As the Taliban advanced in Afghanistan this month, I have been talking to Daoud Sultanzoy and with Tawfiq Amini. Sultanzoy is the mayor of Kabul. Amini is the now ex-mayor of Mazar-e-Sharif. I’ve known them both for a long time and wanted to check on their safety—and to get their sense of what was happening to their country.
What follows are comments from them collected during multiple conversations over the last few days.
Daoud Sultanzoy is still mayor of Kabul. He’s a fascinating, cosmopolitan man. He used to be a pilot for United Airlines; once upon a time he lived in Malibu. I asked him about the August 26 bombing outside Kabul airport.
“Yesterday’s explosion took place in a situation you might compare with the Berlin wall: nobody had control over it. It was a free-for-all with thousands of people. It was very easy to do. Not even the best security force can manage or prevent something like that let alone a group that took power only one week ago. Americans didn’t have control, the Taliban didn’t have control. It’s ironic because the Taliban came in to Kabul with a bloodless take over.”
“It’s anybody’s guess at what the results will be,” continued Sultanzoy. The people who did this got what they wanted: the immediate result is to damage the Taliban and also hamper the rescue operation. Also, the crowd will be thinking twice before they converge on the airport.”
The reality of the takeover is that the mayor of Kabul now has to worry about political damage being done to the Taliban.
Both Sultanzoy and Amini’s positions were appointed, not elected. Each of them had studied engineering and their roles were more like those of city managers. But Sultanzoy is an experienced politician who had been a member of Parliament and ran for president in 2014. Amini is a building contractor and municipal engineer.
Both spent their tenures focused on local issues and when I spoke with them in April about the prospect of the American withdrawal, both were optimistic, with no hysteria about the prospect of a Taliban takeover. “The Taliban cannot expect to walk in and rule this country. People have moved on,” Sultanzoy said. But the situation deteriorated faster than either man predicted. Mazar fell to the Taliban, who cut a deal with the Afghan national army and overcame local militias, on August 14. They walked into Kabul a day later.
Sultanzoy, who had to give up his American citizenship when he ran for president of Afghanistan in 2014, is still in Kabul and still working as of this writing, but with a long-bearded Taliban co-executive, “head of the commission of municipalities” named Hamdullah Nomani.
Nomani had been mayor of Kabul under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 and the minister of higher education in the Taliban’s former regime. He was sanctioned by the United Nations in 2014 for his Taliban involvement.
Amini is no longer the mayor of Mazar-e-Sharif. He has fled the country and is now in Uzbekistan with his wife and six of his seven children. “Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban is not my country,” he says. His future plans are uncertain.
To some extent the divergence of these two men’s prospects under the new regime reflect the position of their ethnicities and when they came of age. Amini, who is 43, is Uzbek and was a student when the Taliban were last in power. Sultanzoy, who is 66, is Pashtun, and had fought the Soviets during the mujahedin years.
And then there is history. The last time that the Taliban took control of Mazar, on August 8, 1998, there was a massacre of civilians and a house-to-house search for men from ethnic minorities such as the Uzbeks. Here’s a description of the events from Human Rights Watch:
Witnesses described it as a “killing frenzy” as the advancing forces shot at “anything that moved. . . . Thousands of men from various ethnic communities were detained first in the overcrowded city jail and then transported to other cities, including Shiberghan, Herat, and Qandahar. Most of the prisoners were transported in large container trucks capable of holding one hundred to 150 people. In two known instances, when the trucks reached Shiberghan, some 130 kilometers west of Mazar, nearly all of the men inside had asphyxiated or died of heat stroke inside the closed metal containers. Some prisoners were also transported in smaller trucks. As of late October, some 4,500 men from Mazar remained in detention.
Needless to say, their outlooks on the future now differ quite a lot.
The following is a transcript of my conversations with each of them, starting with Daoud Sultanzoy, the mayor of Kabul:
Ann Marlowe: The first question is of course how you and everyone else failed to predict the rapid collapse of the government?
Daoud Sultanzoy: As an ex officio member of the cabinet I had access to security briefings. And we had another parallel meeting with the vice president every day up through last Saturday, August 14, when it was canceled. And then the next day it was all over. All indications in the briefings and status of forces report were that there was not much going on and Kabul was not in imminent danger. My personal calculation was that eventually Kabul would be under siege but hopefully wisdom would prevail and sound minds would come together and there would be a composition of some sort of a government. I also knew that there was a lot of selfishness to hold onto power. But I thought that there would be enough U.S. pressure on Ghani to make sure that a deal would be struck at the table—not the way it happened.
Marlowe: what made you decide to stay on as mayor?
Sultanzoy: I could have gone to the airport when I heard about Ghani’s escape but I’m not a coward and I’m very aware of the judgment that history will make and I also think I haven’t done anything to run away from. A member of the Taliban called me the day they entered Kabul and asked me to stay. I didn’t want the city to have a collapse in services.
If in the future they don’t want me as mayor then I’ll think about whether I can be of service in this country in various other ways, that’s something the future will tell, but I decided to stay and continue until they ask me not to.
I want to mention, today the BBC was interviewing me and one of the questions they asked me was, don’t you think that you betrayed democratic principles by working with the Taliban?
Well, whose democratic principles? Britain, America, or Afghanistan?
European countries were talking to the Taliban in Qatar. What democratic principles were they betraying?
My staying was a testimony to make a statement that we are here, those of us with my political values want the Taliban to notice that we are here, we don’t want to create a void and go thousands of miles away to shed crocodile tears over democracy.
