How the intense war played out before the sudden fall of Kabul

28-Children-at-a-refugee-camp Shattered lives: Children at a refugee camp in laghman province.

It was early morning in Bati Kot district, 200km east of Kabul. A crowd had gathered in front of the governor’s office. Young men sat on the ground, a lone woman in a blue burqa begged for alms as she soothed a baby, and an elderly man nervously clung on to what appeared to be documents. They were all waiting for the governor—for money, material support, food, signature and seal on documents, and so on.

Afghanistan’s experience with militias has not been good. Warlords were born from these militias. They became rich and spread corruption. - Fahim Sadat, Kardan University, Kabul
The UN refugee agency says more than three lakh Afghans have been internally displaced in the past few months. In all, 3.5 million people have lost their homes.

A convoy of military vehicles brought the governor. Suleiman Sha Khpalwak was young and elegantly dressed. He wore a white perahan tunban, the loose-fitting Afghani attire, with a black wascat (traditional vest) on top. Khpalwak belonged to a respected family in Bati Kot. His father used to work for the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agency.

Khpalwak saw the people who had been waiting. He held the woman’s hands, and listened intently to the old man’s words. “Give the food aid to those who are eligible,” he told the office staff.

Surrounded by armed guards, he entered his office and asked for tea. He then turned towards us, and asked for patience. “There are too many people in need,” he said. “I can’t go with you without listening to them first.”

He returned half an hour later, and said it was still too early to take us to the checkpoints, where his men were keeping watch. The marauding Taliban was just a few kilometres away; the district could be their next stop.

And so, as we waited, Khpalwak began to tell the story of Bati Kot.

The infection

Bati Kot is part of eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. It is in the Pashtun heartland. Nearly all of the three lakh people in the district are Pashtuns, and a good number of them belong to the prominent Mohmand tribe, whose members include well-known scholars, poets, politicians and even the first (and only) Afghan astronaut. “There are no ethnic clashes here,” said Khpalwak, briefly pausing for effect. “We are all Pashtun.”

Bati Kot, he said, is also a strategically important district. Its villages are rich in minerals and other resources, making them a source of revenue for the government in Kabul. Also, the highway connecting Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s capital, to Torkham, a town on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, runs through Bati Kot. When Khpalwak spoke to THE WEEK, the province was well-represented in the national government; Hamdullah Mohib, national security adviser, and Mohammad Shakir Kargar, chief of staff of president Ashraf Ghani, hailed from Nangarhar.

“The government expects a lot from this province’s representatives; and we expect a lot from the government,” said Khpalwak. “After all, we have to protect the border with Pakistan. Taliban members train there, and they cross the border to get into Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.”

Khpalwak was appointed governor last year. He also led the Bati Kot militia, which was fighting the Taliban. A few months ago, just before Ramadan, a member of the dreaded ISKP (Islamic State’s Khorasan Province, the IS offshoot in Afghanistan) blew himself up in front of Khpalwak’s office. Remembering it makes Khpalwak both tense and proud—tense for the fact that he nearly died, proud that he managed to survive. He whips out one of his three cell phones and shows us pictures—of the attacker’s body and of him posing with the man’s wife and daughters.

Keeping watch: A militia checkpoint in Bati Kot. Keeping watch: A militia checkpoint in Bati Kot.

“I could expel them from the district, both his wife and his mother,” said Khpalwak. “I could ask that their houses be burnt down. It is the way the social contract works here. A sin begets a punishment. But I spoke with the district’s elders and persuaded them to let the women stay. Why should they suffer more?”

Khpalwak wants to come across as magnanimous and enlightened. As he got into a military vehicle to go to the checkpoints, he explained why he religiously opposed the Taliban. “When the Prophet captured Mecca,” he said, “he declared: ‘Those who are in Mecca are safe. Those who live in Abu Sufyan’s home, too, are safe.’”

