At Balkh airfield in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters excitedly snap photos of a Russian-made MI-17 helicopter touching down.
Senior Taliban officials are on board. Former adversaries, pilots from the former Afghan air force, are seated in the cockpit.
The Taliban commander in charge of the airfield, Maulvi Abdullah Mansour, takes me on a tour of the fleet he now commands. It includes attack helicopters and fighter planes that were given to the previous administration by international forces.
Under the previous administration, aircraft were frequently used to target the group. It’s unclear what they’ll be used for now that the war is over. “If we ever need them again, they’ll be here,” Mansour says.
As the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan in preparation for its victory in August, dozens of pilots fled the country in fear of their lives, taking their aircraft with them. Others, however, stayed and now work under the Taliban’s leadership, apparently reassured by assurances of amnesty.
I ask Maulvi Mansour how it feels to be working alongside men he used to oppose. “We always knew in our hearts that we would conquer and liberate the country, but we also knew that one morning we would sit down and work together because they are our countrymen,” he says.
Gul Rahman, a helicopter pilot, is sitting next to him. He appears cautious in his responses, insisting that he was never afraid to return to work after learning about the Taliban’s amnesty.
“”It was unavoidable that this would happen one day,” he says, “but we never imagined we’d be able to continue on our separate paths forever… We will leave politics to the politicians and work together to help the country develop.”
Younger Taliban fighters mill around us in the hangar, admiring the two MD-530 helicopters. As one of the Talibs questions a mechanic about his qualifications, there are hints of underlying tension. “You all got these jobs because of personal connections, not because you’re properly qualified,” he accuses. Nonetheless, the general atmosphere appears to be cordial.
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Elsewhere, the transition from the old to the new regime is less smooth. The country is in the grip of an economic crisis, with foreign reserves frozen as the international community decides how to assist Afghans while excluding the Taliban. There are cash withdrawal restrictions in place, as well as long lines at banks. Second-hand markets have sprouted up across the country, with desperate Afghans attempting to sell their possessions in order to eat.
Shagufta, a woman, is sitting on the roadside, rummaging through the clothes she’s brought to sell. “Life has become an insult now, and we are dying slowly,” she says, her eyes welling up with tears. She is weak because she did not eat breakfast or dinner the night before. “I gave everything I had to my children,” she says, “and now I’m selling their finest clothes, which they used to wear to weddings… If I get a good price, I’ll buy oil, rice, and flour.”
Her storey exemplifies the country’s deep inequalities. Her husband retired from the police force six years ago but never received his pension under the previous administration. The family was barely surviving as Shagufta worked in her neighbourhood washing and stitching clothes. However, as financial pressures increased, even that work dried up. “There is no theft or crime anymore,” she says of the Islamic Emirate. “We only have one problem: we don’t have any work and no money.”
Mazar-e-second-hand Sharif’s market is thriving. Many of the people we meet work for the government. Most public-sector employees have been without pay for at least two months. The problem started under the previous administration, but they have no idea when or if they will be paid again.
“I became a shopkeeper in my own house and sold all my belongings… Whatever I earned I am using to buy food now. Whenever I come here and see the condition of the people, I go home and cry,” one teacher says, adding that she still comes to work every day.
The main hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif is located across the street. It is now led by a Taliban official, but his deputy remains in the same position he held under the previous administration. Staff have not been paid since the Taliban took over, and there is uncertainty about how the Ministry of Health will be funded, with the current reserve stock of medicine only lasting a month.
The power transition in Afghanistan was far less violent and bloody than many had feared, but nearly half of the country was already in dire need, and the struggle to survive is becoming even more difficult for many.
Back in Kabul, we meet a former police officer who is struggling to make ends meet. “It doesn’t matter to me who is in charge,” he says.
He is now selling Taliban flags by the side of the road.
“There’s no work around,” he says. “What else can I do?”
Additional reporting by Malik Mudasir and Shams Ahmadzai.