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NPR travels to Afghanistan for the 1st time since the Taliban took over

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It's been almost 10 months since the U.S.-backed government in Kabul fell in dramatic fashion, with disastrous consequences. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Since then, the Taliban have been running Afghanistan - or trying to. The country still has so many problems. It essentially ran on Western funding, which has largely dried up. The economy has collapsed, there's endemic unemployment, and many people are going hungry.

NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Kabul this week, and she's on the line with us. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Diaa, I understand it's been about a year and a half since you were last in Kabul. What most struck you about what changed now that you're back?

HADID: Well, I'm struck by how visually different Kabul is. Let me just tell you about the ride from the airport. So as we flew in, I could see the Taliban's black and white flags fluttering at the terminal. Taliban gunmen were manning the checkpoints and patrolling the roads that we were driving on. Many of them were wearing the uniforms that they appeared to have captured from former Afghan soldiers. The blast walls that line the city streets - they're emblazoned with the Taliban's black-and-white emblem. They've painted over the many colorful street murals that used to liven up the city.

But Kabul's also safer now, and there's less checkpoints snarling up traffic. It's more subdued. You could say it's a lot less chaotic and a lot more order, and the people of the city look different. Men are mostly wearing traditional long shirts and baggy trousers instead of Western pants and shirts.

PFEIFFER: And Diaa, what about women and girls? There's been so much concern about how they would be treated in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

HADID: The Taliban are a deeply conservative movement. The first time they ruled, they didn't let women leave their homes without a male relative, let alone study or work. But their leaders insist that they've changed since then. Ten months in, though, it's clear hardliners among the Taliban have the upper hand. Faces of women in ads, like for hair salons or clothes, are painted over.

And a few weeks ago, the Taliban ordered women also to cover their faces or wear a burqa if they needed to leave home. They warned their fathers, husbands or brothers would be punished if they defied the rules. So now, Kabul women mostly wear loose black clothes and pandemic masks. And despite the Taliban promising equality in education, girls aren't allowed to attend secondary schools in much of the country.

PFEIFFER: Which is exactly what so many people were concerned about. One thing that I gather is affecting just about everyone in Afghanistan is hunger and malnutrition. Tell us about what you've seen on that front.

HADID: Afghanistan's been in an economic crisis since the Taliban took over. That's largely because Washington froze its central bank assets, and Western aid dried up. The bazaars are now quiet, and, if you stand still, men, women and children come up to you and ask for money. They're desperate.

In the afternoon, tens of women, mostly in blue burqas, flock outside the bakeries hoping somebody will buy bread for them. One woman we met has nine daughters to feed, and so she walks for hours from her hilltop slum near the city. Then, she waits for hours in the heat for bread. And if she's got no luck, she sends her girls to the nearest Taliban checkpoint to ask the gunmen for leftovers.

Some of the hungriest children end up in Kabul's Indira Gandhi Hospital. It has a ward for malnourished kids. It's always been bad here, but now it's much worse. There were about two dozen babies there this week. They're tiny little things, with stick-like arms and legs, wrinkled and with large eyes. They don't even cry. They just whimper.

PFEIFFER: I assume the Taliban has to be aware of this situation. Have you spoken with any Taliban officials? And if so, how do they characterize these challenges they're facing?

HADID: Oh, absolutely. Taliban officials tell us they've been shocked by the extent of hunger and need through the country. They tell me, when they seized power, they didn't realize how bad the economy was and how quickly it would unravel.

So one of the Taliban officials I spoke to was Abdul Qahar Balkhi. He's a spokesman for the foreign ministry. And first, he wanted to give me the big picture.

ABDUL QAHAR BALKHI: The first goal is independence in how we run our country. We want to stabilize Afghanistan. Afghanistan has experienced four decades of war. We do not want to see Afghanistan be seen from the lens of geopolitics any longer. We want it to be geoeconomics, where Afghanistan is a hub of transit, of trade, of exchange of ideas.

HADID: It's ambitious. He says they want to build an Afghan economy that will pull people out of poverty. They're lobbying regional countries to help connect Afghanistan with roads and railways. They're trying to attract investors to mine Afghanistan's rich deposits of copper, lithium and gemstones.

But he says the economy can't be fixed until the international community recognizes their rule and Washington releases their central bank assets. And he warns that, if they don't, it will be a crisis for Afghanistan, yes, but also for the region.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Kabul. Diaa, thank you.

HADID: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.