Abu Sufyan, a prominent merchant of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, was a staunch opponent of Prophet Muhammed and had even led battles against him. But, after Muhammed captured Mecca, Sufyan capitulated and converted to Islam. “The Prophet taught us to respect enemies,” said Khpalwak. “Islam has its rules; war has, too. Taliban is not respecting any.”

The Bati Kot militia was born three years ago to fight ISKP, which had been active in the area since 2015. ISKP militants had for years hidden in the valleys, sustaining themselves with generous help from local sympathisers. The outfit paid salaries to its members, who initially took care to project themselves as generous and respectful. After ISKP began taking control of the province, though, their benevolence turned to brutality. Tribal leaders, activists and journalists were executed on a daily basis, and schools were destroyed.

Suleiman Sha Khpalwak, the Bati Kot governor, with students | Courtesy Twitter@ A_Khpalwak Suleiman Sha Khpalwak, the Bati Kot governor, with students | Courtesy Twitter@ A_Khpalwak

An enemy’s enemy can be a friend, so provincial governors struck deals with Taliban leaders to neutralise ISKP. After a year of fighting, with the US tactfully providing air support, ISKP was defeated. The fight is now between the governors and the Taliban.

“You see, when a part of the body is infected and there is risk of it spreading to the whole body, you need to cut that part away,” said Khpalwak. “We did that [with ISKP]. Now we have to do the same with the Taliban.”

The Bati Kot militia comprises 600 men. It functions like a paramilitary group funded by provincial grandees, and is supported by intelligence agencies and other militias. “District elders selected our best men, respecting the wishes of families. If there are two sons, only one is chosen to go into battle. If he becomes a martyr, at least one son is left in the family,” Khpalwak said as our vehicle passed through the countryside. Plants and flowers surrounded the houses, and children played barefoot beside streams. Men greeted the convoy with respect.

We came to a halt. Khpalwak got out and the guards surrounded him. It was the first checkpoint. There are seven in the district, all defended by Khpalwak’s men. “We have five checkpoints along the road and two in the villages,” he said. “This is the central point from which we provide assistance to others if they are in danger. Among us are students, merchants and old men. Nobody wanted to fight again, but the situation has forced us to.”

Ready to retaliate: A member of the Bati Kot militia arranging rocket-propelled grenades at a checkpoint. Ready to retaliate: A member of the Bati Kot militia arranging rocket-propelled grenades at a checkpoint.

Khpalwak and the militia supported Ghani’s fragile government. “They didn’t trust us in the beginning,” he said. “Now they cannot do without us.”

How did he view the US withdrawal? “They could not stay here forever, we knew that. Now it is up to us. We thanked them for coming; now we thank them for leaving. The withdrawal of American troops is an opportunity, not a tragedy,” he said.

His men, especially the young among them, look sceptical as they hear the word ‘opportunity’. News from provinces besieged by the Taliban is not good. Pictures of the plight of refugees were pouring in.

As if sensing the scepticism, Khpalwak grabbed a gun and pointed it skywards with bravado. “This is our home and we have a responsibility to defend it,” he told the men.

Is there room for talks with the Taliban? “They do not respect agreements,” said Khpalwak. “Only if they stop fighting can we talk.”

He said he disliked the word ‘militia’. “We are not militia; we are the resistance. And, this is not a civil war. Ours is a holy war against the traitors.”

Uphill struggle: Militia members fighting the Taliban in Parwan province. Uphill struggle: Militia members fighting the Taliban in Parwan province.

At the entrance of the last of the checkpoints was a big picture. It showed three men. The caption read: “Our martyrs.”

Beside the picture was Abdul Qaher, son of one of the martyrs. His father, Mohammad Taher Darwish, was a founder of the group. He commanded 350 men and was killed in an ambush on January 1, 2021. Abdul Qaher studied engineering in India, and he spoke fluent English. He had listened to our conversation with the governor, and could barely hide his scepticism. “Opportunity?” he scoffed. “The Americans signed the agreement with the Taliban without including our government. It means they wanted the Taliban to capture power, and now it is up to us to avoid it.”

