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Taliban Takeover Reminds Afghans Of The Brutality Of Their Previous Regime

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Taliban are back in power. The militant group swept into Kabul yesterday after the Afghan government collapsed. U.S. and allied personnel are leaving the Afghan capital in droves. But what about those who cannot leave? For many, the Taliban's return to power is bringing back memories of their brutal regime of the past. Joining us now is author and former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes. She covered the fall of Taliban in 2001 and served as a special adviser for the U.S. military. Sarah, can you remind the listeners who are the Taliban?

SARAH CHAYES: I think there's a misconception about the Taliban. I have repeatedly heard and read that they arose in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, where I spent the best part of a decade on the ground. In fact, they arose in Quetta, Pakistan. I did, you know, in the early 2000s, dozens of interviews, and the people's views were - it was unanimous. They arose in Quetta, Pakistan. They were essentially a strategic project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI, which basically organized them, trained them, equipped them, even performed market surveys in and around Kandahar to see whether the name Taliban and the message would fly. And it did.

At that time, all of Afghanistan, including Kandahar, was torn by, I want to say, violent extortion and chaos in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal. The mujahideen who had been fighting the Soviet Union kind of - you know, after all of that war, there was kind of no institution to organize them afterwards. And they were - you know, I remember someone saying, yeah, so-and-so was the commander - you know, was the governor of his streetcorner. And two street corners later, somebody else was governor. And so the Pakistani ISI came up with this sort of solution and used the word Taliban because of its positive associations in southern Afghanistan. You know, they were religious students who meekly apprenticed themselves to local religious leaders. And the message was they did not want to take power. They only wanted to, you know, quell the violent extortion.

MARTINEZ: That's - it's amazing that name was tested. I mean, that's just kind of amazing to hear you say that. Sarah, you know, you covered them. You covered the Taliban after the U.S. invasion in 2001. How have they managed to stay relevant the past two decades?

CHAYES: Frankly, it was the same old story. Basically, within about two years - so let me say one thing. I entered Kandahar for National Public Radio within days of the collapse of that regime. And it was during Ramadan, and the place was silent. Like, everyone was indoors kind of waiting to see what was going to happen. But at the end of Ramadan, there was an explosion - I mean, this is Kandahar - right? - the Taliban heartland - explosion of joy. You did not see scenes of panic and people running for the borders the way you're seeing it today. It was a very, very different scene. There were horse races and kites in the air and, you know. So I think that's also something to bear in mind.

And then what started to happen is very early on, I started hearing complaints about the shakedowns being committed by the new Afghan government forces and officials, often wearing U.S. military uniforms, right? Like, the militias that the United States had armed and engaged as our sort of proxies on the ground were setting up the old checkpoints and shaking people down again. And people started complaining to me about this as early as 2002.

And it kind of continued to deteriorate that relationship between the Afghan government that we were supporting and the regular citizens. And so that was the, I want to say, context in which the ISI was able to do the same old thing, which is to say reorganize the Taliban across the border in Pakistan. Remember that at this time, Osama bin Laden had escaped across into Pakistan and specifically basically into the garrison city of the Pakistani army.

MARTINEZ: Sarah, the U.S. has invested a lot of money, billions of dollars, to help rebuild Afghanistan, try to turn it into a democratic nation. Where did all this money go? And what would you say is something they accomplished? Or did they accomplish anything?

CHAYES: I mean, I think what's really important for us to understand is, as I say, I was hearing complaints by 2002 about the behavior of the officials of the government that we were supporting wearing, you know, U.S.-branded clothes, if you will. And that never changed. It got worse and worse to the point that by, you know, 2006 or '07, when I lived in downtown Kandahar and spoke Pashto, so Afghans could - and had no guards or anything around my house so Afghans could come and visit me. And I would get delegation after delegation of elders, you know, explaining that, for example, the Taliban shake us down at night and the government shakes us down in the daytime.

And so my question is, what democracy did we bring to Afghanistan, you know? Meanwhile, we're building a banking system during the very same years that we were incubating, you know, the crash of 2008. By 2010, the Afghan banking system crashed because it was a Ponzi scheme. And so I think the painful thing I have to ask myself is American democracy - is that what we brought or is cronyism, you know, systemic corruption, you know, basically a governmental system where billionaires get to write the rules - is that, in fact, American democracy as we are now experiencing it?

MARTINEZ: Wow. Sarah Chayes is an author and former NPR reporter. She also served as a special adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Sarah, thanks a lot.

CHAYES: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTRALIA'S "FAREWELL AND ENCOUNTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.