The five Taliban flags outside the terminal at Hamid Karzai International Airport let arriving passengers know that Afghanistan is under new ownership.
Strong white banners have replaced Afghanistan’s black-red-and-green national flags on government ministries, police stations and military posts in the capital.
They fly from the front fenders of Taliban pickups driving around the streets of Kabul with armed men behind them.
Children are looking for handheld versions outside the empty U.S. embassy. The schools have been ordered to show them.
Inside Kabul’s secure houses, where Afghans are waiting to be evacuated to Canada
Kabul is being renamed by the Taliban, which wants to ensure that no one can forget who is in charge now. The country is no longer a republic, it is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
But exactly what that means besides a change of flag colors, many in Kabul have on edge and are planning their flight to countries like Canada.
“We are following sharia law here,” Rahman Mansour said as he sat in his office at a Kabul police station, where he was the newly-appointed Taliban’s deputy commander.
He said the Taliban would enforce existing laws that were in accordance with sharia, but not those considered to be in conflict with it.
A Taliban flag sat on his desk along with his radios and two cell phones. Another hung from a stand on the floor, and a large one covered the wall. Another could be seen out the window behind him.
Among the cases the police dealt with that day was a grenade attack at a Taliban checkpoint. Asked if it, one of Mansour’s employees played a cell phone video of a man who confessed to having been paid to do so.
But Mansour insisted that security was better than under the previous government, which he blamed for failing to curb corruption, kidnappings and drugs – despite the killings of close to 100 in the recent bombings of Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar suggested that it was still a serious problem.
According to Mansour, the current version of the Taliban was different. It was more politically savvy and had a stronger military than last time. But he said its underlying ideology remained the same: sharia.
“A Muslim will never change his ideology,” he added.
At another district police station, the Taliban in charge, Qari Skakir, said that criminals were referred to the Islamic courts, which punished them under sharia.
Asked if these punishments included public executions that took place during the Taliban’s last reign, he said: “This is a question I can not answer.”
While covering Kabul with its flags, the Taliban are cleansing the city of the symbols of that Afghanistan that they want everyone to forget.
Massoud Circle, the monument to the anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda, has been vandalized and the portraits of the man he honored were torn down.
One recent afternoon, Taliban members posed for pictures there next to Taliban flags now ringing around the memorial. One said he had fought the US forces and would do so again if they returned.
He said he only wanted “freedom and peace” and insisted that no one should fear the Taliban. “People are really good with us and we are good with them,” he said.
In the downtown market district, where vendors sell everything from pomegranates to used shoes, traffic was stalled. The drivers did not pay attention to the traffic officer in the white cap.
Residents interviewed on the sidewalk nodded to the Taliban and said they had made the city safer, but the message changed when the TV camera was turned off.
“We have to say we are happy, ”one man explained.
Another spoke optimistically about the new Taliban government. But later he confided that he had worked for the Afghan military and asked for help fleeing the country.
Hope shattered by Taliban return, Kabul women see no future in Afghanistan
A young man in Shahr-e Naw Park, now a tent city for Afghans who came to Kabul to escape fighting in other parts of the country, saw the Taliban official in charge of the area walk away before pulling a reporter to page to discuss his “situation.”
He said he used to work at the Presidential Palace. He had heard that Canada was accepting 40,000 Afghan refugees and he wanted to know how to apply. A shot went wide.
“You see our situation,” he said.
When the Taliban in Kabul hoot and whiz through the traffic of trucks ferrying around fighters from the provinces, they sometimes look exactly like what they claim to have defeated: occupiers.
At a Kabul restaurant, an armed Taliban walked in with four youths and sat in front of a table with his rifle rocked over his lap.
He was playing with his phone. The waiters looked nervous. They put a moaning Taliban song on the stereo. Better to appease the city’s new masters.
“We plan to make Afghanistan like a fresh flower, rebuild it again according to sharia rules,” another Taliban explained as he sat on a bench in Wazir Akbar Khan Park.
Once a popular place to fly kites, picnic in rose gardens and cool off in the pool, the retreat on a hilltop overlooking Kabul is now a Taliban post, and the large Afghan flag that once flew from the Martyrs Memorial is gone.
The bearded fighter said he had participated in “jihad against the attackers” and praised God for letting the Taliban return to power.
Those who have committed “crimes in the past” would have to go to court, he said, but otherwise no one should be worried about the Taliban.
“They do not have to worry about it,” he said.
‘Don’t worry, no problem’ may as well be printed on the Taliban’s flag. This is the theme that the Taliban continue to recite as they seek recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
You do not have to worry about women; You do not have to worry about clashes with Afghans who supported the international forces; do not worry about Al Qaeda; Do not worry about the Taliban’s long history of misogyny and violence.
Meanwhile, the Taliban claim that their bad image is the result of “media propaganda”.
In his office on the fourth floor of the Ministry of Information, Taliban official spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid sat with a plate of apples and told reporters they had seven minutes of his time.
He said the Taliban “acted and ruled under sharia” in order to “build an Islamic government after many years of fighting with invaders.”
“It is not an exact definition of us if they say we are a terrorist regime,” he said, responding to Canada’s designation of the Taliban as a terrorist group.
“Twenty years proved that the Taliban are fighting for land and freedom,” he said. “In any case, it’s a new season that Canada should behave responsibly.”
Another Taliban official, who did not want to be identified, insisted things would be different this time, leaning back on floor cushions in a Kabul home and snacking on a bowl of walnuts.
The lights went out. There had been an explosion on the mains, though it was unclear if it was another bomb.
He said the Taliban wanted women to work – provided they were covered. He promised that Al Qaeda would be disbanded and that there would be no retaliation against Afghans who had worked for foreign military.
“It’s a new emirate,” he said.
And then he asked if he could qualify for refugee status in Canada.