Abdul agreed with Khpalwak on one thing, though. “Now is not the time to talk; now is the time to kill them,” he said.

Does he consider his group to be a militia? “We are a militia, because we are people fighting for the people,” said Abdul. “Civil war is not a thing of the future; this is the civil war. Look around.”

The waning warlords

Ashraf Ghani liked neither militias nor warlords. But he had no choice but to ask for their help as the Afghan security forces crumbled under the Taliban onslaught. On August 11, after Taliban commanders started a blitzkrieg across the country, Ghani left the presidential palace in Kabul for Mazar-e-Sharif, a major city close to the Uzbekistan border in the north. He met two warlords—Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Nur, who were part of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, a coalition of militias created in 2001 to fight the Taliban. Ghani desperately wanted support from the warlords to defend government territory and, hopefully, reclaim areas captured by the Taliban.

Ghani had realised that the peace talks with the Taliban were dead. His plan was to arm civilians and ask them to fight with the warlords to stop the Taliban in its tracks. Regional militias were also expected to secure the roads between main cities.

Gone, but not forgotten: A man offers prayers near the grave of his slain daughter in Jalalabad . Gone, but not forgotten: A man offers prayers near the grave of his slain daughter in Jalalabad .

It was a 1990s redux. Afghan groups were uniting against the Taliban to start a war.

The situation was hardly buoyant, though. “Afghanistan’s experience with militias has not been good,” explained Fahim Sadat, political analyst and head of the department of international relations in Kabul’s Kardan University. “Warlords were born from these militias. They became rich and spread corruption.”

Sadat was sceptical of the government’s plan to build up militias into a national resistance. “The big question is: will the government be able to manage this mobilisation, and to control militias that are under specific power structures? Considering the hostile relationships between rival groups in the past, we risk going back 30 years; to a country isolated and controlled by warlords,” he said.

With the withdrawal of western troops, though, the warlords are back in the reckoning. They are indeed the same people who helped the US-led coalition end the Taliban regime 20 years ago, but now it is hard to tell whether they are fighting for democratic values or for their own benefit.

Dostum, an Uzbek general known for his brutality against enemies, had promised Ghani that his men would fight until they shed the last drop of their blood. But such promises did not really hold much hope.

Hours after Ghani had visited Mazar-e-Sharif, a powerful warlord and former minister called Ismail Khan surrendered to the Taliban. Khan had been fighting various enemies since the 1970s—first as an army captain-turned-mujahideen against the invading Soviets, and then as part of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. In his seventies now, Khan had again picked up his rifle in July and mobilised people to prevent the Taliban from entering Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city which is close to the Iran border. Weeks ago, the “Lion of Herat” had declared that he had the support of five lakh people in northern Afghanistan. After a two-week siege, though, Herat finally fell on August 13.

Hungry, hopeless: People begging for food from travellers in Kabul. The city’s population nearly doubled because of the influx of refugees in the final days of the war. Hungry, hopeless: People begging for food from travellers in Kabul. The city’s population nearly doubled because of the influx of refugees in the final days of the war.

Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen a few hours earlier. By the time Ghani returned to Kabul, Taliban commanders had captured nearly half of the 34 major cities in the country. They had done so in a week, and in some cases, without any fight.

It was clear that Ghani’s plan was unravelling. The Taliban was preparing to enter the final stretch of its campaign.

Kabul was now exposed.

A thousand sordid suns

Mountains in Afghanistan look the same in daylight, but sunsets reveal their true, distinct souls. The Shinwari mountains in Parwan province, located 45km north of Kabul, were glowing ochre as fighters prepared to take a final stand. Twilight had bathed the valleys, and its winding roads and forlorn-looking houses, in a thousand different hues. Flags on top of the mountains indicated militia positions; the men moved like shadows to guard their turf.