Marlowe: what is the mood in the street?
Sultanzoy: There’s a lot of confusion and of course anxiety because of the economic situation. I’m sure the gravity of the economic situation has not set in yet. At this time the banks have no money because the central bank reserves are frozen abroad. The lack of money in the banks and the lack of payment of salaries and these things will probably create more anxiety and more friction. There will be bumps in prices and this will affect people.
The absence of women is noticeable and they’re more timid in their dressing and much much more conservative. Although previously they had Islamic dress, it’s even more cloaked.
Marlowe: Is there governance now in Kabul?
Sultanzoy: I’ve been assigned a commission—it’s being led by one of the Taliban, Hamdullah Nomani, who used to be their minister for higher education. We just started today. The basic functions of the city are going on, like the sanitation, but right now we’re working on a day-to-day basis because we have to restart our revenue management and our planning and our implementation of those plans.
Some of our actions require cabinet approval and there’s no cabinet yet.
Marlowe: Are we seeing a new Taliban here, in terms of how they are treating people outside their group?
Sultanzoy: At the moment the Taliban are very much milder, but it’s the very beginning. It seems like their higher ups are very aware of the sensitivities of public opinion, the sensitivities of their image, and the sensitivities of the international community.
But how much they can exert that understanding onto their rank and file is a separate issue. They come from different regions with different leaderships and they come from different persuasions in terms of who has done what during the war. The role of each group has created certain expectations for those groups and if those expectations are not met, then I’m sure there will be reactions.
Marlowe: How are they paying their soldiers?
Sultanzoy: So far they haven’t paid them—they’ve been here only less than a week, so they haven’t paid anything yet
Marlowe: As far as you know, have any members of the former government been arrested or imprisoned?
Sultanzoy: I haven’t heard of any major arrests or imprisonments.
Marlowe: Is there any hope that something new and constructive for Afghanistan might come out of this?
Sultanzoy: Unfortunately, the sad story is that the Taliban are talking to the same old hats that they were fighting—they’re talking to Karzai and Abdullah and probably later on to other warlords. And I don’t think that will bode well for the future of this country
Marlowe: Does Karzai have any constructive role in the future?
Sultanzoy: I don’t think so because he has never been very constructive during these years. His role has always been very self-serving and wicked.
Marlowe: How has the reputation of the United States been affected by recent events in Afghanistan? Is there anything specific?
Sultanzoy: I’m thinking of the way the United States left Bagram at night turning off the lights like they ran away in the dark instead of handing over responsibly to the Afghan National Army. [Ed.: This was in early July, without so much as telling the Afghan security forces patrolling the base.]
At least a billion dollars worth of equipment was there and it would have been looted or destroyed. Luckily one Afghan brigadier general came to the rescue and he secured the base at that time.
Marlowe: The waste . . .
Sultanzoy: I worked for almost three years on an Afghan commission working with CSTC-A [Combined Security Transition Command, an American-lead multinational group in charge of managing the Afghan national security forces] to create procedures and bylaws and rules and regulations to turn ten U.S. bases into free-trade zones.
I personally worked thousands of hours on this thing and we turned out a very usable document.
The United States could have done that many months ago when that decision was made to depart, they could have given these airports for that purpose responsibly and if afterwards the government hadn’t been able to use it then it would have been a different situation.
But for reasons I don’t understand, that didn’t happen.
I spoke with Tawfiq Amini as the Taliban approached Mazar. It was an uncertain time. He fled to Uzbekistan on August 10, but returned to Mazar the next day when President Ghani visited the city.
Then Mazar fell on the night of August 14 and Amini went into hiding for three days. The Taliban came to his empty apartment looking for him every day, a neighbor told him. On August 17 he went to the municipality office and resigned the office of mayor. (A new mayor has been appointed by the Taliban, he is a Pashtun.) Two days later, Amini headed for the border, successfully. He did not want to go into further details about his escape because family members are still in Afghanistan..
Ann Marlowe: Why was everyone so wrong in failing to anticipate the Taliban take over?
Tawfiq Amini: We did not expect that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan so quickly, especially Kabul and Mazar-e-sharif. Because of lack of military training, and the government did not have a good management system, that is why the country falls under the Taliban. There was also the conflict between different political groups inside Afghanistan and the intervention of foreign policy.
Marlowe: You are now living in Uzbekistan, how did you escape Mazar?
Amini: I left my beloved homeland and my hometown, Mazar-e-sharif; it was very hard for me. But I had to because of my family’s safety. I crossed by car. I had my visa issued before the Taliban entered Mazar. There are two Taliban checkpoints that I had to cross.
Marlowe: What was the city like when you left?
Amini: Mazar-e-sharif was a ghost town. People were staying inside their houses because of the fear of the Taliban. There were very few stores open. You don’t feel secure inside the city of Mazar.
Marlowe: I heard that from someone else also, who says that 70 percent of the doctors in the city have fled the country. I think we have to remember that because the population is very young, at least half of the people in Afghanistan are too young to remember living under the Taliban the first time . . . the Afghanistan of today is very different.
Amini: As the Taliban announced amnesty to forgive everyone, those who had experience living under the Taliban do not trust the Taliban anymore. They start protesting. You can see most young people are posting on social media because they fear their future and the dream that the Taliban take away.
Marlowe: You are still optimistic about the future?
Amini: I think the Taliban will have a hard time with the young generation. They are a different generation. They know what they want; they won’t listen to the Taliban to control their future. These young people have seen the world now. It’s hard to stop them now.