Armed Taliban militants were looking for Shah. They knew he worked as an interpreter for the United States government and came to his provincial home at night. “Someone inside worked for the US military!” they shouted and threatened to shoot down the door.
Shah had already left for Kabul, where he is now in hiding. But he believes he is a hunted man. “I don’t feel safe here anymore,” said Shah, whose application for a special immigrant visa to the United States is still pending.
“The Taliban say they will not retaliate and they will forgive everyone,” he said. ‘But I can’t believe them. Why did they come to my house to look for me?”
There are thousands like Shah, trapped in Afghanistan under an erratic and unpredictable Taliban rule, who failed to make it to US military evacuation flights – those who worked for the US military or the government, and their families, and who were eligible for US military relief. humanitarian aid visas. They know they are potential targets as the Taliban tighten their grip since they completely took over Kabul this week.
Taliban leaders have pledged to allow visa-waivers to leave as soon as they reopen the main airport, which remained closed to commercial flights on Friday.
But people like Shah are questioning the promises of a group they cannot trust that has previously ruled Afghanistan ruthlessly. Trying to leave — or presenting a special immigrant visa — could put them at risk themselves if the Taliban don’t keep their promises.
So with the Taliban firmly in power on the streets, they’ve gone into hiding. A US government contractor and humanitarian visa applicant said he had gone underground – literally – with his pregnant wife and 1-year-old daughter in a system of tunnels. He said he did not believe the Taliban’s promises and did not intend to risk leaving his hideout.
There are also potentially hundreds of thousands of other Afghans – aid workers, defunct government officials, media workers, prominent women – who are frightened and resigned.
They are also eager to leave. This week, after evacuation flights from Kabul ended, there were reports of hundreds of people gathering at the border crossings with Iran and Pakistan.
“It’s because the country is collapsing,” said Astrid Sletten, a foreign aid worker who has stayed in Kabul. “And everyone has a sister or daughter and wonders what it will be like to live under a Taliban regime.”
She added: “I think some people are literally saying that I would rather die than live in a Taliban regime.”
Despite the Taliban’s promises that no one will be punished, many Afghans doubt the Taliban leaders’ ability to control their battle-hardened fighters.
Former government officials, aid workers and diplomats say Taliban leaders have barely managed to contain their well-armed supporters. And there is deep uncertainty about when even that relative reluctance will end.
An uneasy calm fell on Friday in Kabul, four days after the Taliban took over and the last American troops left. Afghans waited for the Taliban to announce their new government.
In Kabul, the few women who ventured have been able to wear headscarves instead of the face-covering burqa imposed by the Taliban during the previous regime, and several dozen protested outside the palace demanding the inclusion of women in a new government.
The Taliban leaders are still talking about showing inclusiveness. But they have so far made it clear in filling lower positions that they choose from their own country.
Kabul residents interviewed by phone described a pervasive fear as the Taliban rule steadily changed life around them.
And as the economy plunged deeper into crisis — with prices soaring and hard currencies dwindling — many say they’re eager to leave, especially those eligible for the U.S. Special Immigration Visa, an emergency humanitarian visa granted to interpreters and others who worked for the US military.
Their number remains unclear. No one – neither the US government nor human rights organizations – has an exact figure for these Afghans who have a direct link to official America, but have not come out of it.
The Association of Wartime Allies, an advocacy group, estimates that there are 118,000 Afghans, including their families, who are still in Afghanistan and eligible for the visa.
The group wrote in a report in late August that “it is reasonable that nearly 1 percent of the Afghan population has worked in some way for, or are relatives of, those who have worked for the United States.” The population of Afghanistan is estimated to be about 40 million.
“Hundreds of thousands are trapped,” Adam Bates, a lawyer with the International Refugee Assistance Project, said during a video conference in the United States on Tuesday. “The majority of our customers were unable to leave Afghanistan on the evacuation flights.”
How real their danger is remains unclear. There are scattered reports that the Taliban carried out executions as they overran the country, most notably at Spin Boldak on the Pakistani border – where 40 people associated with the government were killed, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Since taking Kabul on August 15, the Taliban have conducted house-to-house searches and made arrests. Their methods rely heavily on intimidation. According to Human Rights Watch, they have informed family members of, for example, media workers that they are looking for them.
“The fact that they are looking for them is also a threat,” said Patricia Gossman of Human Rights Watch. “It’s the way a police state functions,” she added.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. They used brutal public punishment, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origin story and their track record as rulers.
“They released a lot of people who are interested in revenge,” she said. “People want to flee because it’s impossible to survive.”
For working Afghans trying to adapt to the Taliban rule, the preliminary contacts have been discouraging. The new order means exclusion or segregation of women, brutality and, always, the presence of weapons.
In the provinces, where new administrative appointments have been made, the Taliban seem to rely only on themselves.
“Concierge appointments at various levels — provincial, district, department and minister — have so far been drawn (almost) exclusively from within the Taliban’s own ranks, with no sign of non-Taliban appointments,” the Afghanistan Analysts Network wrote on Wednesday.
An associate of a senior official of the former government, who had met with the Taliban, said by phone from Kabul that his boss’s meetings with the new authorities had stopped.
Meanwhile, Afghans like Shah, the former interpreter, said the situation was terrifying in places. “One Talib will kill ten people, and there is no court,” Shah said. “This is not a prepared government.”
An aid worker who was still in Kabul was equally frightened.
“I feel that those who appoint them are trying to end arbitrary atrocities,” the aid worker said. “But I also get the feeling that they have little control.”
Some aid workers who have remained at work have been alarmed by their encounters with the new authorities and plan to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.
The Taliban have encouraged them to continue working, these officials said, but there is always an air of threat.
“They always come to our compound with their guns and armed guards,” said an aid worker in a northern province on the phone.
They pressured his agency to hire Taliban members and focus their relief efforts in long-occupied Taliban areas, he said, and would not allow female staff members to work.
“There are many women who have no hope,” says a female aid worker in Kabul who is trying to leave. “If you want to live, you have to work. We have no bread at home to feed our children.”
“How are we going to survive in this country?” she asked.