On August 6, three prominent men met in the mountains—Abdul Basir Salangi, former governor and commander of Parwan; Abdul Zahir Salangi, member of parliament and leader of the area’s resistance forces; and Abdul Qadir Salangi, who supervised the 10 checkpoints in the region. The aim of the meeting was to decide on a strategy to push back the Taliban, and protect the valleys and the roads that led to Kabul.

Future tense: Refugees in a settlement in downtown Kabul. Future tense: Refugees in a settlement in downtown Kabul.

Parwan’s population was multi-ethnic, comprising Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Kuchis and other communities. The Taliban’s advance was threatening the relative peace that the province had enjoyed for 20 years. Hundreds of villagers had taken up arms and joined the militia to defend the 10 checkpoints in the mountains and valleys. Most of them had come to realise that it was a mistake to give up arms after the Americans defeated the Taliban.

“The last attack,” said Abdul Basir, “was three nights ago. But we succeeded in keeping our positions. The Taliban attacks at night, in groups comprising 40 to 50 people.”

Abdul Zahir, the politician among the trio, said he disliked the word ‘militia’. He believed in the need for the resistance to appear more institutional. “I believe in the government,” he said. “But if the army fails, somebody has to protect our land and citizens have to take up arms. Americans left us halfway in the war. They weakened our institutions with the Doha agreement.”

Old mujahideen were back in action. One of them is Ghulam Eshan Salangi, 49, commander of the last outpost in the valley. He had been working as a security adviser for the United Nations in Parwan, but he lost his job when the UN closed its office. He was running a shop when he got the call from a former commander. “‘It is again time to fight,’ he told me,” said Ghulam.

He pointed to the enemy positions. “We want to defend our country, but we don’t have the means. We don’t even have binoculars, while they have night-vision,” he said.

A 19-year-old gunman, Enaiat, took a picture with his smartphone. He proudly showed the cover photo on his cell phone—Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir” who fought the Soviets and the Taliban. “He is my hero,” said Enaiat. “We are here to carry on his battle.”

The following afternoon, as Enaiat and Ghulam built an outpost using stones and rocks, a young man brought water in two jugs. The meeting of the big three in Parwan was over, apparently. The trio had left, escorted by four military vehicles and 50 guards. Only fighters remained in the mountains.

It was anybody’s guess how long the men would be able to hold on to the checkpoints. Even if they did, the future would remain uncertain. The warlords were playing their own game. Twenty years after the fall of the Taliban, they had become part of the Afghan crisis with their corruption and nepotism. It was difficult to predict how the warlords would leverage the loyalty of their men, who they would support if Kabul fell, or whether the men themselves would benefit from the murky deals. Afghanistan’s history was replete with instances of warlords choosing power and wealth over principles.

As Ghulam walked away carrying a rifle on his shoulder, the mountains were again bathed in soft, afternoon light. Beyond him, the valleys looked hazy and desolate, much like Afghanistan’s uncertain future.

Collapsing cities, crumbling trust

It was early afternoon in Jalalabad, about 130km east of Kabul. Usually, a bustling commercial and cultural centre, the city seemed eerily quiet. On a narrow street, a group of children were rattling sticks as if they were sword-fighting. People looked edgy and suspicious, as if they were exposed to dangers they could not yet see. The Taliban were yet to capture the city, but it had made its presence felt with a string of assassinations—of activists, journalists and people who worked for the government.

On August 2, unknown assailants gunned down a former interpreter for the US-led forces. Hamdullah Hamdard, who had been waiting for a visa to migrate to the US, was shot dead in front of his wife and three children. The message from the Taliban was clear: We know where you are and we can kill you whenever we want.

“He was proud of his work,” said Wasiqullah, Hamdullah’s younger brother. “He always talked about the training he received in Logar, the fight against the Taliban, and the missions to train the Afghan security forces. He travelled with the troops, and met provincial and district governors, and the local people. Once he told me, ‘I learned more about our country by working with the Americans than by crisscrossing it alone.’”

