An impassioned journey home, one year after Afghanistan’s liberation from two decades of U.S. State Department Pantsuit Occupation, told by BASIL

When my uncle found out that I had booked a ticket to visit Afghanistan for the first time in my life, his reaction was more extreme than I anticipated. He raged at my sister, “Is [Basil] out of his mind? The Taliban are going to stop him in the street and tell him to recite his prayers, and if he messes up even a word, they’ll kill him on the spot!” My sister, now anxious for me because of his reaction relayed the message with a discernable tone of heightened concern for my safety. Of course, I assured her that I knew what I was doing, told her to ignore my uncle’s hysterics, and went ahead with my travels as planned. I hadn’t thought about his warning at all as we arrived at the then-year-old Islamic Emirate, drove through Kabul’s many checkpoints, or walked through the crowded neon-light-lined streets of Karte-Char. Not once was my brother or I stopped, questioned, or even approached by a Talib on the street. In fact, for several days, our only interaction with a Talib was at a checkpoint just outside the airport and it consisted of him asking us where we were from, apologizing for stopping us, and upon hearing it was our first time ever in our homeland, inviting us to have tea with him. We thanked him for his generous offer, politely declined, and continued on our way.

The first time my uncle’s warning actually did come to mind was when we made our way from Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The trek would take twelve hours over the most distressed ‘roads’ a first-world citizen could imagine. The road from Kabul to Mazar travels high into the Hindu Kush Mountains, along the very edges through the Soviet-built Salang Tunnel. Knowing the ride would take half a day, we left Kabul in a rented car with a hired driver in the middle of the night. Around 3:00AM, we had stopped at the first of eight, maybe nine, checkpoints that we would go through just to leave the city. During the day on the busy chaotic streets of Kabul, security guards wave dozens of cars through checkpoints without stopping them –– only selecting random or suspicious vehicles for cursory questioning or a quick search. Leaving the city in the middle of the night is a different vibe altogether.

When we pulled up to the first checkpoint, no other car was on the road. Of course, we stopped and rolled down our windows. Two men strapped with assault rifles on their hips approached our car on both sides with flashlights in hand. Sitting in the passenger seat, I silently hoped that the guards would address their questions to our driver. They didn’t. A gruff older man of about forty asked me in Pashto-accented Farsi, “Where are you coming from?” Frazzled, not expecting to have to be the spokesman for our party, I thought of my uncle’s ramblings about being shot point-blank by a rabid Talib. I debated whether I should tell him that we were foreign-born Afghans visiting the homeland for the first time (For sure he would find that endearing and disarming).

Eventually, I just blurted out “Kabul.” He gave me a look as though I had just said the most retarded thing he heard all night. “Obviously, you’re coming from Kabul,” he said, “Where in Kabul are you coming from?” I hesitated for a second while I tried to remember the name of my cousin’s neighborhood, but eventually was able to get that out too. “Why do you seem so nervous,” he asked –– through an unexpressed half-smirk. All I could come up with was “I don’t know.” He checked our visas and they sent us on our way. I looked back at my brother and we laughed, both of us positive that the exchange would have made any of our other American-born cousins shit themselves.

Towards the end of our trip, my brother and I had gotten home-sick for a few Western creature comforts: real beds, real chairs, real Western-style toilets. We decided that we would reserve a room at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul for a night and finally get to enjoy all three again. The hotel brands itself as the only 5-star hotel in all of Afghanistan. That may have been true when it first opened in 1969, but in 2022 this was generous. Those who followed Afghan politics in the 90s might remember the hotel as where the Taliban executed the last Soviet-backed president when they secured power in the 1990s. For my brother and I though, the Intercontinental had a rosier provenance. For us, it was where our grandfather was a dues-paying member, where he played tennis as an idle-rich aristocrat, partied with foreigners, and met his French wife. He told us about the food and concerts at the lavish pool and in the heat of early September in Kabul, which sounded too good to pass up.

We booked our rooms for the night and were picked up by the hotel’s dedicated ground transportation service. What looked like an armored RAV4 picked us up and brought us through even more checkpoints. We were used to it by now. We checked in and as we walked around the lobby, it felt like a ghost town. No other guests. Just a handful of employees scattered about who seemed to be waiting for us to ask them to do something. All we needed was to be pointed to the pool.

We arrived at the pool grounds to find three Taliban soldiers laughing and horsing around in the water. As soon as they saw us, they began to make their way to the ladder. They looked at us like we were their shift manager at some chain restaurant and had just caught them vaping in the walk-in. We quickly assured them that they didn’t have to leave because of us and that we just wanted to take a dip in the pool along with them. They looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and in an instant we had made three Talib friends.

