The historian Will Durant calculated that there have only been 29 years in all of human history when war was not underway somewhere.
In Afghanistan, that estimate gains a whole new meaning.
For the past four decades, the country has been a symbol of a state ruined by war. From the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979 to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, right through to the political and security chaos that saw the re-emergence of the group today: the world's decision-makers have had little success in helping to create an environment where the Afghan people can once and for all rebuild their country and begin planning for its future.
Over the years, billions have been pledged; countless peace talks organised; tens of thousands of troops deployed to fight and keep the peace. And yet, Afghanistan remains a country on the edge.
In 2021, Afghans saw the US “egregiously mishandle” the drawdown of its troops and the Taliban return to power – in a defining moment for the region and the world.
My visit to Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban takeover
I travelled to Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, to report on what the militants’ comeback would mean for the country and its people.
During my days in Kabul, I was able to speak to Taliban foot soldiers, as well as commanders and officials in the new government. I confronted the group on some of its promises to this complex nation, divided in almost every way possible - along ethnic, religious, tribal, linguistic, and ideological lines - an inclusive, power-sharing administration.
I also met Afghans caught up in this momentous reversal. Many afraid for their future, the memories of the past still too vivid, too painful to forget.
When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, the country was plunged into what many describe as its ‘darkest period’. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative. Floggings and public executions were held in stadiums. Those accused of adultery were stoned to death.
While the group has promised its return will not herald a new chapter of terror, this might be the biggest task: regaining the trust of millions of Afghans still scarred by unimaginable levels of violence.
The Taliban is adamant it can address Afghanistan’s problems and govern for all Afghans. It has also called on those who left to “return and help the country”.
But the challenges ahead are immense: rebuilding institutions and infrastructure while facing a near-total economic collapse.
Since the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan was abruptly cut off from roughly €8 billion in foreign currency reserves -- 90 per cent of its holdings -- most of which is blocked in the United States.
The state, now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is unable to pay salaries. Most senior civil servants, technocrats and business leaders have left the country.
Banks are only allowed to distribute minuscule amounts of the Afghani, the country’s currency. Millions of Afghans are out of cash at a time when prices for basic supplies (food, fuel and gas) are on the rise.
Electricity – around 80 per cent of which is imported from neighbouring Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Iran – is still running, for now. But Kabul hasn’t paid its bills since the Taliban took over on August 15.
After 20 years of war, the Taliban believe victory is theirs. And whether the rest of the world likes it or not, the movement is set to play a significant role in shaping Afghanistan’s future.
But if its first nearly three months in power are anything to go by, the group has yet to deserve the trust it is asking for: their administration is made up exclusively of Taliban members, economic activity is still at a halt, schools and universities remain inaccessible for most women, and episodes of reprisals for being part of the old government – including torture and murder – are still a recurring theme.
Afghans yearn for peace, and since August 15 the guns have – for the most part – fallen silent in Afghanistan. But freedom is too high a price to pay for that. Afghans know that. The question is - does the Taliban?