The morning he was killed, Hamdullah woke up Wasiqullah and took him for a walk. They strolled around the city side by side for half an hour, talking about the deteriorating security situation and the people who were on the run. Neither of them dared discuss the looming threat—of being considered collaborators and executed by the Taliban.

They split when they reached a town square. Hamdullah headed to his office and Wasiqullah went to the university where he was studying political science. They promised that they would meet for dinner together with the families.

A few hours later, Wasiqullah was back home and getting dressed to go out and buy bread. Then he heard a shot, and one of his nephews started screaming: “They shot father!”

Wasiqullah ran out and saw his brother lying in a pool of blood. He ran through the alleys looking for the killers, but they had vanished.

Wasiqullah was an interpreter, too. He was in Helmand province from 2011 to 2014, after which he enrolled at the university. His days as a university student seem to be over, though. As he sat down and talked, he clutched the rifle that rested on his legs. He never goes out without a weapon now; he had become a prisoner, he said. A condemned man.

“American troops left us in the hands of the killers and terrorists they had vowed to fight,” said Wasiqullah. “This is a death sentence for us.”

He is one of the 20,000 Afghans who, along with 50,000 of their relatives, had applied for the coveted American SIVs (special immigrant visas). The SIV programme was instituted by the US Congress to provide a quick way out for Afghan interpreters and officials who had assisted US-led forces. The demand for SIVs, however, far outstrips supply. And, the prerequisites for applications make it extremely difficult for people like Wasiqullah to obtain their pass to freedom.

The SIV process has, in fact, left many Afghanis seething. One of them is Mahmoud Omid, a 31-year-old in Kabul. “I was born and raised in war,” he said. “I would probably die in war.”

Omid lives in an old house in the northern part of the city. There is no electricity, save for a few hours on some nights. His mother was a civil servant before the Taliban banned women from work in the 1990s. She shuns the hijab, and wears her long brown hair in a ponytail. Omid worked for the US troops for three years. He was more than an interpreter—he was a bridge between two alien cultures, and had taken part in operations in Kandahar and Helmand.

I trained, advised and assisted Afghan
security forces, and liaised with American troops,” said Omid. “I would describe myself as a cultural advisor because, you see, most Americans when they came to Afghanistan did not know anything about our culture. They didn’t know how to greet a woman without shaking her hand. We taught them that you have to put your hand on your chest. They didn’t know how to behave, and often they weren’t able to respect traditions.”

What did he learn on the job? “From the Americans, I learned the meaning of freedom. I learned to believe in the word’s value. Now, I don’t believe in it anymore,” he said. The Americans had christened the Afghan mission as Operation Enduring Freedom. The irony of it seems inescapable now. “The freedom they promised, the freedom that was supposed to last, was a lie,” Omid said.

Omid’s final mission with American troops was last year. He remembers the day his friends told him that they were leaving. They were having meals at the base, and a news channel showed the ongoing talks between the Americans and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. His team captain told him: “Mate, we’ll leave soon. Be careful about your future.”

He kept listening to the news for days after, sceptical of the possibility of the talks yielding a deal. “[US president Donald] Trump was in a hurry to sign the agreement,” said Omid. “This hurry made the Taliban stronger, with the result that today’s war in Afghanistan is more brutal than the ones we have survived.”

When Joe Biden became president and confirmed the unconditional withdrawal, Omid knew he had to leave. “Soldiers at the base told me: ‘Brother, it is time for you to leave this country,” he said.

The slow demobilisation began from that point. It culminated with the troops leaving the Bagram base in Parwan province, which was the largest US military facility in Afghanistan, in a hurry in July. The troops left without handing over the base to Afghan forces. “They entered Afghanistan 20 years ago without asking permission, and now they leave like thieves,” said Omid.

Thousands like Omid were left in the lurch. And their hopes have been crushed slowly and painfully. Omid had applied for an SIV at the end of 2020, but his application was rejected on March 29 this year. He filed an appeal, along with letters of recommendation from soldiers who had worked with him. The appeal was being reviewed, but Omid was certain that it would be rejected as well.

