As It Happens·Q&A

Can a divided Taliban rule a modern Afghanistan? Time will tell, says journalist

An energetic new generation of Afghans is clashing with an internally divided Taliban, and it’s not clear how it will all play out, says Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary.

A lot has changed since the last time the militants controlled the country in the '90s, says Bilal Sarwary

People carry the national flag at a protest during Afghan Independence Day in Kabul, the country's capital city, on Thursday. (Reuters)

Story Transcript

An energetic new generation of Afghans is clashing with an internally divided Taliban, and it's not clear how it will all play out, says Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary.

Afghans took to the streets for the second day on Thursday, raising their national flags in defiance of the country's new Taliban rulers. 

The militant group is putting out statements promising to respect people's rights, but at the same time, its response to the demonstrations has been violent, and several people have been killed.

Sarwary, who is based in Kabul, says the people in the streets belong to a new generation of Afghans who are proud of their country and won't stand for the same oppressive rule Afghanistan experienced when it was under Taliban control in the '90s. 

But the Taliban is also made up of a new generation of fighters, he said, and they are deeply divided about whether to lead a modern Afghanistan with a soft hand or an iron fist.

Here is part of Sarwary's conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

What does it tell you that just days after the Taliban has taken over, some Afghans are raising the national flag in the streets?

It tells you the sort of the political and social transformation that the Taliban will have to deal with as a reality in today's Afghanistan.

Today in Afghanistan, you have vibrant youth movements, you have got a generation of citizen journalism thriving, you have Afghans having access to smartphones and internet and Facebook and Twitter.

And the issue of [the] flag has a massive emotional value. It's the symbol of nationalism in Afghanistan. And over the years, I've seen how people from these provinces, from these poor communities, would take pride in buying the Afghan flag and then coming out and performing a traditional Afghan dance known as attan.

So the fact that the Taliban soldiers and fighters have opened fire against them also shows you that the Taliban are still in that mindset of fighting, that they have not transformed into a policing force, into providing security. And I think this is the type of transition that will be a litmus test for them.

Afghans counter Taliban colours with giant national flags

5 months ago
Duration 0:32
Afghan citizens ran through the streets of Kabul on Thursday to celebrate independence day with massive national flags after the Taliban had begun to replace some of them with their own black and white flag. (Rahmat Gul/AP Photo) 0:32

Let me ask you about that younger generation. I have heard some suggestion that there are people who are young enough to have not remembered life under the Taliban, who only heard about it from their parents, and some are even saying: Wait and see, maybe this will be a new Taliban … Is there some openness to potentially letting the Taliban show who it really is?

We'll have to see how the Taliban, for example, deal with their foot-level soldiers, with their more younger, hot-headed, hot-blooded, rigid fighters. How do they basically move now into governing, for example? How do they deal with the new realities in Afghanistan? 

Within the Taliban, there's a very clear split. We've got the political leadership who are more exposed to the world, to Western governments at the highest echelons, I would say. They understand the value of legitimacy and funding. 

And then you've got the fighting force. As I said, this generation of Taliban commanders and fighters, they don't belong to the same generation of their leaders like the 1990s. They are better fighters. They're lethal. They have been able to know about roadside bombs [and] truck bombs. They have been heavily influenced by foreign fighters, by organizations like al-Qaeda.

Let's see how the Taliban deal with that [internal divide], and then let's see how the Taliban deal with the new generation of Afghanistan.

People are watching closely around the world. What are you hearing about what's happening across the country in terms of the Taliban's behaviour as they move?

I don't have a lot of access to the provinces these days because all of my colleagues are in hiding or they are not working anymore. But in the southern province of Zabul, I spoke to a colleague of mine who works for a local radio station, and they have been asked to ban music. These radio stations are very popular. 

Perhaps we might see the Taliban being more lenient in a place like Kabul. But the provinces, it's a totally different story.

Protesters in Kabul ride in a vehicle while holding up in Afghanistan's national flag. (Reuters)

Let's talk about what's happening at the Kabul airport, because we've been watching that so closely the last few days. Tens of thousands of Afghans [are] still trying to get there. What kind of roadblocks has the Taliban put in place?

I think thousands of people who ... [worked for] the U.S., Canada and European countries, they don't feel safe. They've been speaking to me privately about making the trek from their homes to the airport because they fear the Taliban on the way. They fear that their faces will be exposed, and they continue to call [for] a humanitarian corridor.

But once you get to the airport, the Taliban are in charge. You are walking through the Taliban, into the airport, into massive crowds of hundreds of people, perhaps even a couple of thousand at times, unruly, where you have got stampedes, you've got firing shots [and] civilians getting killed. A little girl died — I spoke to the family — when there was a stampede. And they were crying. They just said: We do not want to say a single word. We're going back home. 

So there's a massive risk. And I don't see a clear path, a clear plan of a safe evacuation. Yes, airplanes are coming to the airport. Yes, bigger planes are coming. But a lot of them are leaving empty. And Afghans who should be on them can't be on them because it's not safe for them to travel.

As these days drag on, you know, we see these people so hopeful that they will be brought to countries like Canada. Are they losing hope that that will happen?

What people don't understand about … the events leading up to the fall of Kabul is that a lot of these people who are eligible [to be evacuated] were in the provinces, and they were asked for too many documentations. This was simply a very long and complicated process, at a time when obtaining a passport or a marriage certificate or a national ID … could take weeks [or] months. Not everyone could afford to bribe their way. 

People we've read about, and people we've spoken with on the program, are frightened. They are hunkering down still in their homes, as you've said. There's a real fear that there's going to be a brutal crackdown, especially, you know, once the eyes of the world are maybe not watching as closely. What are your thoughts on that?

I think those fears are real. If Afghanistan does not get a political settlement, an inclusive government and an Afghanistan where everyone can feel safe, an Afghanistan where everyone can tolerate everyone, an Afghanistan where the transition of power takes place with ballots, not with bullets and tanks and coups d'etat, then I think there is hope for Afghanistan. Otherwise, the very dark days of the 1990s could very well repeat itself. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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