The Taliban Vowed to Change Kabul. the City May Be Starting to Change the Taliban.

Elise Blanchard for The Washington Post
Taliban government officials and members of the military visit Wazir Akbar Khan park in central Kabul on Feb. 9.

KABUL – More than two years after Taliban fighters streamed into the Afghan capital, seizing power here and vowing to cleanse the country of Western decadence, many of them have come to embrace the benefits of urban life.

Some spend their weekends in the city’s theme parks. Some watch cricket matches on large outdoor screens. Others are filling their Facebook pages with skyline selfies or buying self-help books published in the West. Most mornings, Kabul’s English schools are crowded with Taliban soldiers and employees in camouflage jackets, who appear as eager as other students to study abroad.

As the Taliban continues to change Kabul, some here have started to wonder if the city may also have begun to remake the Taliban.

“In many ways, they’ve been transformed,” said Abdulrahman Rahmani, 50, a former fighter who helped the Taliban conquer Kabul in 1996 and then again in 2021, speaking during a recent visit to Kabul’s zoo to see the lions.

Some of the Taliban fighters now regret the material success they sacrificed to wage their armed campaign. Just the other day, Rahmani recalled, another Taliban soldier told him he was sad because he and his brother had given up their schooling. “If we had studied, we’d be sitting in offices now,” he told Rahmani.

There are no signs that these changes have resulted in a softening of the Taliban’s repressive policies, in particular the campaign against women’s rights. And no doubt, for many of the fighters who in 2021 sped into the Afghan capital on the backs of pickup trucks, this city of about 5 million people is a disappointment. They say urban life is lonelier, more stressful and less religious than they had imagined.

Some of the Taliban fighters had grown up here before departing for rural Afghanistan to join the insurgency. Others never left and supported the Taliban as informants. But for most of the men who overtook the Afghan capital, the city’s bright lights were unfamiliar, and Kabul posed a challenge full of seductions.

Land Cruisers and computer classes

Rahmani dreams that one day Kabul will become the Afghan equivalent of Dubai, the glitzy commercial hub in the United Arab Emirates. “Once the economic problems are solved, things will change massively,” he said.

Some Taliban members are already developing expensive taste. While officials in the new government initially went shopping for motorbikes, they are now increasingly interested in shiny Land Cruisers, vendors say.

City life already appears to have left a mark on Taliban soldier Abdul Mobin Mansor, 19, and his comrades. They agree that reliable internet access, for one, is of increasing importance to them.

They say they have gotten hooked on several television series that are best consumed in high definition. Their favorites are Turkish crime drama “Valley of the Wolves” and “Jumong,” a South Korean historical series about a prince who must conquer far-flung lands.

Mansor said he still prefers the countryside, where he might eventually return. “But I very much hope that there will be electricity and other modern facilities by then,” he said.

Some soldiers, like Hassam Khan, 35, say they can hardly imagine having to move back. Khan said he initially struggled to adapt to the city. He said he felt that Kabul residents feared him, and his eyes hurt when he stared at a computer for too long. But access to electricity, water, English classes and computer science lessons have changed his mind. “I like this life,” he said.

Some Afghans who had opposed the Taliban takeover say they have noticed a difference, too. Tariq Ahmad Amarkhail, a 20-year-old glasses vendor, said he has a growing feeling that the Taliban “is trying to adopt our lifestyle.”

“They came from the mountains, couldn’t understand our language and didn’t know anything about our culture,” said Amarkhail.

When they arrived, he said, they condemned jeans and other Western clothes and destroyed musical instruments. But when Amarkhail and his friends recently drove up to security checkpoints with music playing inside the cars, Taliban soldiers simply waved them through, he said. While Western civilian clothes have become a rare sight on Kabul’s streets, some residents were surprised to see the Taliban embrace military uniforms that bear striking similarities with those worn by their former enemies.

In interviews, over half a dozen younger and older regime employees cited access to education as a primary reward for their struggles. “When we conquered Kabul, we vowed to become a better version of ourselves,” said Laal Mohammad Zakir, 25, a Taliban sympathizer who became a Finance Ministry employee. He said he had signed up for an intensive English course to be able to study abroad one day.

Congested and costly

Not all are tempted by the big city.

Zabihullah Misbah and his friend Ahmadzai Fatih, both 25, were among the first fighters to rush into Kabul in 2021. Misbah still primarily associates Kabul with “bad things” such as adultery. “You’re more connected to God when you’re in the village,” he said. With fewer distractions there, “one is mostly busy with praying.”

Social bonds in villages are tighter, Misbah said, and life there feels less lonely.

“When you pursue jihad, it puts you at ease,” said Fatih. “But when we arrived here, we could not find peace.”

While many Afghans fled Kabul during the Taliban takeover, it has turned back into the congested capital it once was. It can take hours to cross the smoggy city from one side to the other.

Mansor and his friends acknowledged that the toxic air and the separation from their families in rural Afghanistan are making them reconsider city life. “Those who brought their families here are happier than we are,” said Mansor, who has yet to find a wife. Rent in the city is expensive and apartments too small, he said.

When the Taliban’s soldiers need an escape, they climb a hill in the center of Kabul, where the new regime has installed a gigantic Islamic Emirate flag, or they head to the Qargha Reservoir on the city’s outskirts, where they snack on pistachios in their pickup trucks.

Looking for signs of moderation

Kabul residents who fearfully watched the Taliban arrive in 2021 said they hope that the number of former fighters who are embracing big-city life will outweigh those who are repulsed by it and the Taliban will become more moderate.

Many women say they haven’t noticed such an evolution. Universities remain closed to them, and girls above grade six are barred from school. From the secluded city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s top leadership has turned Afghanistan into the world’s most repressive country for women, the United Nations says.

“The Taliban won’t change,” said Roqya, 25. Sales in her women’s clothing market stall dropped abruptly last month after the Taliban-run Ministry of Vice and Virtue temporarily detained women over dress code violations, she said.

“None of the girls dared to go outside alone anymore,” said Roqya, who completed a bachelor’s degree in physics just before the takeover. When no one is looking, she still reads science books behind her counter.

Glitzy plans for the capital

The Taliban has big plans for postwar reconstruction, but restrictions on women could become the primary obstacle. Many foreign donors have abandoned the country in protest during the past 2½ years. Private investors remain scarce.

Could the lure of expensive skyscrapers, imposing new mosques and pothole-free roads eventually push the Taliban to compromise, as some Afghans hope?

In recent months, the Taliban has moved ahead with plans to resume work on a model city on the outskirts of Kabul, which was first conceived more than a decade ago under the previous U.S.-backed government but was never built.

“We will name it Kabul New City,” said Hamdullah Nomani, the Taliban-run government’s minister of urban development.

Construction executive Moqadam Amin, 57, said early discussions between his company and the new government suggested that the Taliban wanted a less ambitious project with lower-cost housing options. But the Taliban now appears to have thrown its backing behind the glitzy original plans, which envision the construction of high-rise buildings, schools, universities, pools, parks and shopping malls.

If Kabul’s “New City” is ever finished, its construction may take decades. For now, the designated property is accessible only on makeshift roads, lined by brick-stone factories and lone real estate agents who sit on carpets in the sand.