“I went to the American embassy in Kabul, where applicants have to undergo polygraph tests,” he said. “They connect our right hand to the machine and check our heartbeat. ‘You are nervous,’ they told me. ‘Your heartbeat is irregular.’”

It struck Omid as a cruel joke. “Am I nervous? Of course, I am nervous. I lived in Kabul through the war. The Taliban executed part of my family in our home village. My mother is an activist and she is risking her life. I am an interpreter for Americans and I am risking my life,” he said.

Omid passed the polygraph three times. The last one, however, went bad. “They rejected me because I was nervous and my heartbeat was irregular,” he said. “This apparently made me a national security threat.”

Two weeks ago, Omid’s friend was captured, tortured and beheaded by the Taliban. “For them, it doesn’t matter if you have worked for US troops and their allies for one hour, one day or ten years,” Omid said. “If you did it, you are on the blacklist of infidels to be killed.”

When we met him, Omid was living like a prisoner, alienated from the world and suspicious of everyone. All of his three decades of memories were linked to the unending war—the freedoms that his mother lost, the relatives who were killed fighting the Taliban, the dreams of peace and opportunities that he had shared with his peers.

The memories only add to his raging resentment. In 2019, he took part in a special forces operation in Nangarhar province. The troops were supposed to meet a group of village elders before the operation. One of the elders took him aside and told him that he was an infidel. “He told me: ‘I won’t shake hands with you. If I do it, I’ll have to wash it a thousand times.’”

When Omid reported this to the Americans, they asked him to find out the elder’s phone number. The number was passed on to the CIA, which began intercepting calls to the phone. The man turned out to be a member of the dreaded Haqqani network, which was allied with Al Qaeda and was responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan. The CIA learnt that a plot was being hatched to attack American and Afghan troops.

“The day the Americans arrested him, they hugged and kissed me, and told me: ‘From now on, you are not only our interpreter, you are also our brother. Because you saved the whole team’s life,’” said Omid. “They gave me a medal, you know.”

He pulled out a shiny medal from a drawer. He also showed a plaque presented to him by American soldiers. He read aloud what was written on it: “From the army department, the achievement certificate awarded to Mahmoud Omid: A recognition of your outstanding performance in support of advisor team 2211. Your support was crucial and played an important role in the success of our advisors’ mission. More than simply translating, you helped us understand and kept us alert and alive. We cannot begin to thank you enough for your time, and most importantly, for your friendship.”

Omid muttered the last word on the plaque several times. And then he looked up and told us that he no longer knew its meaning.

Awaiting the ark

Around 50km northwest of Jalalabad is Mihtarlam, an ancient city named after Lamech, the father of the biblical patriarch Noah. Mihtar means ‘headman’ and lam is the diminutive of Lamech. Mihtarlam is perched on a valley of two ferocious rivers, the Alishang and the Alingar, which often wreak havoc on the countryside when the mountain snow melts. Legend has it that Noah’s Ark landed on a nearby peak.

Mihtarlam is in Laghman province, which comprises five districts. Four of them were controlled by the Taliban. Mihtarlam, which is in the middle of the province, was almost cut off from the rest of the world. The sound of gunfights in the mountains reverberated through the valley.

“It is 10am; it’s odd,” said Zahidullah, a resident of the neighbouring Alingar district. “Usually, they fight at night. That is why we are terrified when the sun goes down. We don’t know if we would wake up alive in the morning.”

Zahidullah is 30 years old. When the Taliban took control of his war-torn district, thousands of villagers like him had no choice but to flee. A makeshift refugee camp was set up in Mihtarlam, and the city’s elders chose Zahidullah as the representative of the displaced families.

Humanitarian crises around the world have made people familiar with a certain image of refugee camps—UN-sponsored white tents, chemical toilets, water canisters, and fences and gates to protect people. The Mihtarlam camp had nothing like these. It was on a stretch of dry land, off the main road that ran from the city centre to the mountains. On one end of the road were the Afghan security forces; on the other, the Taliban. Caught in the middle were the poor villagers.

