and foreigners did, in August when the Afghan government collapsed.
And everything is where I left it. There’s the new Xbox I bought at Dubai International Airport when I returned to Afghanistan in late July, about two weeks before Kabul fell, thinking Kabul wouldn’t fall and I would have plenty of time. to play Microsoft Flight Simulator. My dirty laundry is in the basket. My bed is made. There is a thin layer of dust on everything.
This is the reality now: the end of the war and the new beginning of the Islamic Emirate.
The most distinct and recurring reminders of America’s long presence are the American-supplied black rifles, now cradled by the Taliban at checkpoints and on rides and hung from the backs of their motorcycles. The familiar, intrusive thunder of helicopters flying into the US Embassy no longer exists, as the US Embassy no longer exists and the surrounding Green Zone is owned by the Taliban.
The Green Zone, or International Zone, was made up of concrete blast wall blocks built around what was once an affluent neighborhood with tree-lined streets, until it was transformed into a fortress that connected the US Embassy and NATO Resolute Support Headquarters and a handful of other diplomatic missions.
Now all that infrastructure is just a skeleton of a 20-year war, lost to the diplomats and soldiers who once lived there: a museum of failure.
This is where the New York Times and other news agencies kept their offices, and where I returned last month to continue covering Afghanistan and inspecting what had happened to our compound.
This is where the State Department contractors had a small base with a supposed Starbucks inside. This is where the embassy staff dared not venture because the war was on. This is where armored cars were ditched as the West rushed to helicopters, so they could be transported out of the country when the Taliban entered the city.
The Taliban are now doing what they want in the green zone. They investigate abandoned structures, looking for spies and weapons or anything that could harm them because the inhabitants of the Green Zone have already done just that, waging war behind its walls. An airship with cameras once hovered above, observing everything in the city in color and infrared. At Resolute Support headquarters, US officers authorized airstrikes that killed Taliban and civilians.
Why wouldn’t the Taliban search every corner? Look under every desk? To them, it’s almost as if the Green Zone is the Dragon King under the mountain, something that could reignite war if they somehow awaken it.
“Are there military weapons here? Asks a Talib, standing on the second floor of the Times office, in a room where the security official once painted miniature soldiers. He carried a suitcase full of them out of the country as it collapsed.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
No, there are no military weapons.
A Talib shows the bulletproof vest over a cupboard. “It’s military, isn’t it? He asks in almost perfect English. “Why would you need this? “
We needed bulletproof vests because we are covering the war that had just ended, where people killed each other with roadside bombs, artillery, airstrikes and Kalashnikovs. His question is almost obscene, as if the violence perpetrated by his insurgent gang and the Afghan government backed by the West, NATO and the United States had existed in a parallel universe.
We respond courteously as our new owners carry a lot of guns with them.
I’ve been throwing a club soda that’s been lying around on the kitchen table since August. The refrigerator is rancid. The garden is overgrown.
The Taliban walk through the office, inspecting a frozen home and office at the time of the collapse. On the bed in the bedroom opposite mine is an open, half-filled suitcase, clothes strewn about. In the small newsroom on the ground floor, the whiteboard that marked the fall of the provincial capitals is still there, although in the end the country has collapsed too quickly to be followed.
On the wall is a map of the town of Kunduz and where the Taliban front lines once stood, with insurgents held in check for a few brief weeks by demoralized and exhausted Afghan security forces before they do not evaporate and the city does not fall.
Now in Kabul, the Taliban circulate in Afghan army trucks and Humvees and armored personnel carriers, and wear their uniforms.
“Free cars”, a talibé had sent me a few days earlier from the front seat of an armored SUV that had belonged to a contracting company or came from an abandoned military fleet. He then sent a photo of his rifle, also free of charge, with his inscriptions circled: “Property of US Gov. M4 Carbine. Caliber 5.56 MM W0207610.
This is what losing a war looks like. And the Taliban are still in my room.
We look about the same age I was in this photo on my wall where I’m standing next to a gigantic, newly unwrapped American flag, holding this rifle and smiling, because I thought then we were going to win the war or turn the tide or kill the guys who are now rummaging through my wardrobe, pointing to a pair of sneakers in my closet. The shoes themselves were the subject of an article we wrote: “In Afghanistan, follow the white high shoes and you will find the Taliban.
He smiles, points a finger and tries them on.