I couldn’t help but laugh as I found myself swimming in the pool of the Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul with these three young Taliban soldiers having a contest to see who could hold a handstand underwater the longest. These men –– the oldest barely in his 30s –– weren’t bloodthirsty backwards cave-monkeys like I had been assured in the leadup to my trip, they were just three young men having fun. They were kind, personable, and fascinated by my polaroid camera. These young men who had freed our homeland and defeated the greatest military alliance in the world weren’t interested in whether I could recite my prayers properly. Instead, they wanted to know what I did for a living. Whether I owned my home or rented it. They wanted to know what life was like in America. Of course I told them America was in decline –– that everything was becoming more expensive, people were increasingly unable to afford houses, and everyone had all but gone insane. I was gracious enough to spare them the gruesome details. Didn’t really seem like the best time to bring up transgenderism, though I was tempted. We swam and chatted for just over an hour before gifting them the polaroids we had taken as they left to attend to their business for the day.

As our trip drew to an end I reflected on my ten days in Afghanistan, and my thoughts kept coming back to my uncle’s reaction. It was the kind of knee-jerk hysteria I had become familiar with in the several months following the liberation of Afghanistan by the Islamic Emirate in 2021. The cessation of hostilities was a milestone ending a more than forty-year status quo that I had immediately welcomed with cautious optimism. To any observer paying attention, the liberation of Kabul in August had been a foregone conclusion as more of the country came under Taliban control through the Spring and Summer of that year. But for thousands of Afghans living in the West for decades & those born in diaspora, including many in Kabul who had collaborated with the occupiers, it was a psyche-shattering shock that left them confused, devastated; and raving for more intervention, war, and bloodshed. These people could not accept the truth that had become obvious at that point: that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2004-2021) was a puppet regime that existed solely to launder money from Western taxpayers to the defense industry, that billions of dollars were spent to create an illusion of progress that was just barely held together through a fake government, fake army, fake middle-class propped up by endless Western NGOs, built upon the bodies of innocent Afghan civilians in the hinterland. The Taliban and their Islamic Emirate were the only political force with the requisite means to maintain order and govern the country post-occupation. To all but the most diehard liberal idealists, these facts had been self-evident for years, but for those whose identity and (more importantly) their livelihood had been predicated on the occupation, this was an impossible pill to swallow.

For months, people like me, the cautiously optimistic, had the difficult task of navigating an endless barrage of breathless hysteria about the impending doom of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. For months, we were browbeaten with fantastical predictions of mass reprisals, ethnic cleansings, and femicide that never came to pass. We had to suffer the indignity of being lectured and talked down to by midwit liberal imperialists of all stripes – defense industry stooges, heads of feminist Globohomo NGOs, and their Afghan gusano paypigs. When not a single one of their claims came to pass, their goalposts sneakily shifted. What started as fearmongering about potential campaigns of violent persecution carried out by the Taliban against women and ethnic/religious minorities had to shift to calls for intervention on the mere grounds that girls’ schools have been closed for too long. Of course, the fact that all schools had been closed during the last year of the puppet regime due to Covid™ wasn’t considered. Reality and nuance are just pesky inconveniences that you can ignore when your goals align with those of the defense industry.

A little over a year into the Islamic Emirate’s governance, it was clear that there was still some unease with the rapid arrival of the ‘new normal’ in Kabul. Everyone I spoke to in Afghanistan acknowledged that the end of the war was an unequivocally good thing. All agreed that the puppet regime that dissolved a year prior was nothing more than a patronage system buoyed by foreign money, bribes, and corruption – both financial and moral. Everyone had salacious stories to tell about former government officials and bigwigs and their unabashed immorality –– spending ill-gotten gains on properties in Turkey and Dubai while engaging in the most shameful forms of thuggery, abuse, and degeneracy at home. These stories were contrasted with testimonies of the new reality in Kabul. People could now, for example, travel throughout the country as we had without being shaken down for bribes at checkpoints or getting caught in either a NATO or resistance offensive. A sentence or two of perfunctory gratitude for the end of the war, however, almost always gave way to several minutes of gripes and grievances. No one anywhere is ever truly satisfied.

As I write this, eight months post return from Afghanistan, things continue to improve. My contacts there tell me that the growing pains that come with a new regime have lessened with time. Of course, new realities bring new difficulties. Economic issues and border disputes with neighbors, for example, are only exacerbated by an international community that seeks to punish Afghans for daring to want peace, prosperity; and the independence to carve their own way with the guidance of Islam. God, however, is most Beneficent and Just, and the Afghan people know that well. May He continue to guide Afghanistan, and us all.

Basil tweets @NeoBactrian/@Basil_Telai