There were no tents in the camp. Women and children took cover behind partitions made of clothes and wood. They could barely shield themselves from the scorching heat of the day and freezing cold of the night. In the past two months, as many as 300 families—around 1,500 people—had arrived here. Some of them were forced to camp out in the open; some took shelter in buildings under construction.

Zahidullah’s house in Alingar was on the front line. Artillery fire destroyed it. Another refugee, a 60-year-old man named Berhem, showed pictures of his home and livestock. He had lost all of it. “It is a dirty war, dirtier than the past ones,” said Berhem.

Every makeshift shelter hosted survivors and their stories of loss. There was Rahimullah, 35, who had lost his brother and was taking care of his widow and children. Habiba, 45, was tending to her husband, Chenargul, who is 50 but looked 80. Severely ill, Chenargul was having trouble breathing. But the camp had no medicine.

The days at the camp are marked by the sacrifices people make just to survive. “Nobody is helping us,” said Zahidullah, “except for neighbours who bring us food and water for children, when they can.”

One could tell that they were beyond the reach of the UN and humanitarian organisations just by looking at the children. All of them were covered in dirt; many were sick. “We don’t get to bathe the children,” said Zahidullah. “When the need is unavoidable, we take them to the neighbours’ well.”

The camp is becoming a dangerous place. “Last night, the Taliban attacked military vehicles right here on this road,” said Zahidullah. “We have nowhere to go.”

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says more than three lakh Afghans have been internally displaced in the past few months. In all, 3.5 million people have lost their homes. Government figures were higher. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said nine lakh people were displaced from April to June alone—an increase of 74 per cent compared with the corresponding period last year. Kabul’s population had surged—from four million to an estimated seven million—as thousands of families from provinces captured by the Taliban fled to the capital. Days before the capital itself fell, there were mile-long queues in front of the passport office. People were so desperate to get out of the country that smugglers were making a fortune helping families cross borders illegally.

“There is no safe place in Afghanistan,” said Ghulam, a 35-year-old from Helmand, the country’s largest province by area. “The fighting in Helmand was intense. The Taliban occupied our houses, turning them into their bases. We had no choice but to flee.”

Ghulam was in the queue at the passport office; he knew he could not stay for long in his relative’s house in Kabul. He was trying to obtain a visa to Turkey. In normal times, it would have cost him $140. But now, “if you don’t know someone, or you don’t have the money to bribe officials, you don’t get a visa”. Turkish visas were going at $6,000 apiece in the black market. “None of us can afford it,” said Ghulam.

As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, the Ghani government was slowly going bankrupt. Major cities had either fallen or were besieged, with the Taliban controlling borders, strategic points and trade routes and centres. The government was bleeding money defending itself, while tax revenues were drying up and the prices of essential goods were rising.

Rents in Kabul were soaring as the city continued to absorb streams of refugees from all sides. People who could not afford to pay for lodging were building makeshift homes using dirt and stones. Slums were springing up around the city, each of them housing a thousand battered souls.

One of them is Abdul Ghafar, 21, who came to Kabul three weeks ago from Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand. His mother died in the war and he lost a foot in an explosion. He was living in a room with four other men, all of them refugees from the southern province. Ghafar cannot work, and he has run out of money. For him, life has come to a grinding halt.

Kharam Khan, also from Lashkargah, seemed resigned to his fate. He had also lost a leg, but not in this war. It was the civil war in the 1990s that did it. “It’s our fate,” said Kharam Khan. He kept on saying it like a dirge.

He had fled Lashkargah along with his two children and eight grandchildren. He was now living in a settlement in downtown Kabul. The children were walking barefoot in puddles of wastewater.

“I am too old to escape,” said Kharam Khan, watching them. “And too tired to witness another war. But what will happen to them, to our children?”